Small-town star who opened the floodgates of emotion; Tributes flow for the former champion with whom all Ireland had a love affair.
Danoli, named after Danny and Olive O'Neill, was a local hero before the race and a national institution afterwards.
His win in the Sun Alliance Hurdle of 1994 may now be the stuff of musty newspaper clippings, but victory that day ruined bookmakers and sparked a shamrock tale that bewitched racing until injuries whittled away the genius of the bay son of The Parson.
"I've done my cobblers on it," moaned the Asparagus Kid, aka rails bookmaker Micky Fletcher, after Danoli had beaten Corrouge by two lengths as 7-4 favourite to wild screams from the stands.
The secret to Danoli's status as the darling of Irish racing was that his tale was just so unpretentious. Trained by the unheralded Tom Foley in County Carlow, he was the first horse ever owned by the O'Neills, who were locals.
The Irish had trumpeted how good he was before he came to Cheltenham-winner of six out of eight-and he followed the script perfectly under a nerveless Charlie Swan. "They cheered him down to the start," wrote George Ennor in the Racing Post, "they cheered him as he started, they cheered more loudly as he took the lead, and they raised the roof as he passed the post in front."
The Danoli delirium was to be replaced by sympathy when injury struck. A broken fetlock sustained in winning the Martell Aintree Hurdle the following year seemed to foil what most had wanted-Danoli carrying their emotions with him to the top of the tree.
Foley received a note from Rome claiming that the Pope would say a Mass for the stricken horse; the trainer's home in Aughabeg was inundated by similar, if less ecclesiastical, messages of support.
Danoli, fully recovered, returned the following year, only to lose at both Cheltenham and Aintree. Ireland's favourite was in danger of failing to live up to the remarkable admiration of the racing public.
Foley sent him chasing, but two falls in his first five runs dented ambitions of the holy grail-a win back at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup. Perhaps privately everyone knew that was asking too much. He had given so much pleasure already and had suffered that awful fracture. Whatever the reason, when Danoli won on his next start the floodgates of emotion were unhinged all over again.
Beforehand, his chance in Ireland's biggest chase, the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, was far from obvious against Gold Cup winner and hot favourite Imperial Call and Jodami, who was trying for a fourth win in the event.
Yet there was something about the crowd that day. As Tony O'Hehir wrote: "The cheers began as Danoli led his seven rivals past the stands first time; they grew steadily as the winner and Imperial Call pulled clear four out; and reached deafening proportions as Danoli saw off Jodami's challenge from the last."
Anything after Cheltenham 1994 was doomed to be less gloried than what went before, but Danoli's Hennessy win served a purpose for his fans. For the melodramatic, it sealed a tear-jerking return, and for the more reserved it brought a heightened moment of equine achievement to cherish.
Never mind `Frankie: The Movie'. The Danoli script is perfect.
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Aug 14, 2000|
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