Meet Jack Kennedy - the 17-year-old Irishman with Gold Cup aspirations
JACK Kennedy could well be riding in the Timico Gold Cup on a relatively well-fancied horse next week. Jack is 17 years of age. Gordon Elliott gave him his first spin on the track when he was barely 16, the introduction to riding no less than a 6/4 favourite in the feature race of a summer’s Clonmel meet. Then, it was Elliott who won the Aintree National before he even had a winner in Ireland.
These are two utterly extraordinary individuals and what is most endearing about an axis that can become the future Mullins-and-Walsh is their humility: not for them gorging on old glories or looking down on the ordinary man. That is because they came from the sort of run-of-the-mill background that is the common National Hunt horseman.
Elliott, 38, will have enjoyed more than 1,000 jumps runners in Ireland this term — a record — by the time Cheltenham commences. Kennedy may be planning a winner or two but he won’t be able to drink, as he does not turn 18 until April 22. Luckily his long-time idol, Davy Russell, is teetotal; it is no coincidence that he is too.
Ollie Murphy is a key player in Elliott’s barn in Co. Meath. “Gordon’s very straightforward to work for. His place runs like clockwork and that’s through having a routine that’s worked since day one,” he says.
“I’ve never known a man as driven to win a race with the selling-plater that cost as much as a bag of sweets as he is to win with a gorgeous horse that’s cost six figures; whatever shape or size, he manages to win with horses most trainers can’t win with.”
If racing is deemed to be the refuge of those born into it, like the Kilkenny baby born with a hurl in hand, this pair are worth some analysis. Elliott is the son of a mechanic; Kennedy hails from the racing backwater of Dingle, Co. Kerry. Or at least it is a racing backwater to those of us not familiar with the pony-riding circuit, in which he made his name.
Kennedy’s grandfather had a pony that an older brother used to ride, and that is how the family, including jumps rider and brother Paddy, got into it. Paddy has been the guardian of the prodigy for years and might just know his kid brother better than anyone.
“From when he could walk, he always wanted to be around horses. I’d say he was four when he first sat on a horse. We’d go to the pony races and, inevitably, Jack started riding there.
“After four or five rides, I knew this was different. He was so natural and the big thing was how horses would settle for him – with that, you either are born with it or you aren’t.”
Kennedy dominated the pony circuit and, with a view to his ascension to the real thing at 16 — the age at which one can start riding — it was decided he’d go to Tommy Stack’s. He had spent a summer at Elliott’s some years previously and the trainer promised he could come down full-time later on.
“Jack is very laid-back and we felt we needed to sharpen him up, so he spent three months riding work with Billy Lee and Wayne Lordan,” Paddy recalls. “Fozzy Stack [son of Tommy] would work them on the clock.”
Kennedy had his first ride for Elliott on May 7, 2015. Within 13 months, he had ridden out his claim over jumps; enjoyed a winner in the lucrative Troytown Chase; had the world and the mother comparing him to Ruby.
The role of Elliott can hardly be exaggerated. The man who won the National with Silver Birch in 2007 when hardly anybody knew who he was has grown his stable into a behemoth. His staff are fiercely loyal, yet he is firm and he will inculcate in subordinates the drive that makes him different.
To enjoy the hegemony of Gigginstown sending him most of their best horses and having abandoned Willie Mullins is quite staggering, considering that he came from practically nothing. Tom Malone, the former rider, believes that Elliott having had to work for all he has is half of the story. Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary puts it neatly: “He’s a very good trainer, that’s it really.”
It’s not it, really, but Eddie has a point. Elliott also makes time for all his owners and, according to Paul Carberry, his ability to keep horses fresh and hungry for racing sets him apart.
Paddy Kennedy knows that the trainer has been key to Jack’s progress. “Gordon was brilliant all along. Jack lived with him for six months and Gordon’s mother did Jack’s washing.”
While the Kerry teenager gave the impression that his first experience of Cheltenham 12 months ago may have come a little soon, just as the promising juvenile can be green when making his debut at a demanding track, he will come on for the experience. As well as some more fancied horses, he could ride Empire Of Dirt if he goes Gold Cup, which Don Cossack won for Elliott last year.
All of this at 17 and, when you consider how gifted Mark Walsh is and that he has barely had a single fancied ride at Cheltenham yet is in his 30s, that is nothing to be sniffed at.
There is an edge, too. Last April, at the Punchestown festival, a leading senior rider seemed to make a brazen move at a crucial stage of a race that could have been curtains for the mount of Kennedy, a hot favourite.
On their way back to the weighing room, Kennedy, who had just turned 17, told the other rider that if he ever did a move like that again, he could deal with the consequences.
“Plenty of lads think they’re too good once they get going,” Murphy says. “Jack’s far from that. He knows where his bread is buttered and he’s still in the yard in the rain come 4.30pm, helping to feed 150 horses when there’s no racing. If he keeps going the way he is, he has the world at his feet.”
The world at his feet, yet grounded as ever — just like the boss.
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