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Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy had three good rides on Troytown Chase day at Navan two weeks ago.

“Going racing, I was hoping that all three would run well,” recalls Jack.  “I thought Riverside City in the Troytown had a chance, he had run well at Cork.  I suppose then, when I rode the first lad, Baroque Style, and he won, I rode Riverside City with a bit of confidence.  And then, going to the start on the third horse, Prince Of Scars, I was thinking, I couldn’t have a treble.  This is too good to be true.”

It was good, but it was also true.  Three winners from three rides on Troytown Chase day at Navan.  At 16 years of age.  The Troytown Chase itself for JP McManus, the Proudstown Hurdle for Gigginstown House, and all three winners for Gordon Elliott.  Dreamland.

So what were you doing when you were 16?  Studying for your Junior Cert?  Your Inter Cert?  Buying LPs?  Supporting Liverpool?  Have a look at the fresh-faced lad sitting in front of you and he looks like a 16-year-old, no question.  But watch him ride.  Different story.

Kennedy’s rise to prominence has been sharp.  The Dingle lad came to racing highly recommended by the pony racing fraternity all right last April, a just-turned-16-year-old who was old enough to take out his jockey’s licence but wasn’t old enough to drive.  Things don’t always work out as they should, but this one has, this one is.

People who know about these things, Ted Walsh, Barry Geraghty, Gordon Elliott, speak highly of him.  They don’t just talk about his talent, his strength, his balance, they also talk about his attitude, and that is just as important.

Here’s the strange thing though: Kennedy’s parents had no real background in horses.  His mother’s grandfather had horses, his dad’s father had horses, so maybe that’s the origin of the talent, but that’s stretching it.  It was through Jack’s brothers Michael (12 years older than Jack) and Paddy (10 years older) that the interest developed.

“I can remember when I was four or five,” says Jack, “getting onto my parents about getting me riding lessons.  I think they thought that it was just a phase I was going through, that it would pass, but I kept on at them, and eventually they relented.”

Jack got his own pony when he was nine.  Pair Of Jacks wasn’t straightforward, he was a little bit tricky, but that was no harm.  Jack learned more on that pony than he could ever have learned from riding lessons.  When he rode him for the first time in a pony race, Pair Of Jacks ran out at the first bend, but Jack got him back on track and finished third.  And so it began.

“I used to always try to ride a race,” he says.  “They were usually tight tracks, and you’d get lads who just wanted to get out in front no matter what.  You mightn’t win if you tried to ride a race, but you’d learn a lot, and then when you got onto the bigger tracks like Dingle, that was a big help.”

When he was 12, he started riding the bigger ponies, and he and his dad started training a few.  They had a field across the road at home and his dad built a few stables.  School didn’t fit into it too well.

“I didn’t cause any trouble in school, but I just didn’t have any interest in it.  I’d miss a day here, a day there, for the horses.  I suppose my mother always wanted me to stay in school, but she accepted after a while that my future lay with horses, and she supported me.  My parents have always supported us.”

Billy and Liz Kennedy travelled the country with their son, traversed the pony racing circuit.  Jack’s talents were becoming widely recognised, and wherever there was a pony race, he was in demand.  Here was the schedule one weekend last year.  Saturday: Ballyconeely in Connemara, Sunday: Dunmanway in Cork, Monday: Ballintra in Donegal.  That’s 1,500 kilometers.  Jack rode eight winners that weekend, so the 20-hour journey to three of the four corners of Ireland was worthwhile.

In 2012 when he was 13, Jack won the overall horse and pony champion jockey titles in the southern region, and was Irish Field National Champion Jockey.  He rode at the Dingle Races – the Cheltenham Festival of pony racing – for the last time last August, when he rode seven winners and landed the Dingle Derby on Coola Boula, who was trained by his dad.  That was a special day.

His brother Michael was head lad at Eugene O’Sullivan’s, so he started riding out there whenever he could, fitting school in around it.  Last year, he completed his Junior Cert, tucked it into his back pocket and left school.  He rode out with Tommy and Fozzy Stack for a few months, then took out his apprenticeship with Gordon Elliott.

He probably could have squeezed his frame into a flat jockey’s weight, but it was always as a National Hunt rider that he saw his future.  He has ridden on the flat, he still rides on the flat, but you can’t beat the thrill of riding horses at racing pace over hurdles and fences.

“I love it here at Gordon’s,” he says.  “He obviously has lots of nice horses, and it’s a great place to work.”

Jack turned 16 last April, his licence came through, and on 22nd May, he went to Cork and rode Funny How to win the seven-furlong handicap for Pat Flynn.  A week later, he rode his first winner over hurdles at Down Royal on Eshtiaal for Gordon Elliott, and a half an hour later he rode his second on Mustadrik.

“I suppose it was all a little daunting in the beginning,” he says, “going into the weigh room, sitting beside the jockeys you’d be used to watching on the television.  Davy Russell is a particular hero of mine.  He’s a top class rider and he’s a great fellow.  It’s a lot more difficult, riding on the track as opposed to riding ponies.  But it’s great now, it’s great craic and everyone gets on with each other.”

There have been lots of good days already.  Getting the call from Willie Mullins to ride Clondaw Warrior in the Guinness Handicap at the Galway Festival in July was fairly special.  Jack didn’t know that he was riding the horse until he saw his name in the declarations.  He delivered too, he gave the horse a lovely ride to win nicely.  Ryan Moore rode Clondaw Warrior in his previous race, Frankie Dettori rode him in his subsequent race.  Good company.

Mullins also booked Jack to ride Wicklow Brave in the Ebor at York in August, and he nearly won that too, going down by just one and a half lengths to Litigant.

Even so, it is over jumps that the youngster sees his future.  Signs are that, all things being equal, it is a bright one.

© The Sunday Times, 6th December 2015