KIERAN McCARTHY chats to Coppeen’s Noel Fehily about why he has retired
DON’T underestimate how important it is that Noel Fehily bowed out on his own terms.
In April 2018 the Coppeen jockey broke his neck in a fall at Punchestown. He was 42 years old then and had nothing left to prove – but he didn’t want to stop.
‘I wasn’t ready to pack up then,’ Fehily admits.
‘I was determined to get back riding again for this season. If I had been forced to retire then with an injury like that, I wouldn’t have liked to go out that way.
‘To be able to do it the way I wanted to do it was special.’
It’s fitting that he bowed out on a high, even if it all happened so fast. After winning the Mares’ Novice Hurdle on Eglantine De Seuil on the Thursday at Cheltenham, he announced he would retire this season. Nine days later at Newbury it was all over. Fittingly, Fehily went out on a high after riding 1-3 hot favourite Get In The Queue to victory.
It was a short goodbye.
‘I didn’t know it would end that soon, to be honest,’ Fehily admits.
‘I had spoken to my wife and my agent about it, that I was going to pack up later in the season but I didn’t know exactly when.
‘We made up my mind that if I was lucky enough to ride a Cheltenham Festival winner that I would announce it there. If I didn’t ride a winner at Cheltenham I would have carried on longer and picked a day later in the season, maybe after Aintree.
‘There was no set date, then I won at Cheltenham, and Newbury looked the obvious place to finish up then because I had lived in Lambourn for so long.
‘I didn’t want it to go on and be talking about it for too long. I just wanted to do it.’
The plan, up until earlier this year, was for the 43-year-old to get to the end of this season and decide then, whether to stick or twist. That process was torn up when he was struck down by appendix troubles and subsequent complications in January and February.
‘The fact I got ill got me thinking,’ he says.
‘It didn’t look like I was going to make it back for Cheltenham or Aintree, and that got me thinking that there was no way I could get back for next season after that. I made my mind up that I wouldn’t go on next season. I did get back and I was lucky enough to ride a winner at Cheltenham.’
Before that were his appendix woes. It wasn’t as routine as he had hoped. He complained of stomach pains when riding at Huntingdon on January 11th. He gave up his rides at Kempton on the Saturday. When the pains got worse he was rushed to hospital for keyhole surgery to remove his appendix. That wasn’t the end of his troubles.
‘I had the appendix removed. It was a perforated gangrenous appendix and it made me very ill with infection afterwards – that was the first part of it,’ Fehily explains.
‘I got back riding after 13 days but I got very ill again. The small intestine had attached itself to the scar tissue where the appendix was removed and that caused a blockage in the small intestine. That’s what led to the second problem I had and I ended back up in hospital for a second week. That was the second complication I had and that held me up properly.’
Towards the end of that second week in hospital, doctors were preparing to operate. Fehily was facing a minimum of six weeks recovery plus longer to try and regain fitness.
‘That would have ruled me out of Cheltenham and Aintree. The season would pretty much have been written off if I had to have that operation. Luckily, I didn’t. The problem rectified itself by the end of that week. I was lucky in that sense and I was able to do it the way I wanted to in the end,’ says Fehily who ended his fantastic career on his own terms.
He’s had his share of injuries. Broke two vertebrae in his back in May 2016 after a bad fall and ended up in spinal shock where he had no feeling in his arms and legs for a period. In 2010 he injured both shoulders, was out for almost eight months, came back and injured his collarbone and mangled his wrist, the latter was a particularly bad one and kept him out for nine months. Four months after that comeback Fehily broke his leg and had another six months out.
But now he walks away having made the decision, not having it hoisted on him. And his legend is assured. Trainer Charlie Mann, who gave Fehily his first winner in England in 1998, hails him as a ‘top-class jockey’. Clonakilty’s Richie Forristal, Editor of the Racing Post, added, ‘He is right up there with the best riders we have produced in the last 20 years.’
Fehily rode 1,350 winners over jumps in Ireland and Britain since 1998. The big wins were in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham – with Rock On Ruby in 2012 and with Buveur d’Air in 2017. There was also success in the Champion Chase on Special Tiara two years ago and impressive back-to-back wins in the King George VI Chase on Silviniaco Conti in 2013 and 2014.
And he bowed out on another winner, Get In The Queue, at Newbury, which brought its own type of pressure.
‘I did feel the pressure,’ Fehily admits.
‘It normally doesn’t affect me too much but I did feel it because the whole day had been built up that it was my last day riding. I think everyone latched on that this ride was the banker and he ended up a lot shorter price than he should have been.
‘Everyone was expecting him to win and see me deliver – and I felt like I had to win because everyone’s expectations were that he would win. Luckily, he did. He’s a good horse. It doesn’t always work out like that, to go out on a winner.’
That was an emotional day. There was a guard of honour. He said his goodbyes in the weigh-room after. It was the end. Waking up on the Sunday morning as an ex-jockey was a different feeling. It was then it started to hit home. That familiar routine is gone.
‘It was a bit of a shock to the system. On the Sunday I was a bit tired. On Mondays you look at the entries for the week and you are looking ahead all the time – but suddenly that’s not there. As a jockey you are planning ahead all the time but I don’t have that now and it’s a bit quieter alright.’
Still, he’s the type who wants to be kept busy and he has offers on the table that he will mull over.
‘This retirement lark is okay so far, but it’s early days,’ he says.
‘I have a lot of young horses around the place, for sale, prepping a few and I am breaking and pre-training a few. That will keep me ticking along.
‘There are a few other offers on the table before I decide what the next plan is. I need to get stuck into something else. I’ll sit down over the next couple of weeks and discuss the offers that are there and see where that takes me.’
One thing is for certain. There is no going back. After over two decades at the top level, this is it.
‘That’s it. I have made the decision. There is no chance of me changing my mind. None,’ he says.
He’s gone out on his terms. And that makes it easier to deal with.