Donn's Articles » Michael Kinane

Michael Kinane

It would be understandable if Michael Kinane were to get frustrated when people ask him about retirement, but he doesn’t. It follows that when you are 47 years old – 48 next month – and still ride thoroughbred horses competitively for a living, just as you have done for the last 30 years, you have to expect that people will sometimes ask you when you are planning to stop.

The jockey sits back in his chair and smiles pensively at the question. Obvious though it is, it would have been remiss not to ask it. He has more years behind him than he has in front of him, that’s for sure. When your peg is the one beside the door in every weigh room, you know that you will be the next one out through it. That’s the way it works; full circle. In the door, all the way around the weigh room, and now first in line to exit through the same door. But he is enjoying what he is doing and, as long as he is, he will continue to do it.

Kinane’s antics these days are certainly not the antics of a man who is thinking of stopping. Just last weekend he was in Hong Kong, riding for champion trainer John Moore at Sha Tin. He stole a march on his rivals on Able One in the Group 1 Champions Mile, leading all the way to spring a 33-1 shock, beating his better-fancied stable companion Joyful Winner into second place. Then, 40 minutes later, he rode a copybook race on Viva Pataca, in behind horses, around the inside, to get home in the Group 1 QEII Cup from Hong Kong star Vengeance Of Rain and Japanese champion Admire Moon. After the race, the trainer spoke of Kinane’s golden cotton fingers. The jockey just shrugged and said that he thought he might have got to the front too soon.

That’s just Kinane’s nature. When you remind him that he has ridden 160 winners in Hong Kong, he laughs and says that he has spent so much time there that that is the least he should have ridden. His CV is like a checklist of the top international races. Arc de Triomphe, Breeders’ Cup Turf, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Belmont Stakes, Melbourne Cup, and just about every big race in Ireland and the UK. Yet, his is an unassuming self-assuredness, a total comfort in his own skin that is the manifestation of a complete contentedness with life. When you ask him if he is happy, if he is enjoying life, he answers without hesitation. He is. He is probably more content with life now than he ever has been.

“I’m doing it because I want to do it,” he says. “I enjoy the big days. I love riding good horses, and there are plenty of those there for me at present. I like working with John Oxx. He’s a lovely man to work with, and I also have the freedom to go, say, to Hong Kong, like last weekend, within reason. I have a lot more freedom now than I ever have had.”

The conversation inevitably turns to the six years that he spent with Ballydoyle. He didn’t have the freedom then that he has now, that’s for sure. There is no way that he would have been able to go to Hong Kong for a weekend to ride for John Moore in the middle of April. But there were huge compensations.

Of course he misses the big Ballydoyle horses. Rock Of Gibraltar, High Chaparral, Hawk Wing, Giant’s Causeway, Galileo, Mozart. It’s difficult to stop. John Oxx is one of the top trainers in Ireland, he has one of the strongest stable of horses in the land, but he doesn’t have the massive strength in-depth, the consistent fire-power at the top level that Ballydoyle have.

“It’s natural that you would miss it,” says Kinane. “Ballydoyle is probably the most powerful operation in the world. But my life has moved on now. You can’t look back, and I don’t for a minute regret my time with Ballydoyle, or it coming to an end when it did.”

It wasn’t the first time that lifestyle won out for Kinane over career. In 1993 when Sheikh Mohammed was looking for a jockey to replace Steve Cauthen, Kinane was the obvious choice. He had donned the maroon and white colours to ride Alydaress to victory in the 1989 Irish Oaks when Cauthen had gone home for his brother’s wedding, and he had ridden the Sheikh’s second string, Belmez, white cap, to mug Cauthen on first choice Old Vic in the 1990 King George.

He thought deeply about the job. It would have meant up-rooting and moving to England. Daughters Sinead and Aisling were young at the time, so that wasn’t ideal. He had long conversations with previous incumbent Steve Cauthen to try to get his head around what the job would entail. When someone of that calibre walks away from a job, you need to try to understand why. Sheikh Mohammed’s operation was in a state of flux and Godolphin was on the horizon. At home, Dermot Weld was desperate to keep Kinane and John Oxx took out a second retainer on him in order to try to get him to stay. In the end, that was probably the clincher. He went where he felt that he was wanted more. Even though Muis Roberts got the Sheikh Mohammed job and was champion jockey in the UK that year, Kinane was fully confident that he had made the right decision.

“The rest of the world probably thought that I was mad to turn it down,” he laughs. “But I had a lot going on in my life at the time that was very positive, and I was being asked to walk away from that. I was happy I made the right decision.”

Strange the way life turns. A couple of years later, Sheikh Mohammed took out a second retainer on Kinane so that he could ride for him in the big races. Last year, when Ballydoyle needed a jockey to ride for them in the UK, Kinane was their first port of call. Maybe not so strange, however. It shouldn’t be surprising that the two most powerful racing operations in the world will employ a rider who is among the very best in the world.

Kinane’s immediate focus is on this afternoon’s 1000 Guineas at Newmarket. He has won the 2000 Guineas three times, the Derby twice, the Oaks twice and the St Leger once, but he has never ridden the winner of the 1000 Guineas. It would be nice to complete the set, he admits. He’s not getting any younger. In Arch Swing, he has as good a chance as he has ever had.

“She is a filly that I have always liked a lot,” he says. “She is a big filly and a great grubber, so she needs a lot of work. We were a bit disappointed that she didn’t win her trial at Leopardstown more easily, but she needed the race badly. She had a bit of a high temperature after Leopardstown, but that has cleared up well now, and her last piece of work was good. Finsceal Beo sets the standard, but our filly has a real chance.”

However the filly fares this afternoon, she won’t lack for guile or skill or strength from the saddle. It is difficult to argue with Kinane when he says that he thinks he is riding as well as he has ever been riding. He concedes that his career is in the home straight now, but which home straight, he is not sure. At Happy Valley in Hong Kong, the home straight is only a couple of hundred yards long. The home straight at Newmarket, however, goes on for a mile and a quarter.

© The Sunday Times, 7th May 2007