Racing: A working-class hero

The Irish love a horse, and Danoli is their darling. Sue Montgomery heads for the heartland to find out why
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The Independent Online
Bagenalstown, down in Co Carlow on the banks of the Barrow, is the sort of place where there are still Ford Prefects on the picture-postcards. It may be a bit of a one-horse town, but what matters is that the horse is Danoli.

In a local estate agents, a house is advertised as being "only eight miles from Danoli". The butcher in Main Street can tell the tale of the horse's canny purchase by his trainer, Tom Foley, at the drop of a hat. A neighbourhood charity for the mentally handicapped has produced a souvenir booklet about our hero to raise funds. As predicted by Foley ("Get to Bagenalstown and then ask") the first man quizzed gives inch-perfect directions to Danoli's home stable, five twisting miles of anonymous rustic lanes out of town.

But the pride and pleasure sparked by this remarkable horse's achievements are evident not just locally. He features in a national newspaper advertising campaign for a Japanese car ("If only everything in life travelled as sweetly as Danoli"); those organising the Eurovision Song Contest are to enlist his help with promotion; and, perhaps the ultimate proof of his status as an icon, "Danoli, Ireland" is enough of an address for fan mail - which has arrived from Iceland and Russia - to arrive safely.

The ingrained relationship of the Irish with horses is not only one of love, but of business, so it takes a seriously special performer to move the masses, inside or outside the sport. The peerless Arkle, the triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner of the Sixties, was one; Dawn Run, the only horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup, maybe another.

Danoli, a high-class hurdler, is still a novice over fences but is among the favourites for next week's blue riband of steeplechasing after his fighting defeat of more seasoned opponents in his big-race trial, the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown, a month ago. And his charisma is such that it is to his door that the world beats a path, rather than to those of his compatriots Imperial Call, the reigning champion, or Dorans Pride, another talented young contender. Danoli is the one who was cheaply bought, is trained in the back of beyond by someone hitherto unknown, has fought back from crippling injury. Any writer of fiction would have been hard pushed to invent it all, but the Irish love a good tale as much as they love a good horse and the homespun qualities of his story, allied to his talent, have made him the folk hero he is.

Tom Foley has no doubts as to what sets the nine-year-old bay gelding apart. "He gives 110 per cent every time he runs, and he never lets the people down," he said. "Take that day at Leopardstown. They said that he would be outclassed, but Danoli himself thought differently. He took on them all and gave the people a day to remember. There were 18,000 there, and though they may not all have been shouting for him at the start, most of them were by the end.

"He makes converts, and by 10 o'clock the next morning every flight from Dublin to Cheltenham had been booked solid. People's heads may say another horse may have a better chance at Cheltenham, but their hearts will be with Danoli."

There is always a danger, with horses, of anthropomorphism. But while they are not human, and do not reason as we do, they are not lumps of wood either. They vary in brain power and attitude and Danoli's apparently better-than-average endowment of grey matter has been part and parcel of his history.

It was his intelligent, alert outlook that first attracted Foley, six years ago at Goffs auction. He had gone to the sale with an order for a filly as a first racehorse for his friend and neighbour Dan O'Neill, but could not get the unbroken, unnamed three-year-old gelding out of his mind. After Danoli failed to reach his reserve price under the hammer, Foley was able to tempt his vendor with a much lower offer of 7,000 guineas.

Right from the start Danoli (named after O'Neill and his daughter Olivia) gave Foley the right vibes and when he culminated his glittering early career by winning the novices' championship race, the Sun Alliance Hurdle, at the Cheltenham Festival three years ago it was sworn that the Pope himself had backed him, along with seemingly the whole of Ireland.

A year later His Holiness was asked to intervene again as a nation held its breath. Danoli was fighting for his life in a Liverpool veterinary hospital, having broken a foreleg as he won a second successive Aintree Hurdle.

It was two months before he could travel home, with three metal screws holding his ankle together. His life was saved, but his future as a racehorse was in considerable doubt until he himself decided otherwise. Foley acknowledges the debt he owes to the Liverpool vets, but said: "It was also the horse's own determination. As a patient in hospital, he was steady and sensible, which helped the bone to heal. But the minute he came back here and started walking out, he knew he was going back towards racing, and he stopped thinking about his leg. With another horse, the memory of pain would always be at the back of his mind. But when Danoli gets on a racetrack, he forgets he has any legs at all. He becomes all heart."

The feelings for Danoli are in no small part due to the affection and regard in which silver-haired Foley, with his gentle and gentlemanly ways, is held in the local and wider community. Now 50, he switched to horse training only 10 years ago after half-a-lifetime working the family land, 62 sloping acres overlooked by the towering escarpment of the Blackstairs Mountains. Like farming, the horses are eight-days-a-week toil, but the achievements are more visible and the rewards are sweeter.

Foley started with seven horses; Danoli is now one of 32 at Aughabeg (there is a waiting list) and has helped pay for a new training strip and some extra stabling amid the higgledy-piggledy converted stock sheds and barns. The place is very much a family business, small and loyal; Foley's wife Goretti acts as long-stop and Adrienne and Sharon, the two eldest of their four children, ride out each day. Danoli will be escorted to Cheltenham by the veteran travelling lad Jim Treacey, whose son Tommy has kept the ride in the face of more fashionable offers.

The stable star, smallish for a chaser, is a slightly angular, short- backed individual with a wispy tail, one white hind foot and a few white hairs sprinkled on his upper lip and forehead. He may have caught Foley's shrewd blue eyes, but Stubbs would probably have passed him by. His precious front limbs are protected by padded wraps, but he is not otherwise singled out for special treatment. Everyone takes a turn at seeing to his daily toilet, including his trainer, and when he travelled to Jim Bolger's last Wednesday for a spin on the grass, it was not in a luxury horsebox but in a two-horse trailer pulled by the family car, loaded tacked up like a kid's pony off to a gymkhana and displaying much the same cheerful enthusiasm.

"He knows something is up," said Foley. "Don't ask me how; perhaps horses feel the seasons, like birds, or perhaps it's all the extra attention from visitors that he associates with the big meeting. It will be his fourth visit there, after all."

In his six outings over fences, Danoli has been Jekyll or Hyde, with four wins and two falls. It is asking a huge amount for a horse to win the championship in his first season over fences; the last to do so was another Irish horse, Captain Christy, in 1974, but Foley reasoned: "We are entitled to be there. We'll go and enjoy ourselves and if we win, grand. It would be some moment to be there, because he has as many fans in England as Ireland - he's gone over the national boundaries. But if we get beat, we get beat, and no long faces, for we know he'll go down fighting."

Foley softly repeats his favourite phrase "That's the way it is", to explain or accept most situations as the pressure of responsibility for a public idol builds towards the big day in 11 days time. He added: "We never thought for a moment that we'd have a horse like this. People are in this business for a lifetime and don't have one like him. But the man above decided he should be with us. And we'll let Him decide what happens at Cheltenham."

Gold standard: The Irish in the Cheltenham Gold Cup

1925 Ballinode, "the Sligo mare", wins the second running under Ted Leader, beating the odds-on favourite Alcazar in a canter by five lengths.

1946 Prince Regent, one of the first Irish chasing idols, wins the first post-war running at the age of 11. Trained by Tom Dreaper, he comes to Cheltenham with a huge reputation and an entourage that includes a special guard. Under Tim Hyde he lands the odds to a great reception.

1948-50 Cottage Rake, with a Flat racer's speed and looks, becomes the first celebrity trained by another Irish legend, Vincent O'Brien. Ridden by Aubrey Brabazon to each of this three victories, he prompts his delirious followers to compose the following: "Aubrey's up, the money's down; the frightened bookies quake. Come on my lads and give a cheer - Begod, 'tis Cottage Rake!"

1964-66: Arkle, trained by Tom Dreaper and ridden by Pat Taaffe, proves himself in a different class from his contemporaries and arguably from any before or since. He starts at odds of 1-10 for his third win, the shortest price in the race's history, and wins by the longest distance, 30 lengths.

1970-71: Tough, much under-rated L'Escargot's first win, from his compatriot French Tan, comes at 33-1 after the fall of the Irish-trained favourite Kinloch Brae three out. The following year it is another Irish one-two when the Dan Moore-trained, Tommy Carberry-ridden chestnut beats Leap Frog, this time as a joint-favourite.

1972 Glencaraig Lady, a faller three fences out the previous year, shows great courage as she gains compensation for Francis Flood. The little mare battles home under Frank Berry to beat Royal Toss and The Dikler in a photo-finish and then survives a stewards' inquiry and an objection.

1974 There is barely a dry eye at Prestbury Park as Bobby Beasley guides the brilliant Pat Taaffe-trained novice Captain Christy to a five-length beating of The Dikler. The hot favourite Pendil is brought down, but no one begrudges Beasley, who has made a comeback after beating alcoholism, his moment.

1986 Another moment of extraordinary emotion as Dawn Run, the Champion Hurdler two years previously, battles back up the hill to beat Wayward Lad and Forgive 'n' Forget for Paddy Mullins. The cheers are also for Jonjo O'Neill, who has returned to the saddle after recovering from a serious leg injury.

1996 The 19th Irish-trained winner, Imperial Call, Fergie Sutherland and Conor O'Dwyer are swamped by well-wishers as they crown the Irish Cheltenham revival as one of a record-equalling seven winners at the meeting.