Donn's Articles » Michael Kinane

Michael Kinane

Late April 2008, Michael Kinane makes the short hop from his house in Punchestown to The Curragh to sit on a couple of two-year-olds for John Oxx. Another season stretches in front of Kinane, the 2008 flat racing season, his 33rd, one-third of a century since he first got the leg up on a horse at a racecourse, a not-yet-16-year-old, and won. He is 48, 49 in six weeks, an age at which, when you scale the pinnacles of any professional sport that Kinane has scaled in racing, you sit in a television studio or you play golf in the sun. Here we go again.

If he is being honest, he is struggling for reasons to get excited this season. Admittedly, his standards are high, it comes with the magnitude of his achievement, the see-saw just doesn’t do it for you when you have come down off the Big Dipper. Even so, the previous season had been a quiet enough one for John Oxx by most standards. The Group 1 winners that Kinane rode in 2007 – Scorpion in the Coronation Cup and Yeats in the Ascot Gold Cup – were for Ballydoyle. There are no top class horses that Kinane can see coming through at Oxx’s, no flag-bearer like Kastoria or Azamour, no outstanding two-year-old that could be a Classic contender this year. People are asking him about retirement, for how much longer will he do this. It is understandable that they ask, it would be surprising if they didn’t. He meets the questions head on with the same flat bat: he is still enjoying it and, as long as he is, he will continue to ride.

He arrives at the gallops on The Curragh. It is unusually early in the year for Oxx to have two-year-olds with which to be getting on, but the trainer has changed his methods a little, he has broken the yearlings earlier this year. He is never going to have two-year-olds for Royal Ascot, that just isn’t the way that things work at Currabeg, but this year the juveniles are ready to go earlier than they usually are. Oxx gives Kinane a leg up on this big, leggy bay colt.

“That’s a half-brother to Galileo,” the trainer says, nonchalant as you like.

“What?!” exclaims the rider. “Where did you find him?”

“Ah we got him,” says the trainer knowingly.

Kinane takes the colt who will be called Sea The Stars down to the bottom of the gallop and allows him go back up at a half-speed, faster than a canter, slower than a gallop, not a serious piece of work but fast enough for the colt to have to work a little. He does it so easily that his rider is blown away.

“This is the real deal, this fellow,” says Kinane to Oxx when he pulls up. “He could be a bit special.”

If the near-demi-centurion needed a reason go keep going, to keep riding, to keep focusing, he had it there on the gallops on The Curragh that April morning. As it turned out, 2008 was not a great year for Kinane, the first year in 17 that he didn’t ride a Group 1 winner. The disappointment was cushioned by the quality of John Oxx’s juveniles, however, Mourayan, Arazan and Sea The Stars in particular. Of the trio, it was Sea The Stars who always stood out for Kinane.

When they worked together, except in one public gallop at Leopardstown, Kinane invariably rode Sea The Stars. When it came down to a choice between Sea The Stars and Mourayan in last year’s Beresford Stakes, there was never any question of Kinane not donning Christopher Tsui’s yellow silks. When it looked like both Arazan and Sea The Stars were on track for the 2000 Guineas in May, the rider was unswayable, despite the fact that the son of Cape Cross disappointed in a piece of work 10 days before the race.

“The ground was just a bit soft for that piece of work,” says Kinane, “and we have always known that he really needs fast ground to be at his best. I have just always had faith in this horse. He hasn’t let me down yet.”

He doesn’t try to disguise the regard in which he holds this horse. You don’t see it in his face or in his demeanour on the racecourse. Kinane’s is one of the few poker-faces left in the weigh room. When Sea The Stars won the Guineas, providing the rider with his first Group 1 win in 23 months, he hardly flinched. He could have been pulling up at the top of the Old Vic gallop on The Curragh. It was a similar story when he won the Eclipse, quickening twice to beat Rip Van Winkle, same again when he got up inside the last 100 yards to beat Mastercraftsman in the Juddmonte International at York 10 days ago. He just rode through the line and pulled up, expressionless.

“Just because a poker player’s face looks calm,” he says with a smile, “it doesn’t mean that he isn’t churning up inside.”

In the tranquillity of his kitchen, however, away from the racecourse and the heat of competition, Kinane can be quite measured in his evaluation of this season’s über-colt, and it is this: probably the best he has ever ridden. By inference, probably better than Rock Of Gibraltar, Giant’s Causeway, Montjeu, Belmez, Galileo, Carroll House, Mozart and the rest. Remarkable. Thirty-four years after his first ride, thousands of horses later, two months after his 50th birthday, and he comes up with his best horse.

Rock Of Gibraltar won seven Group 1 races in a row, five in a row in his three-year-old season. Giant’s Causeway won five on the bounce, none of them by more than a length. Sea The Stars has now won four in a row, the Guineas, the Derby, the Eclipse and the Juddmonte International. Next Saturday, as long as the weather plays ball, he will bid to take his Group 1 run to five in the Tattersalls Millions Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. It’s not going to be easy.

“He hasn’t really had a chance for anything more than a mini break this season,” says the jockey thoughtfully. “Every time you go to the well, you are chipping away. But he’s very fresh, you see. He’s not as docile as he looks. He’s just not an easy horse to give an easy time to. We want to run in the Irish Champion Stakes, it’s a great race, a very prestigious race, but we will only run if the ground is right.

“Of course I have worries about Fame And Glory. He’s a fresh horse, whereas every day I’ve been taking on a new horse, they have three very good horses and I’ve had to take them all on in the last three races. Fame And Glory has been rested since the Irish Derby, he’s going to be fresh, and he is a very high class horse. I respect him. He’s a worthy opponent. But my fellow came out of the York race in great form, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t in good shape on the day.”

It is difficult to over-estimate the impact that Sea The Stars has had on Kinane.

“I still enjoy riding horses,” he says. “Ordinary horses don’t appeal to me, but they don’t really appeal to anyone. I’m having fun, I still love riding winners, and it has been huge, at this stage, to find probably the best horse of my life. I don’t think I’d be enjoying it as much if he wasn’t around.”

Sea The Stars is going to be around for a little while longer at least and, as long as he is, you can be certain that Michael Kinane will be around as well. Together they have lit up the season. This magnificent triviality is greatly enriched for the presence of both.

© The Sunday Times, 30th August, 2009