Donn's Articles » Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy

Just shows you, the highs and lows of this racing game.

When Jack Kennedy went to Downpatrick on 23rd September, he was in front in the Irish National Hunt jockeys’ championship.  He had ridden more winners than any other rider this season up to that point.  Ruby Walsh, Davy Russell, Barry Geraghty, Paul Townend, each one a past champion, and he led them all.

Give this some context.  Jack Kennedy is 17 years old.  He is only just old enough to drive a car, and he just received his jockey’s licence on 22nd May last year.  He came highly recommended by the people who know about these things at the time, the next big thing they said, but it wasn’t until he rode a treble at Navan on Troytown Chase day 2015 – a year and a week ago – that he really sprang to prominence.  That was a high.  And when he rode that treble, he was still claiming 5lb.

More context: in the entire of last season, Kennedy rode 44 winners.  It was a fantastic tally for his first season, it was enough for him to claim the conditional riders’ title and it saw him finish seventh in the overall jockeys’ championship.  This season, before Downpatrick on 23rd September, he had already ridden 41 winners, just three fewer than last season’s 12-month total, and the season was not even five months old.  He was 13 winners clear of his closest pursuer, and there was even hushed talk of championships.

Then Shane Billy fell at the second fence in the handicap chase at Downpatrick, and Kennedy broke his leg.  That’s as low as you go.

“I have a fractured fibula,” the rider said at the time.  “So I should be back in no time.”

Whatever it is that these lads are made of, it’s not slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails anyway.

True to his word, he was back in no time.  He returned at Thurles on 20th October, less than a month after he had broken his leg.  But on his first ride back, on Mega Fortune in the three-year-old hurdle, another horses, Ashjan, jumped across him, and his horse came down.  As he hit the ground, Kennedy could feel the pain shooting through his right leg again.  Another low.

“It wasn’t my horse’s fault,” he recalls now, anxious to deflect the blame from his partner.  “He was very unlucky.  Anything can happen in a three-year-old hurdle, and the other horse just jumped across us and knocked my fellow off balance.”

He picked himself up off the ground, and put some weight on his right leg.  He feared the worst, he feared that it was broken again, but he tried to convince himself that it wasn’t.

 “The fibula is not a weight-bearing bone, so I was able to walk around,” he says.  “I wasn’t surprised that it had gone again though, to be honest.  It was sore, so I was thinking, if it isn’t broken again, I must be getting soft.”

Ruby Walsh spoke about that later, about Kennedy getting up and walking around, on a broken leg.  That the young rider doesn’t just have the talent, but that he also has that toughness that you need if you are going to go to the top as a National Hunt rider.  And Ruby Walsh should know.

“It was a little frustrating being on the sidelines all right,” says Kennedy.  “You’re looking at all the horses that you might have been riding, the winners, and Mega Fortune went to Down Royal then and won.  But there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s part of the game.  You just have to sit it out and try to recuperate as well as you can.  I think I dealt with it fairly well.  I didn’t do that much, just watched a bit of telly and concentrated on getting myself back.”

He came back again at Clonmel on 17th November, less than a month on the sidelines again, and this time it was for real.  He didn’t ride a winner at Clonmel that day.  He did go close on Sanibel Island in the two-mile hurdle that ended the day, but the main thing was that he rode through the day and that he walked out of the racecourse, unaided.

Actually, he had to wait a little while for his first winner back.  He had seconds and thirds at Punchestown, seconds at Wexford, seconds and third at Thurles.  Then he went to Newcastle last Saturday to ride Apple’s Jade in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle.

“I wasn’t that surprised that Bryan (Cooper) chose to ride Petit Mouchoir in the race,” he says.  “There can’t have been much between them, and he had to choose one of them.  I was just delighted to get the call up to ride the filly.  And going to the third last, it looked like Bryan had chosen correctly.”

Petit Mouchoir travelled well to the third last flight, but he got the obstacle wrong and came down.  When he did, he fell to his right, into Apple’s Jade’s path.  Kennedy’s filly danced nimbly around her fallen rival, but she inevitably lost momentum in so doing. 

Kennedy took her to the near side in order to ensure a clear passage, and asked her for her effort.  She closed on the leader Irving from the second last flight, closed on him all the way up the run-in, and almost got him.  She failed by a short head.

“She was a little unlucky,” says Jack.  “She could have won.  She ran a cracker, but it was a pity.  It would have been my first Grade 1.”

Last Sunday, it all came right again.  More highs.  Troytown Chase day at Navan, on the first anniversary of the day on which he rode that treble last year, and Kennedy was back among the winners again. 

“It was great to get back into the winner’s enclosure all right,” he says.  “It was lovely to have my first winner back.”

He won the opener on Brelade and he won the Proudstown Hurdle on Jury Duty, and if the bob of the head had gone the way of Dawerann in the two-mile handicap hurdle, he would have won by a nose instead of getting beaten by a nose, and Jack Kennedy would have ridden a treble on Troytown day again.

Of course, it was also a special day for Kennedy’s boss Gordon Elliott, who won six of the seven races, the first trainer ever to have six winners at one meeting on one day in Ireland, completing a 41,276/1 six-timer.

“We had plenty of runners on the day,” says Kennedy, “so you were kind of hoping that they would do well, but I don’t think anyone expected that Gordon would have six winners.  Nobody could ever have expected that.  It was a special day all right, but it was business as usual on Monday morning.  Although there was probably a bit more of a spring in everyone’s step.”

Another high then.

© The Sunday Times, 4th December 2016