Saturday 22 July 2017

Time for Kennedy to shine in Festival spotlight

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

A week on Wednesday at Cheltenham, Time For Rupert will bid to cement his status as steeplechasing's brightest prospect.

He will line out in the RSA Chase as one of the strongest favourites of the entire Festival, and few expect him to be beaten.

Flawless in his only two starts over fences at Prestbury Park before Christmas, a first Grade One triumph for the Paul Webber-trained seven-year-old would be a natural progression. He has already beaten the best around, including the recent Racing Post Chase hero Quinz, so now he just needs to produce it when it matters most.

The occasion will also provide his jockey William Kennedy with a platform to showcase his talents. Champion conditional jockey five years ago, Kennedy has impressed in the way that he has matured as a rider this term, with his handling of Time For Rupert particularly noteworthy.

A smart hurdler that endured the ignominy of being toyed with by Big Buck's up the Cheltenham hill when second in the World Hurdle last March, the Irish-bred son of Flemensfirth was well touted as a promising addition to the season's novice division. Kennedy has handled the transition with an unflappable professionalism.

Generally speaking, one of the most difficult things for any jockey to achieve is to not over-complicate things. That goal becomes even more elusive on a novice chaser of which so much is expected, but Kennedy has thus far succeeded in making Time For Rupert's chasing tasks look simple. And there is no such thing at Cheltenham.

"I've always wanted to ride good horses in good races, so I've waited a long time for this," the 29-year-old says of their impending assignment when quizzed about handling the increased level of pressure.

"I'm not going to start worrying about it now. I believe in the horse; he loves it around Cheltenham and has experience of racing with good horses. If he gets into his rhythm, they'll all have him to beat."

Kennedy knows that this is his time to shine. Time For Rupert missed the Argento Chase back at Cheltenham in January due to a low-grade infection, but, Grade Two or not, that was just a trial. The Festival is the real deal, and opportunities to impress on the big stage are rare.

survived

Since winning the young riders' title in 2006, a campaign that also yielded a coveted Lester award, the well-spoken Co Kildare native has weathered the choppy waters of the fully-fledged ranks. His career hasn't taken off, but he has survived in a shark-infested pool that boasts a high attrition rate, and is respected as a safe pair of hands.

All the while, he promised himself that, if opportunity knocked, he wouldn't be found wanting. This season, finally, opportunity came calling, and Kennedy came of age.

First, Webber trusted him enough not to look elsewhere on Time For Rupert's switch to fences, and then Nick Mitchell drafted him in for James De Vassy in the valuable Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton. Neither trainer has been disappointed.

While Kennedy's handling of Time For Rupert has been defined by an assured sense of calm that has advertised the jockey's calibre and temperament, his ride on James De Vassy in January left no doubt about his sheer determination to progress.

When the eventual runner-up Organisateur made to run out at the second-last, James De Vassey would have gone west with him, but for Kennedy's refusal to be brushed aside.

It was a split-second thing, but it was an example of the jockey's immense strength and awareness in the heat of battle. James De Vassy overcame the collision to win.

"Taking your chances," Kennedy reiterates, "that's something I've always worked on. As long as I take the chance I'm given, I'm happy. It's hard to get the chances, but you just have to prepare yourself so that when you get one, you take it."

Asked if he ever feared the post-2006 slump would force him out of the job, he is frank about his situation. "Well, I did decline," he admits. "I went from 37 winners the year I won the title to 31 the next year and then I took a massive drop to 15. But I didn't decline as a rider. I actually think I was getting better all the time.

"To be honest, drops like that can help you, because mentally you have to be very tough in this game and I think they hardened me. I never thought of giving up. Once you start thinking that, it is time to stop, and I never questioned my ability.

"I didn't have a big yard behind me, so I knew it would be hard without my claim -- you have to prove yourself again. It has taken a while, but I think I'm getting there, and a winner at Cheltenham is what I need now. That would be the icing on the cake."

Kennedy's journey here has been interesting. His father Vivian, who retired from training in 2006, previously rode on the Flat, and William grew up on the Curragh. With his mother Kathleen also manufacturing racing silks, he was immersed in racing.

Shortly after finishing school, having had the odd ride for his father, he spent six months in Dubai, before then joining Michael Grassick as an assistant. Eventually, at the age of 21, the tug of committing to a riding career couldn't be resisted any longer.

Initially his parents were less than pleased. Having already lost a son to the game, it was only natural that they would have preferred William to pursue another vocation.

Vivian Kennedy junior was just 23 when he suffered fatal injuries in a fall at Huntingdon in August 1988. Based in Lambourn, he had been regarded as one of the brightest riding prospects of his generation.

When William opted to go down the same route in 2002, Lambourn was again the destination. Noel Chance -- once a Curragh neighbour -- took him on, and the familiar face helped the new arrival find his feet. As Vivian Kennedy's younger brother, he would have been welcome anywhere in the close-knit 'Valley of the Racehorse'.

plaque

"I don't remember Vivian riding," William reveals, "but when I came over here there was a memorial plaque on the way into the gallops, which I ride past every morning that I ride out in Lambourn. "I always wanted to be a jockey, and I feel like he got stopped and didn't get an opportunity to prove how good he was. So, I sort of feel like I'm doing it for both of us, as a tribute to him, you know?

"What happened to him never put me off -- I was probably too young. I was only four or five when he left home, but I do have one memory of him leading me over some poles at a gymkhana one day. I can't remember exactly where it was or anything, but it's the only real living memory I have of him. It's a nice one to have.

"Obviously his death was tough on my parents, and they were a bit reluctant about me starting, but my dad is my biggest fan now. He is at the end of the phone when I get into the car every day after racing, so it's lovely to have that. He has been brilliant. My mother loves it too, and I try to make them proud every time I ride."

Few parents would expect any more of their offspring, but you suspect William Kennedy has done his an even greater honour by sustaining their lost son's memory with such aplomb. A Cheltenham Festival winner would be a mere bonus.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport