Race of their Life: Paul Nolan

The National Hunt trainer reflects on the most memorable day of his career

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Paul Nolan and Alain Cawley combined to net the big prize on this special day

With a training career spanning 24 years, Paul Nolan is no stranger to success. 

Based out of his Toberona Stables in County Wexford, Nolan became only the second trainer to train three Galway hurdle winners during a fabulous run in the mid-2000s. 

Since then, he has trained multiple winners at Cheltenham Festival and won eight Grade 1 races in Ireland. 

But, there is one achievement which stands out above the rest. 

Things were never plain sailing for Joncol, the giant son of Bob's Return. 

But, in a career dogged by injury and complications, he provided his boss with a couple of memorable days. 

Having started his racing career on the point-to-point circuit as a four-year-old, Joncol enjoyed a stellar 2009/10 campaign where he earned two Group 1 victories. 

The first came in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase and the second followed only a few months later. 

The latter was the 2010 Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, a day like no other for Nolan. 

“It was a pressure race and it was for great guys who are still with us in the yard, it was one of our main owners in the yard,” Nolan said. 

“There were other days but as regards to a day I’ll never forget it was amazing. It was the Irish Gold Cup, so chase-wise you couldn’t win a better race. 

“This was a proper Group 1 against the best chasers in the country and in Britain as well, so it was special.” 

Having taken that big win at Punchestown, and subsequently finished third in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, there were high hopes for the favourite coming into the three-mile contest. 

But, especially when coming up against Willie Mullins’ Cooldine ridden by Ruby Walsh, favouritism counts for nothing. 

Indeed Joncol, ridden by the fresh-faced Alain Cawley, looked down and out when third at the last but a sensational late charge saw Cawley pounce on Cooldine to secure a thrilling win by a neck. 

And the celebrations that followed still stick in Nolan’s mind. 

“He looked beat turning in and he still looked beat coming to the last, but he picked up then and he just put his head down at the right time,” Nolan said. 

“He was taking on Cooldine who had been a very impressive winner in the RSA the year before. You know when you come to those big races with Willie it’s going to be tough.  

“Normally you don’t win a battle from the last to the line, if Willie’s beside anyone it’s very hard to pass him, but thankfully that day we beat him.  

“It was great for young squeaky as well that he beat Ruby (Walsh) in a Group 1 which is nice to have on your CV. 

“When the race was over it was just fantastic to look back at the videos after, seeing the lads in the parade ring. 

“I went out onto the track and the young chap who was leading him up sprinted when he was jumping the last, he can be seen on the television running alongside the horse.  

“When you look back at things like that it still makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.” 

Joncol’s greatest day, then, and reward for a battling career which, aside from one further win once more over Cooldine, ended in 2013 in typically challenging circumstances following further illness and injury. 

Two years at the Racing Academy & Centre of Education in Kildare as a training horse for apprentice jockeys followed before he died after a two-week battle with illness at the age of 12, but Nolan will always be proud of what they achieved together. 

Nolan added: “He’d been a difficult horse to train. He was a giant and he’d had numerous problems.  

“He had lymphangitis in a leg – it used to flare up every so often – so it was always a nightmare to try and keep him right.  

“It was his second Group 1 win and it was just great that he was able to reach those heights that we always hoped he would.  

“If you’re lucky enough to get a good, sound horse it makes it easier to train them. If they’re easy to train and you don’t get complications it just makes life far easier for man and beast, but with him it wasn’t the case!” 

At the end of the day, what made the day so special for Nolan? 

The hard work of his entire team with Joncol and the decision to keep Cawley on the horse when other owners may have plumped for a more experienced jockey. 

Nolan said: “The people involved made this so special. Everyone from the lad who mucks him out to the chap who rides him at home, to the young jockey who was riding one of his first major winners.  

“When the bigger names become available on the big days it just takes guts for owners to stick by the young fellas that were on them from the start.  

“There aren’t too many that would do it, and it just shows the measure of the people that owned the horse and they’ve been very good to us for a long time.  

“Through the bad times they’ve stuck with us and that’s where you just appreciate the better human beings more.” 

When you look back at things like that it still makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

- Paul Nolan

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