Noel Fehily chats to Kieran McCarthy about falls, the future and why he loves coming home
‘I LANDED on my head, again.’
As opening lines of an interview go, Noel Fehily’s will take some beating.
Belatedly accepting his Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star of the Month March award last Friday night for his Cheltenham heroics earlier in the year – living and working as a jockey in England, he doesn’t get home as much as he’d like to – you couldn’t miss his latest war wounds.
A cut above his left eye and a bruised cheek saw him look worse than either Conor McGregor or Floyd Mayweather after their LA dance.
But it goes with the territory for Fehily, an occupational hazard.
‘I got a fall on Thursday in Stratford,’ he explained, ‘I came a cropper halfway through the race.’
Fehily riding Degooch – no relation to the Kerry footballer, we believe – went down at the ninth fence in the Sheppard Family Handicap Chase.
‘I landed on my head, again,’ he said, matter-of-factly.
‘It was actually quite a bad fall.
‘Normally a horse would hit a fence and you’re ready for it and the horse hits the ground first so that breaks the fall whereas on Thursday he jumped the fence okay and then he got his leg stuck in the tack and the first to hit the ground was his head and my head.
‘It was an odd fall, quite a heavy fall; it hurt.’
The cuts and bruises back up Fehily’s story.
But he’s no stranger to injuries, he adds.
In May 2016 he broke two vertebrae in his back after suffering a bad fall at Newton Abbot on board Hinxworth in a handicap hurdle.
‘It was a run-of-the-mill day in Newton Abbot, just four or five days into the season, I hadn’t even ridden a winner, clipped heels with one after a hurdle and ended up head first into the ground,’ the 41-year-old Coppeen man recalled.
‘I fractured two vertebrae between my shoulder blades and I ended up with spinal shock.
‘I had no feeling for a little bit in my legs and arms, which was fairly scary – but luckily it all ended well and I was back riding eight to ten weeks later. I had no ill effects anyway.’
There’s a reason that jockeys are followed around by doctors and an ambulance, he points out. It’s a dangerous game.
‘I had a bad run for three years,’ he said.
‘In 2010 I injured both shoulders, I was out for six to eight months, came back from that and I did a collarbone and a wrist.
‘The wrist injury was the worst I’ve had, it was quite badly mangled. That kept me out another nine months.
‘I came back again and four months later I broke my leg and was out for six months again so I had three years where I was off more than I was riding.’
But these days, touch wood, Fehily’s going strong and showing why he is still one of best in the business. He might be one of the elder statesmen but he knows how to win, with well over 1,000 winners, and counting, to his name.
‘When I broke the two vertebrae in my back in May last year I didn’t ride a winner, I think, until the end of July so at this stage I am 25, 30 winners ahead of where I was this time last year,’ he smiled.
‘The season has started very well, it looks like I have some very nice horses to ride for the season so I’m very happy with how things are going and if they continue in this vein it would be great.’
And the good news is that Fehily is not entertaining the idea of calling it a day any time soon.
‘I’m in good shape at the moment, injury free and I still love it, love the buzz of riding big winners,’ he said.
‘I love the big days, the big races, I love the build-up to the big races and I love riding good horses – that’s what gives me the buzz.
‘I probably don’t enjoy going to the smaller meetings in the middle of the summer. When I was younger I did but it’s different now.
‘I still love the buzz of riding good horses and good races. I’m still as hungry for it as ever.’
‘When you get to 37, 38, everyone is expecting you to retire – and everyone is expecting me to retire for the last five years,’ he smiled.
‘It’s the same as every sport, we’re looked after so much better now – fitness, physios, etc. – so jockeys are going on for longer now than before.
‘I take every day as it comes.
‘When I did my wrist back in 2012 I thought that was it. Even six months into the injury I was struggling to get the full range in my wrist, physios were telling me to call it a day but I’m still here and have no target or date in mind to walk away.
‘You don’t want to think about it, finishing up.
‘You get into such a routine, seven days a week. We all love a routine, to know what we’re doing so when I do stop I will really miss it.’
The highs of the big days, like at Cheltenham earlier this year, make it all worthwhile and showcase Fehily’s class.
On the opening day of the festival he won the feature race, the Champion Hurdle, when he rode Buveur D’Air to a great win and the following day he guided Special Tiara to a huge win in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
‘It was a fantastic week but the biggest problem starting a new season is trying to repeat it. The bar is quite high,’ Fehily said.
‘It was a fantastic year, especially with Cheltenham to go so well. I had some good rides coming into the festival, everything went according to plan, it was a great week.’
As much as he loves life across the water, there’s nowhere like home, and back in West Cork last weekend with his wife Natasha and two children Michael (2) and Niamh (4), it was a welcome break from everyday life, even though this is a quiet time of the year.
These days, it’s bits and bobs, he says.
It won’t get properly going until the second or third week in October, and a quick hop home to West Cork was just what was needed.
‘I love coming home. I’d love to come home more than I do,’ he admitted.
‘If I could I’d move home but there isn’t as much for me to do here as there is in England, and for that reason I’ll probably always be based in England.’
He left home 19 years ago this September and life has changed a lot since, on both sides of the Irish Sea.
One constant though is his talent that continues to shine and earn him those big rides and wins that he loves – and that’s why he was selected as the winner of March’s Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star of the Month award. One of racing’s gentlemen and most respected jockeys, there’s more to come.
He’d love to win the Gold Cup. Don’t bet against him.