Paul Nolan - from complete beginner to leading National Hunt trainer in 10 years

It is at times assumed that a background in horses is almost essential for anyone to succeed at training but one individual that is certainly putting paid to such preconceived notions is Paul Nolan.

Nolan (37) is now firmly established as one of the leading National Hunt trainers in Ireland and his rise through the ranks has been nothing short of remarkable when one hears that a decade ago his experience with horses was minimal at best. From Enniscorthy in Wexford in the south eastern corner of Ireland, Nolan hails from an agricultural tradition. 

“I came from a completely agricultural background. The family had 150 acres and were sheep and tillage farmers. I was involved in farming myself but I might as well have been picking blackberries. Farming was a total waste of time, it was completely non-profitable. There was no way that my parents could make a living off it and that I would be able to rear a family off it as well,” he reflects.

For one that lacked a traditional grounding in racing, Nolan has certainly made up for that over the last eight years and has managed to make his name in the hugely competitive amphitheatre of Irish National Hunt racing. In winter when racing is down to three or (at most) four fixtures a week, the standard at even the most ordinary of race meetings can be very high and it is in this environment that Nolan has had to make his mark.

It was about ten years ago that his thoughts began to turn away from farming but things could have turned out very differently for him. “I was very nearly going to go to Australia but it was the love of hurling (one of Ireland’s national sports and one where Nolan represented his county with distinction at the highest level) and the fact that I don’t like straying far from home which kept me here”.

Having taken the decision to stay at home, he then decided to put an interest and liking for horses to practical use. A six month spell with vet Tom O’Shea and a year with top trainer Jim Bolger gave Nolan the experience to set out on his own. Despite starting from humble origins, his talents didn’t take long to elevate him to the forefront of the Irish jumping scene.

“When I came home we started out with two point-to-pointers. I was charging only a minimal amount and the owners were supplying the oats but both horses won for us. Then we moved up to ten and now we have between 60 and 70 in training,” he says. 

It is almost exactly eight years ago that Nolan sent out his first winner on the track. The horse in question was Nibalda, a Kambalda gelding that cost Ir2,300gns and obliged in a two-and-a-half mile Leopardstown maiden hurdle. 

“Nibalda wasn’t expensive but horses don’t know what they cost and I certainly wouldn’t turn away a horse on account of what they cost”.

In fact, Nolan’s preference for buying horses is to see that the relevant individual has a good front leg: “The front leg and the shape of it is very important. I don’t like jumpers being back of the knee, you’ve got trouble keeping them sound and they don’t last as long as other horses. You like a horse to walk well but the front legs are so important. They are the wheels and ninety percent of horses lose time on the track if they are not right”. 

After Nibalda’s success, Nolan continued to do well with inexpensively bought horses but his success over the last four seasons has enabled him to train a better standard of horse and thus compete at a higher level. It is by now a regular occurrence to see his representatives make more of an impact in the country’s top jumping races. 

To have one’s first winner at a track like Leopardstown is a significant boost for anyone’s career but the victory that has been the cornerstone for much of Nolan’s success was that of Say Again in the 2002 Galway Hurdle. 

The week long Galway festival is undoubtedly one the most important weeks in the year in the domestic racing calendar and indeed Galway Hurdle day regularly attracts the biggest crowd of the year to a racing fixture in Ireland. Nolan could not have picked a better stage for one of the biggest winners of his career and it was after this success the size of his string began to increase significantly towards what it is today.  

Say Again, Cloone River and Accordion Etoile are three of the best horses Nolan has trained and all three are traditional National Hunt types. Their trainer has also done well with useful ex-flat recruits but it is the jumping bred horses that have provided him with much of his success. “They stay more honest to the game for longer,” remarks the Wexford-based handler.

However, Nolan notes the mindset of many owners coming into racing is now making life that bit more difficult for National Hunt-bred horses as the emphasis has shifted on to producing results as quickly as possible.

“National Hunt horses are being broken earlier to be that bit more forward and patience is hard to come by as people want answers as soon as possible. You are better off telling owners that their horse isn’t going to run for a year because it is so backward rather than building up people’s hopes and then trying to explain where things went wrong”.

A feature of Nolan’s successes has been the involvement of his family and his brother James serves as assistant trainer: “He’s a key man. He’s great to work and loves his job. My father plays a very important role and I can’t say enough about Brendan my head man. He’s been with me since the start and is top class”.

Ask the trainer about what he thinks are the most important aspects of training racehorses and the response is instantaneous – health and fitness. The brittle nature of the thoroughbred and the ephemeral nature of racehorse training are already well documented and they are perhaps no more evident than during the winter months of the national hunt season.

“It’s so hard to keep a horse right and keep him fit. It terms of their health, the time I spent working with a vet was certainly help but you have to try and keep them sound as well. Flat trainers do very little different to jumping trainers but the National Hunt is much harder on their bodies and limbs. I also think it is very important to keep them in the right frame of mind,” he comments.

As personable, amiable and helpful an individual as one could ever meet, Paul Nolan has done exceptionally well to make his way to prominence in the National Hunt world. Interestingly when asked as to what was the most difficult aspect of embarking on a career as a racehorse trainer he comes up with a very refreshing response.

“The worry of failure and not doing well. People said that we were crazy and that we didn’t know what we were getting into. Thankfully luck was on our side and we are now making a living out of it and hopefully we will continue to be able to do so”.

Similarly, when asked about his ambitions for the future the trainer adopts the understated approach that has been the hallmark of his career and has brought him to where he is now: “If I could keep in the top ten trainers in the country I’d be happy”.

Conventional wisdom and traditional beliefs dictated that somebody like Paul Nolan would struggle to make an impact but his talents have shone through to make him one of Ireland’s brightest training recruits. Big races and high profile successes, such as that of Dabiroun at last year’s Cheltenham festival, have already come his way and his is a name that we will be hearing much more of in years to come.