NOEL FEHILY cannot wait to be reunited with steeplechasing star Silviniaco Conti in Wetherby’s bet365 Charlie Hall Chase, the National Hunt season’s traditional curtain-raiser.
“I love it. It is better than working,” 38-year-old jockey tells The Yorkshire Post with infectious enthusiasm. “The first big race of the year, I can’t wait to get going.”
Fehily has every reason to be looking forward with optimism to today’s £100,000 three-mile-plus race which celebrates the legendary Towton trainer, who was so prolific at his local track and whose 684 career winners included the 1956 Champion Hurdle hero Doorknocker.
This is one of the two top-class horses – Rock On Ruby being the other – which is taking County Cork-born Fehily to new heights in the autumn of a career which has now yielded 884 winners .
He has already won a William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton and Betfred Bowl at Aintree, on the eight-year-old Silviniaco Conti, who returns to West Yorkshire for the first time since winning the 2012 Charlie Hall under Ruby Walsh en route to Betfair Chase glory at Haydock.
Yet it has taken time for the naturally gifted Fehily’s horsemanship to be fully appreciated. It has not helped that he has ridden in the same era as the aforementioned Walsh, AP McCoy, Barry Geraghty and Richard Johnson – four of the all-time greats of National Hunt racing.
Injuries have also struck the quietly-spoken rider at critical times of a career. Good enough to win the Tingle Creek Chase in 2010 on the brilliant two-mile chaser Master Minded, the Fehily injury curse meant he missed his one and only opportunity to ride the record-breaking Kauto Star in the King George.
It has been the same with eight-year-old Silviniaco Conti, the current standard-bearer at the yard of champion trainer Paul Nicholls. Like 2012 Grand National winner Neptune Collonges, the chaser was sired by Dom Alco and Fehily rode the horse in its formative races to notable successes in Chepstow’s Persian War Novices’ Hurdle and Ascot’s Coral hurdle towards the end of 2010 before yet another unlucky break.
It took this resilient rider another three years before he was reunited with Silviniaco Conti in last year’s Betfair Chase – Daryl Jacob, then first jockey to Nicholls before his own injury horrors, was required at Ascot so Fehily headed to the North West where his mount was third to the front-running Cue Card and another formidable foe in Dynaste.
It was the perfect prep for Boxing Day’s King George. “He jumped, he galloped and he outstayed them. It was fantastic,” said Fehily. “Three out, I just thought for a second Cue Card had slipped us. The second last, I always thought we were going to get there and the last – it doesn’t get much better...”
Such a high was then followed by the despair of a Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup that was there for the taking. Silviniaco Conti was still in the vanguard coming to the last before fading to fourth in a frenetic finish that saw Lord Windermere prevail.
“It was disappointing because he had run such a great race. He was the best horse on the day and he looked like he was going to win,” said a rueful Fehily.
“Turning in, you couldn’t see him being out of the first three. He got a bit idle. It’s a steep hill and there’s lots of people screaming and shouting.
“However, he came out and beat Dynaste at Aintree’s National meeting. He’s a very good horse and just needs a Cheltenham Gold Cup on his CV.”
Can this be the year? “I hope so,” replies Fehily. It helps that he also knows what it takes to win around Cheltenham after winning the 2012 Champion Hurdle on Rock On Ruby, one of jump racing’sgreat servants.
Equally satisfying, says Fehily, was the 2013 renewal when Harry Fry’s horse chased home the brilliant Hurricane Fly.
“The year that he won it, people crabbed the form and never got the credit he deserved. To come back and be second, I was so pleased for the horse,” said the rider, who confirmed Rock On Ruby will revert to hurdles after a largely unsuccessful season novice chasing.
Fehily’s challenge is staying in one piece after losing the best part of two years to three bad injuries that left him on the sidelines for six, nine and six months respectively.
“It’s been ligament and tendon injuries,” says the rider, who credits the Injured Jockeys Fund-run Oaksey House for speeding up his rehabilitation. “If you a break a bone, it is six weeks and you are back riding. The tendon came off a shoulder in one fall. Slow injuries to heal rather than life-threatening. You’re off for six months, it takes six months to get back to where you were and then it happens again,” says Fehily.
“The prospect of riding horses like Silviniaco Conti does help – you have to look forward. He jumps and he stays well. He’s got a bit of class and the track suits.”
Despite the Wetherby race’s illustrious roll of honour, no horse has won the Charlie Hall and the Gold Cup in the same season. Yet this does not deter Noel Fehily. For he maintains the best of Silviniaco Conti is still to come, starting with today’s test.