James Lawton: Fehily delights the crowd with glorious ride after years suffering in silence
"I thought the chance would never come but it doesn't matter when you go past the finish"
No quieter man ever created the kind of din which filled the valley here yesterday and when finally it was spent there was one inevitable question. It asked simply: what took Noel Fehily so long? The best guess among the racing cognoscenti was that the 37-year-old who rode Rock On Ruby so beautifully to the first great prize, the Champion Hurdle that was supposed to be the property of the great Ruby Walsh and Hurricane Fly, had indeed never had enough to say for himself.
He never told an eager owner in the unsaddling enclosure that he had plainly invested in the next Kauto Star. He never made much of a racket in the jockeys' room, a place where extrovert spirits and pugnacious nature so often rule.
Maybe it was this, the theories went last night, that held back the man from Co. Cork. And if it was not that, at least not totally, there was certainly the matter of appalling luck.
Last year it seemed, briefly, that his shadows might be receding and replaced by the great opportunity of a career that has always been marked by some of the most admirable qualities of a superior horseman.
This was despite a string of injuries of the kind which come so frequently at the racecourse and, disturbingly, brought the death of three brave horses yesterday.
When the riding master of Cheltenham, Walsh, was injured, Fehily was offered the leg up on some of the great horses of trainer Paul Nicholls, champions like Kauto Star and Big Buck's.
Fehily promptly broke his wrist.
The extent of that catastrophe became clear yesterday when Fehily was given the Rock On Ruby ride with absolute confidence by Nicholls.
The Cork man was so much in control, so confident that his new partner could engage successfully the rising ground after surging to the lead going down the hill that such distinguished company as Walsh, on last year's champion, Hurricane Fly, and AP McCoy on the 2010 winner Binocular became just struggling members of the pack. Nicholls was so moved he gave a tribute that yesterday's hero will no doubt savour for many years. The trainer declared: "He is the nearest thing I've ever seen to Ruby Walsh, the way he sits, the way he understands the horse.
Fehily said that he had a solitary concern as he cleared the last hurdle. "I had just one fear that Ruby might be sitting on my heels keeping the powder dry, as he does.
"But that never happened and it's a great tribute to the horse. Paul said he had great faith in the horse and he never put a foot wrong."
It was the jockey's second triumph at the Festival, four years after winning the Vincent O'Brien Hurdle. That was a rare winning appearance on the big stage. It was, though, something that he would always have when his career seemed to be trailing away.
Yesterday, though, mere consolations were the least of it.
"You dream about something like this and then when it happens it is better than you can ever have imagined," said Fehily. "Maybe I thought the chance would never come but none of that matters when you go past the finish."
There were other moments of course which lifted the spirits in the first tumult of jump racing's greatest gathering. The running of Sprinter Sacre left the potential for a great vacuum in its wake. The new sensation carried new speculation on the emergence of another super horse. There was much sentimental approval when Donald McCain, son of the late Ginger, delivered the first victory yet there would be no dwindling of the fine edge of anticipation, not when Fehily had produced a performance that mocked all his years of obscurity.
He said recently: "No I don't have a lot to say to owners, I don't make free with my opinions. I don't see my job that way. What I try to do is sit on the horse and ride it as best I can. I knew Rock On Ruby was going to give me a great ride. I spent a little time with him on Tuesday morning and he was really bouncing, winging over a few hurdles and I knew he was right."
For Fehily, yesterday's exhilaration, he didn't need to say, was reward for the hard days fighting injury and a growing sense that his days of great potential had maybe come and gone. Certainly he has a fine eye for and a deep understanding of the perils of his trade.
When his compatriot Peter O'Toole was badly injured in the Grand National he helped nurse him through the worst of his days. He gave him support both material and psychological and yesterday he had some considerable reward.
No doubt the big battalions will have their impact soon enough. No doubt Walsh will again challenge for his seventh jockey's title in nine years. He will do this, we know, with great determination and artistry. We will see McCoy battling as only he knows how and all this will be by way of preparation for the great duel between Kauto Star and Long Run.
Fehily's impact will linger though. It was, after all, a victory that not only stopped an odds-on favourite but one of the greatest riding talents in the history of racing.
It was a blazing example of what can happen when a good man of undoubted brilliance is offered a little time on centre stage.
The result was one of the great prizes of his sport, a race among the very few most prized by the great trainers and riders. Into such exalted company, Noel Fehily came with what may well prove to be the race of his life.
It was some race, though, and so many witnesses were ready to attest, some life.
At Cheltenham there are many stories of broken bones and dreams. On this occasion the message was so much more uplifting. It said that some men only need one chance to prove all that they have.
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