Paul Nolan has come full circle since he started working for Jim Mernagh almost three decades ago.
And while the Co. Wexford trainer is no stranger to big-race success, it’s the Mernagh-bred and owned, Latest Exhibition, who could catapult Nolan into the big time again, if all goes to plan in Saturday’s Grade 1 2m 6f Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival.
Although he doesn’t dwell on it, the Cheltenham dream will be ignited again in Toberona Stables, where Nina Carberry rode her first Cheltenham Festival winner on Dabiroun in 2005, before Tony McCoy and Noble Prince galloped to victory at the Cotswolds, six years later.
Its been a long time between drinks at Prestbury Park for the affable 51-year-old, but Latest Exhibition could change all that if he claims Grade One glory this weekend.
An early-season maiden hurdle win at Galway, was followed up by a three-length defeat to Abacadabras in the Grade 3 For Auction Hurdle at Navan.
When Gordon Elliott’s runner subsequently ran stablemate Envoi Allen close in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle before an eight-length stroll in the Grade 1 Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas, the form was starting to stack up.
But it was the two-and-a-quarter length defeat of Andy Dufresne at Navan over 2m 4f – that has Nolan & Co. reaching for the stars.
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) December 15, 2019
“To be honest I was a bit surprised when he beat Andy Dufresne,” Nolan told Paddy Power News on a stable visit last week.
“I didn’t know if the form of his bumper win (at Naas 12 months ago) and maiden hurdle win (at Galway, Oct 19) was good enough.
“They were more workman-like wins and we knew the 2m trip against Abacadabras was going to be too short for him. It turned into a sprint really from three or four furlongs out, but I liked the way he galloped all the way to the line.
“I wasn’t bullish going into the Grade 2 Navan Novice Hurdle against Andy Dufresne. He was considered one of Gordon Elliott’s best horses – with all the ammunition he has.
“So, it was a surprise he won. A nice one, mind you.”
Nolan has been in the game long enough to know that National Hunt racing can knock you down as quick as it lifts you up.
He only has to recall Fitzhenry’s shadow of the post defeat in the Paddy Power Chase in December and the loss last season of the highly-regarded mare Earthiest Words at Fairyhouse.
“I thought she had the potential to be even better than Latest Exhibition at the time, but she went up to Fairyhouse and was killed in a race,” he says.
“That was a sickener because I thought she was better than your man, you know what I mean?
“That’s an awful loss, because she could have been really good. But if you keep thinking about things like that, you wouldn’t get up out of bed in the morning. So, it’s just – you know, you crack on.”
And cracking on after Leopardstown to the Cheltenham Festival in mid-March is part of the plan, if Latest Exhibition comes through his biggest test to date on Saturday. And the step up in trip to 2m 6f and beyond is unlikely to stop that progress according to the trainer.
“The further he steps up in trip will be a help, rather than a hindrance to him,” Nolan says.
“The 3m Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle looks the obvious choice, IF all goes according to plan on Saturday.”
“Mind you if he makes a mistake like he did at Navan (dragged his hind legs through the sixth last hurdle) when he clouted the middle flight down the back straight – he won’t be winning a Grade One.
“That was a ‘pull-up’ mistake. I didn’t think he’d get back after that – but he got over it and battled on well to win.
“He even looked like if something came to challenge him after the last hurdle, it would help him concentrate on the run to the line.”
With 40 or so horses under his care at just outside Enniscorthy, Nolan’s fortunes have been revived recently after the lean years of the financial crisis.
With 12 winners so far this season, he’s on course to match last year’s haul of 20 winners. And while he’s not overly bothered by the straight numerics of how many winners he has in a season, there is a focus on the prize money they’ve won, and the momentum that training good horses and winning good prizes can bring to the yard.
“It’s staying in the top 10 in the prize money charts that counts,” he states. “That’s what my aim is each season – to be competitive and to stay in the top 10.”
A Grade One winner in the back pocket would help that cause hugely on Saturday.