Foley set to give flight to fantasy

CHELTENHAM COUNTDOWN: A small-time Irish trainer is likely to raise the roof at the Festival. Richard Edmondson reports
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Athletics had Alf Tupper, training on chips and gravy and winning titles in old shoes, while football gave us Roy Race, lithe of body and luxuriant of coiffure to the end despite several decades in Melchester Rovers' first team. Racing's contribution to improbable heroes is Tom Foley, who, unlike the other two, is drawn only in appearance.

The 48-year-old Irish trainer, who has the sort of lined, mobile face usually associated with gurning contests, returns to Britain on Tuesday for the first day of the Cheltenham Festival.

At the same meeting 12 months ago, Foley and his best horse, Danoli, ensured the Prestbury Park clapometer would be off for repair when taking the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle. This victory caused logistical problems for the Cheltenham executive in that the whole of Co Carlow attempted to squeeze into the winners' enclosure. If Danoli wins the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday (and no Irish horse has done so since Dawn Run in 1984) officials will know what it was like to face the second wave at Rorke's Drift.

Tom Foley is popular, and not only in Ireland, because he epitomises what the Cheltenham Festival is all about. Like Sirrell Griffiths, the Carmarthen dairy farmer whose cow-herding horse, Norton's Coin, won the Gold Cup five years ago, Foley has proved that space remains for the small man even in the most rarefied competition National Hunt racing can offer.

Foley started training only nine years ago, and even then it was hardly by the textbook. "I made it up as I went along," he said. "I just learned from my mistakes, went my own way and if I made a mistake I did it differently next time. That's the way it was."

It may have been fairly mundane for the rest of Foley's career had he not bought a gelding by The Parson for £IR7,000 at Goffs Sales. The horse was purchased for Dan O'Neill and his daughter Olivia, and was subsequently called Danoli.

The shrewd purchase soon swept through bumper and novice hurdle company in his native Ireland but his deeds, and those of his trainer, were largely unsung until he arrived at the Festival last year.

The race itself was far less harrowing than the journey to it. "It was frightening because I'd never been over water before," Foley said. The Irishman soon found out that he is as poor a flyer as Boris Yeltsin and became a cult figure from the moment his ashen features were seen emerging from the fuselage. Despite this memory, Foley will again be within touching distance of Danoli when they fly over tomorrow.

On landing, Danoli will transfer, unusually, to a lorry (he normally travels by trailer to enjoy a good view of the countryside). "We have agreed that they will put us up in the front of the lorry right beside the driver and he'll be looking out of the window," Foley said. "I'd say he'd be happy enough because he'll be able to see where he's going. Even if he gets lost around Cheltenham he'll know his way back to Bristol."

Tradition will be upheld, though, for Foley's lodgings. At an occasion where many egos like to play "my hotel bill is bigger than yours", the trainer has a strange choice of digs: the stable lads' hostel. "In there I'm near the horse at all times and I do like to spend a lot of time with him," he said. "He settles better when he sees us all the time and there is very little difference to his own yard."

Danoli's own yard itself has little in common with the gleaming models seen in racing documentaries. While the buffing of outside taps is a common sight at yards such as Sir Mark Prescott's in Newmarket, it might be difficult to find the outside tap at Foley's cluttered Aughabeg headquarters. Here there are just 12 boxes, constructed from breeze blocks and topped off with corrugated iron. This arrangement, though, does not make the horses go slower.

"If you came here you'd quickly see it's not up to the standard of Jim Bolger's or Dermot Weld's [Ireland's leading trainers]," Foley said. "The yard is really small and ordinary.

"But horses are looked after here because the people have time for them. When you're in a small yard each horse gets individual attention. Anyway, I don't think Danoli knows the difference between one-star and five-star."

This homely set-up is boundless in its appeal and Foley knows he will not be the only man shouting Danoli up the Cheltenham hill. "We're going to have an awful lot of small lads cheering for us, and there are an awful lot more small lads than big lads," he said. "If we win it I think the next race is going to be an hour late. I've a feeling there'll be a lot of people in the winners' enclosure again."

As well as the popular support, Foley has taken the trouble to get backing from the highest chamber. At the beginning of the season, Danoli was granted an audience with Father Dowling, the local parish priest. "He said a few prayers, blessed the horse and wished that he'd go back to Cheltenham and win again," Foley said.

If Danoli, the likely favourite, does so on Tuesday it will be a tremendous fillip for hat manufacturers. Foley knows this is the year he must do it. "We really want to win because we have to," he said. "The chances are we'll never get back for a Champion Hurdle, not even to watch it."