Racing: Foley fashions a Festival high-flier: No frills on a fundamental approach for a leading Irish hurdler. Richard Edmondson reports

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The Independent Online
FOR THOSE who like some contrast in their racing, the unsaddling after the Irish Champion Hurdle provided an exquisite moment. In the winner's enclosure was Dermot Weld MVB, MRCVS, Ireland's urbane, elegant and slickly spoken champion trainer. Next to him, in the runner-up's berth, was Tom Foley.

The man from Co Carlow is no peacock at the races. Indeed, Leopardstown's ensemble, an open-necked shirt and a jacket whose regular use appeared to be for labour rather than ostentation, would be met by one hand on his collar and another on the seat of his pants at Ascot. And he had stubble.

But appearance is not what Tom Foley is known for. The 47-year-old trainer, whose creased face appears to have had a 10-year start on the rest of his body, has been elevated by Danoli, probably Ireland's best hope for success at the Cheltenham Festival. The six-year- old looks irresistible in the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle.

But it will be a harrowing journey to Prestbury Park next month. And maybe even more so for Danoli. Both horse and master will be taking to the air for the first time as the latter makes his first trip out of Ireland. 'They'll have to strap me down,' Foley says. 'I haven't crossed any water at all before.'

Foley will, in fact, be sitting next to the gelding on the flight and does not expect the partnership to be far removed at any time during the trip. He may even stay in the stable lads' hostel to be near his horse. 'He's never been far away from me,' the trainer said, with a suggestion that Danoli may be allowed to spread himself in front of the coal fire chez Foley, under the photographs of the children's Confirmations.

Tom Foley is something of a junior himself when it comes to training. Until eight years ago, rearing cattle at Aughabeg, on the farm where he was born, was his sole occupation, his involvement in racing that of an intermittent owner. 'I had a couple of horses with other lads but I had no luck with them,' he said. 'Something always ended up going wrong with them so I decided I'd have a go myself. That's the way it was.' (This final phrase belongs to Foley as 'awight', or 'ooh you are awful' belong to others).

Foley's progress will disappoint those who consider training a complex art that can only be handed down from those who have gone before, the turf's Magic Circle. 'I made it up as I went along,' he says. '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.'

Foley has not had a winnerless season, but neither did he have a quality warrior in his possession until the day he went to Goffs Sales to buy a filly. 'I didn't like any of them, but I saw this one horse with a lovely head on him, really intelligent,' he says. 'He was by The Parson and had everything going for him so I got him for 7,000 (punts).' As he was bought for Dan O'Neill, and the owner was persuaded to purchase by his daughter Olivia, the gelding was called Danoli.

The Aughabeg digs may have surprised the new arrival, as the inmates are housed in simple boxes of breeze blocks topped by corrugated iron. The salesmanship Foley uses to describe these facilities reminds us that training, rather than timeshares, is his vocation. 'They're only very moderate boxes because this is no big modern stable or nothing,' he says, before delivering a scientifically challenged piece of logic. 'We don't have all that fancy equipment here and I think that helps the horses because there is nowhere for the virus to lie idle.'

Certainly no harm has come to Danoli, who won three bumpers last season, three hurdles this term, as well as his second to Weld's Fortune And Fame, the Champion Hurdle favourite. This sort of form does not go unnoticed, and British offers have rained in on Ireland, where traditionally, a decent offer will secure anything but the trainer's wife. O'Neill, though, will not let go of Danoli, who has consequently earned the label of 'the only horse in Ireland that is not for sale'.

'People from England were prepared to pay record prices to buy this fellow,' Foley says. 'We've had telephone calls one after the other.' These enticements, some over pounds 200,000, have been turned down.

The reward was Danoli's recent victory over good opponents at Leopardstown, where he was not overstretched. 'He often has a harder work-out at home,' Foley said and reported that Festival preparations were going perfectly. 'He came out of the race as if he'd just done a bit of work up at The Curragh. Charlie (Swan, the Irish champion jockey) stirred the reins and away he went.'

Now Foley anticipates a stirring effort at Cheltenham, a place he has visited only with his eyelids down. 'I've always watched it on television, just wishing I could be there. It's only ever been wishes and dreams before,' he said.

With this story in his knapsack it is inevitable that the engaging man from Co Carlow will field nothing but good wishes at Prestbury Park. He has been told to expect a generous reception. 'They say I'll be treated so well everyone will think I'm royalty,' Foley says. The clothes may give him away.

(Photograph omitted)