Racing: Nolan thirsts Cheltenham glory with Etoile

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The Independent Online

"Drinking up doesn't normally seem a problem for the Irish when we're over there," Nolan agreed yesterday. "But he didn't like the chlorine in the water. We had brought our own with us, but unfortunately the cap came loose on the ferry, and we lost it. He wouldn't touch the water at the track, and in the end we had to buy some from the vets in five-gallon drums."

The young trainer's followers are accustomed to toasting his skills in similar measures. This is the man who announced himself by winning the Galway Hurdle twice in three years, which is akin to digging up treasure in the middle of a minefield. On the second occasion, he memorably danced on to the course, waving his fists in triumph, only to double over with chest pains. The only reason he cannot be said to wear his heart on his sleeve is because he would first have to remove it from his mouth.

Certainly that was where it was lodged when Accordion Etoile had his first race over fences, at Limerick last month. "He was foot-perfect until the second last," Nolan said. "He had made up five lengths in a matter of strides, and was coming to join the leader when he went straight through the fence. I thought he was going to clear it with a big one, but then you could see him change his mind and try to go short, and in the end he did neither. He hardly left the ground, he was so low he brought the birch through with him.

"Even so he closed to within a couple of lengths of a good horse in Watson Lake, without feeling the stick, and that was on ground he wouldn't have liked. We have been very pleased with the way he has schooled since, so I hope to God he has learned from his mistakes."

Nolan feels that Accordion Etoile detests heavy ground and intends to give him a midwinter break, rendering this race critical to his steeplechasing education. With Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca staying over hurdles, Accordion Etoile is already among the Arkle favourites. No matter how he fares in his new vocation, however, he already has a cherished place in that palpitating heart.

"He's the one who put us on the map," Nolan said. "It was great to come up with a horse like this in a small yard, and for the owners to keep faith in us. To think that we nearly lost him as a young horse, when he had a cancerous wart on a fetlock joint. For a time it looked as though his career was over. That's why I am always afraid of tendon trouble, why I want to avoid running him on bad ground."

Nolan won an All-Ireland junior hurling final with Wexford but ligament damage and a dislocated kneecap ended his own athletic endeavours. He started off with a couple of point-to-pointers on his father's sheep farm and now, eight years after his first winner, has over 60 horses in his care. "I enjoyed my time in hurling and it showed me that if you're going to be good at anything, you have to put yourself through a certain amount, you have to push yourself, just to achieve the fitness you need," he said. "That's what sets the best apart from the rest, and that's what this horse has done."

The Independent Novices' Chase has drawn five other Irish entries - including Davenport Democrat, winner of his last three starts for Willie Mullins - but the home defence tends to prove decidedly hostile. Best Mate, Azertyuiop, Thisthatantother and Fundamentalist are numbered among the winners. Given his pulse rate, perhaps it would be kinder not to let Nolan know that.

Richard Edmondson

Nap: Elizabethan Age

(Wolverhampton 4.50)

NB: Money Line

(Lingfield 2.00)