Seven­teen and a road to travel

Irish Examiner - Racing - - CHELTENHAM PREVIEW 2017 - Dara Ó Conchúir

“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.

Pic­ture: Niall Car­son/PA

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.