Seventeen and a road to travel
“There are some great riders coming up but the unfortunate thing about a jump jockey is you don’t know how good any of them are going to be until they get broke up and come back. That’s going to happen to all of us. Until you get broke up you think it’s the greatest game in the world. It’s so simple. Then you get slapped. Your leg is wrapped around your ear. And then you realise how hard this is and it’s how they come back. It’s interesting to see when they come back what they are. There are so many prodigious talents until they get hurt and then it stops. That’s when you find out how good they are.”
– Ruby Walsh, December 2016
There is no shame in no longer wanting to endure the agony of a broken collarbone or fractured ribs, or the fear that suffocates you if the inability to breath doesn’t because of a punctured long. Bad injuries take their toll on a jockey’s body but it is often the resolve and mental capacity that undergoes the sternest examination.
Ruby Walsh has seen them come and go, shooting stars that burned brightly but fizzled out. In his mind, longevity is a key ingredient in judging the greatness of a horse and the same applies to a jockey.
We have seen it in every sport. The next George Best, the next Christy Ring, the next Juliet Murphy, the next Ruby Walsh, myriads of them becoming very quickly reacquainted with obscurity.
He won’t be 18 until next month so Jack Kennedy, for all his innate ability, is an embryo. Yet he has already passed the initial litmus test as prescribed by the most successful Grade One jockey National Hunt racing has known.
Dealing with the pressure of being on a favourite in a prestigious race for the first time is one thing. Coming back from breaking a leg another entirely. But how suffering the same fracture on your first ride back?
It must have felt like the end of the world for the Dingle teenager. It wasn’t just that he had been experiencing a staggering winning run that saw him sprint 13 winners clear at the top of the jockeys’ table, but was brought to a shuddering halt by a lay-off of less than eight weeks, from September to November.
It was being drilled to dirt, metaphorically as well as literally by Mega Fortune, having arrived at Thurles on such a high, thrilled to be getting back in the saddle. At 17, it would be easy to descend into Mario Balotelli mode.
Why always me? Not Kennedy though. Walsh spoke later about seeing Kennedy walk away from the fall, even with a broken leg. The grizzled veteran was impressed.
“The first time I was meant to be back 15 days later but I failed a concussion test so I was out for another week. So that was three weeks. And then, my first ride back I broke it again and was off for another four weeks after that. It was worse the second time.
It put a stop to the good run but it could have been a lot worse. It was only my fibula.” Think about that for a second.
“It was only my fibula.”
But for the concussion, an area in which Irish racing seems to be ahead of the curve thanks to Turf Club senior medical officer Dr Adrian McGoldrick, he would have been out of action for just two weeks WITH a broken leg. That’s warrior category, even if he would be extremely uncomfortable with the description.
“It’s a non-weight-bearing bone so it actually probably doesn’t really matter but I suppose there’s no point taking chances when I’m so young.”
What about the emotional scars?
“That is the game. There’s no point being down about it. That’s all part of it. If you’re depressed over it it’s not going to make you get back any quicker. Life goes on and you have to just try and get back as quick as possible. Take it every day at a time.”
To have it inflicted upon you again though, on your first ride back?
“That was fairly gutting alright” he concedes. “But the same thing again. You just have to get on with it. I suppose I was lucky not to be out for longer anyway.”
He doesn’t feel that he lost out on a chance to be champion, even though he is still in second position, albeit that Walsh has lapped the field.
“No chance” is the succinct and frankly accurate description, acknowledging that the Kildare rider doesn’t get going until October or November, and fellow Kerryman Bryan Cooper’s own horrible run of injuries opened the door for him to ride all of gaffer Gordon Elliott’s Gigginstown House contingent.
It is difficult to recall, however, too many other examples of such faith has been placed on a kid at a time when he is barely allowed to drive legally. Willie Mullins turning to Paul Townend and making the then 18-year-old champion when Walsh was sidelined is the only comparison one can think of.
So you sit down with Jack Kennedy in an office at Punchestown and he is upbeat but thankful. He has already enjoyed phenomenal success but knows there is a long road to travel. It has been some journey to date though.
“I am 67 now and I have never seen a 17-year-old ride like him. He looks like a seasoned professional.”
- Ted Walsh
Kennedy always did things in a hurry. He was nine when he registered his first winner and was a three-time champion pony rider (2012-2014) with future dual champion apprentice Connor King and Qatar Racing jockey Oisín Murphy were contemporaries.
Afortnight after he got his licence to ride under rules just after his 16th birthday in May 2015, he rode his first winner on Pat Flynn’s Funny How in a seven-furlong handicap at Cork. It was just his seventh ride. When he enjoyed his maiden success over hurdles at Down Royal the same month on Elliott’s Eshtiaal, he went on to record a double.
It says a lot that Mullins was willing to turn to a neophyte to ride Clondaw Warrior in the valuable Guinness Handicap at Galway in July and he repaid the faith with incredible coolness. Mullins put him on Wicklow Brave subsequently for the Ebor in York and the pair were only just touched off.
In November, Elliott entrusted the considerable responsibility of riding JP McManus’s notably quirky but talented Riverside City in the Troytown Chase at Navan. Being able to ride light was an advantage but he had yet to ride a winner over fences. That box was ticked in the €100,000 contest and the occasion was marked with a treble.
The sensational rate of winners continued and he rode out his claim 366 days after breaking his duck. He was just 14 months into his career when he was streaking clear of Walsh, Russell, Geraghty and co.
Kennedy showed he had suffered no ill effects from his injuries when bagging his first Grade One prize on Outlander in the Lexus Chase at Leop- ardstown at Christmas, which symmetrically also happened to be the 100th winner of his nascent career. A second Grade One followed two weeks later in the Lawlor’s Hotel Novice Hurdle at Naas, on the exciting Death Duty.
The incline is so steep it’s off the charts.
“Gordon and my agent Ciaran O’Toole have been brilliant. They’ve looked after me as well. I very rarely go out and ride something that’s bad to jump or anything like that. It’s all down to them.”
Certainly not all but there is no question he is with the right people. That is important because early on, it was all about the family.
Older brothers Mikey and Paddy caught the bug first, so their father Billy took in two or three ponies to get them going. Paddy moved on to be a professional, while Mikey spent a few years as assistant to Lombardstown trainer Eugene O’Sullivan before striking out on his own.
Jack yearned for the chance to follow in his siblings’ footsteps and when he was nine his father bought a few more ponies. It soon became obvious that they had a prodigious talent on their hands.
Kennedy became the go-to man for the Finnertys, Gerry Daly, David Granville and Gary Boyle and became king of the circuit. It was the Dingle Derby win on Coola Boula in 2014 that stood out above all else however. It was local but more than that, it is the Gold Cup of pony racing.
“My father asked me after I won the Lexus how it compared to the Dingle Derby. It was actually much the same. At the time, that was the biggest you could get. It was brilliant. My father trained the horse I won it on as well. That was brilliant.”
The tight pony racing tracks taught him a lot. The way he could balance horses and use the whip off either side stood out from the second he jumped into the deep waters with the big fish. Sitting alongside some of the greatest pilots racing has ever seen was daunting initially but he was welcomed, and they have continued to be generous with their advice.
He rode first as an apprentice on the Flat and a conditional over jumps but his futures was always going to be in the National Hunt sphere.
“Mikey was head lad for Eugene O’Sullivan for a couple of years and I used to be down there every weekend. I’d go down on a Friday evening after school and come home Sunday evening so it stood to me really. I learned a lot.”
So he hit the ground sprinting and is looking forward to his secondCheltenham.With Cooper back in action, Kennedy won’t be on Death Duty and some of the other stars he has guided to success this season but wil be on board whatever Gigginstown conveyance the retained Cooper turns down.
Mick Jazz, Jury Duty and Runfordave are others with chances and having been called upon by UK trainers Rebecca Curtis and Venetia Williams 12 months ago, he is likely to pick up a few more spares along the way too. It is heady stuff but there seems little chance of Kennedy taking anything for granted. The family wouldn’t be long setting him straight if that were to happen but truthfully, Kennedy himself just isn’t that type. Take his reaction to the widespread praise as he appeared to time his run perfectly for A Toi Phil to emerge from the clouds and snatch the Leopardstown Handicap Chase in January.
“It was a good job I won ‘cos I’d say I’d have been in for a fair bollocking if I didn’t win… I was meant to be just up behind the leaders. He wasn’t travelling and I was thinking ‘Oh God’ but to be fair to him he dug deep and galloped all the way to the line.”
This was just three days after his spectacular recovery from having two legs on one side of Bilko in Thurles. It had everyone purring. “Again, I was just lucky. My left arm landed on the right-hand side of him and I was able to swing my leg back across him. But if it had landed on the left-hand side I’d have fallen off.
“After I threw my leg back over him and got my iron back. I came back up on the outside and Davy Russell left a roar, I think to Paul Townend. ‘Is that cowboy still here?’
He’s here for the long haul.
Jack Kennedy: Bagged his first Grade One prize on the Gordon Elliott-trained Outlander in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas.
JACK THE LAD: Jack Kennedy takes Gold Cup hope Outlander out on the gallops at Gordon Elliott’s stables. Picture: Niall Carson/PA