Tom Foley – The People’s Champion

By John Scally

Visiting him nearly killed me. In 1995 at the time when he was at the height of his fame I was driving home on a dark and wet Friday evening from interviewing Tom Foley when there was a massive crash. As my car spun into the ditch from the force of impact I went into shock.

A few minutes later there was a tap on the window. I wasn’t sure if I had much longer for this life and was checking what parts of my body were still functioning. A farmer who had been driving his tractor and trailer home had forgotten that when it gets pitch dark you need lights on the back of your trailer. He asked me just one question: Did you not see me?

Would I have denied myself that near death experience if it meant missing out on the sheer pleasure of meeting Tom Foley and Danoli? Absolutely not. That is why in February I was so sad to hear that the legendary Tom Foley died, aged 74. Tom will be forever remembered as the trainer of ‘The People’s Champion’ – Danoli, the horse that captured the hearts of racing fans all over the country through the 1990s.

In 1994, Danoli triumphed in the Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham under Foley’s stewardship. It is a win that will never be forgotten because it was the ultimate racing fairytale: the small man competing in the sport of kings.

It was obvious that Tom had a great love for Danoli. The partnership began because Dan O’Neill and Tom Foley were good friends. When Dan decided to get a racehorse they were initially planning to buy a filly at the 1991 Goffs Sales.

Instead Foley fell under the spell of a young gelding with a small white star and a white sock on his rear left foot. “We spent all day and there wasn’t a filly in it that I could bring home. I kept coming back to this lad. He just looked so relaxed. He was lying out in the house and I said to Danny we would have a go at this one. Danny said no bother.”

Unbeaten in his first two bumper races of the 1992-93 season the temptation was to send Danoli to Cheltenham for the Champion Bumper. Foley instead opted to send him to Punchestown which they won. In the following season he won in his first two starts before coming third at Leopardstown at Christmas.

Around that time champion jockey, Charlie Swan, who had rode him to victory in his maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse opted to ride another horse. Foley said it was a tough decision to let Swan back up when the jockey contacted them. “I had to sit back and think. He was the top jockey and knew Cheltenham so we had to put him back on. I said to Danny that Cheltenham was one place where Danoli will learn an awful lot. When you are going to Cheltenham you are taking on very experienced horses.”

Danoli came second in the Irish Champion Hurdle and went on to win again before going to Cheltenham. Tom was still concerned about how Danoli would take to travelling long distances. “It was the first horse I had ever been out of the country with and he was anxious. ‘Would you mind if we flew the horse over?’ I asked Danny. It would only be an hour.

If we put him on the boat he will have to travel over two hours to the boat, he will spend two-three hours on the boat and spend another four hours travelling from the boat to Cheltenham. ‘I don’t know how he will take it’ I told Danny. We looked up the cost. There was a good lot of horses flying out that time. There is a plane rigged up for twelve to fourteen horses. Danny gave him the thumbs up.”

In Cheltenham, Tom didn’t feel any pressure until the evening before the race when watching the TV he heard it said Ireland had not had a winner so far. “Someone said we have Danoli tomorrow. Then it hit us. We knew it was more than a race. This was between Ireland and England so we knew we had to win.”

Tom Foley became an Irish racing legend when Danoli won by two lengths. Both received a rapturous welcome when they came back into the ring. “The people really took to him. I think he hated disappointing people. He gave everything. He loved the crowd himself. All he wanted was to get out in front of the crowd.”

The next year though Tom had one of his toughest years. Danoli retained the Aintree Hurdle but went lame immediately after the race. There were real fears they were going to lose Danoli. “The vets were unbelievable. I would have to give full credit to the vets, the guards, the race-track. They gave us a full police escort to the horse hospital. It was the very same as if it was the President.

They stopped all traffic as if we had the right of way. We knew he was bad.” Danoli pulled through and Tom was not disappointed to miss the rest of the season. Father Time was catching up though and Foley could see the gelding was in pain. “He loved racing but when you saw what he was going through there was no way he could stay doing it. He was in own worst enemy. He was killing himself doing it.

If he was any other horse he wouldn’t have come back. He got up in the daytime in his box and would be tearing to get out. He would get out and do his work but he would be roaring with the pain.” Danoli only ran occasionally after that. His last win came at Navan in 2000 and after falling at the Punchestown Heineken Gold Cup in a race won by Commanche Court Foley retired his beloved horse. “We had to stop. We couldn’t keep putting him through it anymore.”

A non-drinker with no interest in the cult to celebrity Tom Foley continued to train despite battling cancer. His most recent winner was Rebel Gold in the Beginners Chase on 28 January at Gowran Park. Ireland’s top trainer Willie Mullins paid tribute to his fellow Carlow resident.

“Tom Foley was a gentleman, the salt of the earth. He knew how to train a good horse when he got one. The combination of Danoli, (owner) Dan O’Neill and Tom was an extremely popular one and the day he won at Cheltenham will live long in the memory.” Having worked closely with Tom Foley himself Charlie Swan’s words carry particular weight. “Tom was a great man. Danoli really caught the imagination of the racing public. All the time I was riding Danoli we never had one crossed word.

He was just a complete gentleman. He was a very quiet man, but he could get excited when Danoli was running! He was such a lovely man. People always take to the smaller trainers taking on the big guys and he really knew his horse.”

We will never see the like of this humble man again.

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