Thursday 27 June 2019

Kennedy a prince of Prestbury and a king in waiting

Jockey Jack Kennedy enters the parade ring after winning the Hatton´s Grace Hurdle on Apple's Jade at Fairyhouse. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Jockey Jack Kennedy enters the parade ring after winning the Hatton´s Grace Hurdle on Apple's Jade at Fairyhouse. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Aisling Crowe

Jack Kennedy. A name to conjure with. The moniker of JFK forever young, forever golden. The shining star of America's Camelot.

Cheltenham, that place of myths and legends, equine and human, will this week witness more deeds that will gladden the heart and quicken the pulse. And a few that will enter the realms of immortality. Amongst them will be another young man named Jack Kennedy, already a bright protostar in racing's galaxy but expected to develop into one of the biggest and brightest yet to be discovered.

Last March, before the Dingle jockey was of voting age or allowed to buy a pint, he rode his first Cheltenham winner. An Arthur prising the sword from the stone. The grey Labaik, trained by Gordon Elliott, for once acquiescing to the starter's orders and consenting to race. It was the first contest of the 2017 Festival, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and the first victory of a meeting that has already gained a prominent footing in the legend of Ireland and Cheltenham as the year Ireland won 19 of the meeting's 28 races. Kennedy, a month short of his 18th birthday, was the first.

He had won a million races at Cheltenham in his dreams but imagination, he was to discover, was a poor impersonator of reality.

"It was unreal," he says, almost a year on from that epic triumph. "I was afraid that the horses behind would come past me before we got to the line and I was waiting for that winning post but when they didn't . . ."

Finding words that even come close to adequately describing the mix of elation, triumph and satisfaction Kennedy felt in those adrenaline-fuelled minutes last March is difficult. In truth it was not language that captured the emotions, but his senses - eyes drinking in the crowds to his left as he made his way back to the winner's enclosure, the roar of the people in that amphitheatre as he was acclaimed, the nerve endings that were heightened in their connection to his horse.

Despite the chaotic joy embracing him, Kennedy had the presence of mind to tell himself to store these sensations in the memory bank of his brain.

"I tried to take it all in as best I could because I knew this was something I would want to be able to remember forever."

That steady calm is evident to all who watch him on a horse. Shrewd judges remark on his stillness over a fence, sitting quietly and letting his horse get on with the business of getting from one side to the other, where others, not just those of his own age, would not have the understanding or the confidence to do so.

It was obvious from the beginning. A preternatural talent. Precocious.

Asking him about this uncanny ability, this rare talent, makes the questioner feel guilty for causing him the embarrassment of mentioning it. It's like asking the sun why does it shine or the world why it spins. To what seems to outside observers like a gift from the gods, is constantly being honed and refined under the guidance of giants.

"I don't like talking myself up," he explains. "I've had an awful lot of help from my brothers, from Gordon [Elliott] and Davy Russell has been very good to me. Denis O'Regan is a good lad to go to for advice. Once you have all these good people helping you then you can't but improve."

If Kennedy is the Arthur of this fable then trainer Gordon Elliott is its Merlin. Recently turned 40, Elliott too comes from a horse-less background but has ascended to the sport's highest reaches. Leading trainer at last year's Cheltenham Festival, the Meathman now rivals Willie Mullins for supremacy in Ireland just 11 years after Silver Birch won the Grand National for the young trainer, before he even trained a winner over fences in Ireland.

Last season, Elliott led Mullins into the end-of-season Punchestown Festival, but a truly astonishing feat of training saw the trainers' crown rest on Mullins' head for another year. Championships for both the sorcerer and his young apprentice are surely only a matter of time, but such speculation is not for the 18-year-old.

Displaying once more that singular self-possession, he dismisses talk of titles for himself, particularly while we are still living during the reign of Ruby Walsh.

"It would be great to be champion jockey but I'm not getting my hopes up. I remember at the start of last season, everyone was going on about me becoming champion and then I broke my leg and that put an end to it. That was unrealistic anyway because Ruby would have been so hard to beat and I know he would have caught me even if I didn't get injured."

For his mentor, the conjuror of Cullentra, a trainers' title is very much something he hopes will happen sooner rather than later.

"Gordon came the closest anyone has in, I don't know how many years, to beating Willie and it would be nice to see him win. He is a great man to work for and everyone in the yard gets on well," Kennedy adds.

It is easy to forget that three years ago Elliott and Kennedy were not acquainted. Then just 15, Kennedy had already forged his reputation as a potential supernova in the battle ground of pony racing where titles were claimed and Dingle Derby glory bestowed upon him the status of a home-town hero. It also alerted racing to this remarkable talent who had conquered the pony racing world.

"Winning the Dingle Derby was massive, it's like winning the Gold Cup. I haven't won the Gold Cup but I imagine it is very good," is his endearing answer.

The youngest of four boys, horses were his passion and obsession from the time memory began. His brother Paddy is also a jockey and Michael is now a trainer, but where this love of horses had its origins is cloaked in the Kerry mists. Neither of his parents had horses in their lives but their elder sons did and ponies turned into racing. Watching, and impatiently waiting on the periphery of the action, was Jack, their youngest. From the age of four becoming a jockey was his overriding desire and his dream was matched by the level of his talent.

His love for the magnificent steeds which fearlessly carry him into the pounding, heaving mass of the action is palpable.

Outlander, which conveyed him to his first Grade One success in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in December 2016, is another horse special to Kennedy and if this Cheltenham week allows him to write another glorious page in the early years of his legend, then victory for him and Outlander in Friday's Gold Cup would be the story he chooses.

For some people a horse's sentimental value increases in proportion to its success on the track. Not so with our young hero. Taglietelle, the horse Kennedy rode in his first race, at Clonmel in May 2015 was retired last month and will now live his days in blissful relaxation with Kennedy.

"When Gordon and the owners made the decision to retire him, I was delighted to take him. He is happy out in his field and will have an easy time of it."

With his older brother Paddy, he purchased 49 acres in Kildangan, Co Kildare and the pair will start their breaking and pre-training venture in the summer, sourcing young horses at the store sales in May and June and taking in horses for others. It will be the ideal world for the teenager who doesn't turn 19 until April 22, surrounding himself with horses as much as he can.

"I just love horses, I enjoy being around them and I can't wait till we get some horses into our own place," he says while confessing that some might think it weird how two brothers can be such good friends. Having a sibling that shares your passion and profession may not be everyone's experience but for those who do, it can only tighten the bonds of kinship.

The Kennedy family is a close-knit one and they will travel to Cheltenham after racing in Naas this afternoon. As last year, they will all stay together for the week.

A king in waiting, ready to ascend his throne when the fates decree that the legendary deeds of this Jack Kennedy have made it his turn to reign over racing.

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