Friday 15 December 2017

Joint venture strikes it lucky

For the Smiths, this year's Galway Festival will be a family affair, writes Aisling Crowe

Kevin Smith, owner of Rawnaq with his sons and Matthew, left and Kevin, right, trainer and jockey in his stables in Killmessan, Co. Meath.
Kevin Smith, owner of Rawnaq with his sons and Matthew, left and Kevin, right, trainer and jockey in his stables in Killmessan, Co. Meath.

Aisling Crowe

Summer holidays in Galway. Getting soaked by the spray in Salthill, building sandcastles on the Silver Strand and being captivated by the kaleidoscope of colour, noise and excitement that is the Galway races. For so many summers the Smith family travelled from their Meath home to Galway, taking in Ballybrit's annual extravaganza. Those childhood trips sparked their young imaginations and ignited a fire inside them. Now adults, Matthew and Kevin Smith Jr, along with their father Kevin, are bringing the family back to Ballybrit, but not for a holiday. They are returning to the place their dreams were born with a horse that could give them the keys to the magic kingdom.

When Rawnaq takes his place in the line-up for the Guinness Galway Hurdle on Thursday, he will be carrying the hopes of a family on his broad shoulders. For 30 years Kilmessan farmer Kevin Smith has been involved in racing, with the odd winner here and there, but nothing to compare to this. His son Matthew worked in the construction industry until that crumbled and he turned to his passion in earnest, learning the trade with a few point-to-pointers before working for Robbie Hennessy and then taking out his restricted licence in November.

"It's totally family at the minute. Matthew has four in training, two of mine and two outside horses. All the family – myself, Matthew, Kevin and Andrew, who does the leading up at the racecourse and rides out too – are totally involved in it. Ciara is involved too as a supporter, it's just something they are all mad into," says Kevin Senior.

Racing was always Kevin Jr's passion but his parents reined in his desire to follow that career path. Still, there was only so long he could resist its siren song.

"I've always wanted to be a jockey but I finished secondary school and went to college. I studied Electronic Engineering for two years and then I went back to the horses. After my first year in college I spent the summer with Tony Martin and that was that, it made my mind up for me. I loved it there. I ride out here and work around here. It's very hard starting off but I'm privileged to be riding that horse," explains Rawnaq's young jockey, who only took out his licence in March and both his victories so far have come on the family's star.

In a sport that can resemble an exclusive private members' club, harder to infiltrate than a Soviet spy ring, Galway is the great leveller. For one week every year the doors are flung wide open and it's access all areas for everyone. Racing's marquee names are still the headline acts, but at this festival the lesser known faces have an opportunity to grab centre stage. Rawnaq is the Smith family's gilt-edged invitation to the party.

"We were always involved in racing but even then we would be outsiders really. I suppose we're all really lucky. For Kevin and myself, just starting off, to have a horse like him is brilliant. Winners and good results will probably help," Matthew says of the desire to make that breakthrough.

Winners have come at a steady trickle. Rawnaq and Gretzky, the horses they bought at Tattersalls in October 2010 for less than £8,000 for the pair, have won five races since Matthew took over their training in November. Rawnaq has scaled the ratings heights in the past 12 months.

Since his visit to Galway last year where he finished second, only once has he been out of the first three in 11 more starts. His three victories since May have earned him a tilt at one of summer's most coveted prizes and a tasty €25,000 bonus on top of the winner's purse if he can add the Galway Hurdle to his recent Bellewstown triumph.

With the owner, jockey and trainer all part of the one family, the pressure of having a leading contender for Galway is magnified.

Kevin Sr believes: "There is probably pressure in that, like everything else with family, we have a few arguments here and there and things like that . . ." but Kevin Jr sees positives and negatives: "I think there is more pressure in the sense that you know that you're going to be talking to them all evening and the next day. It's not like you see them for five minutes after the race and you're gone but it's easier in a sense because it's easier to talk to them as well."

"I find that the better he is doing the more pressure is on then," adds Matthew, and his dad agrees. "We are stepping up in grade all the time and we are stepping into the unknown really so there is pressure all the time. We keep testing him and he has answered the questions so far. Galway is another step up again and someday we'll find our limit. It is a lot of pressure but at the end of the day the joy of him winning at Punchestown and Bellewstown outweighed all the pressure. It's something I'll have for life and it is a great feeling. It's lovely that we can all share in it as a family."

Sleepless nights and restless days are all part of the rollercoaster ride that is racing but for Kevin and his sons, the last few have had more than the usual edge to them. Rawnaq has the option of running in tomorrow's feature event, the Connaught Hotel Qualified Riders' Handicap, before tackling the Galway Hurdle on Thursday. Three days between races may seem like asking for a massive effort but Galway will witness repeat performances regularly during the week and some horses will run three times over the seven days.

"We won't make a decision on that until the very end. If any horse is capable of running in the two races, he is, but we really don't know. It's a big call that we have to make," says Kevin Senior.

"He comes home after every race, even that run at Navan on soft, testing ground, and it doesn't take a thing out of him. He seems to thrive on his racing. He'll come home after any race and lick up his feed after ten minutes. The following morning he'll have it gone again in ten minutes. It's a tough one to call with Rawnaq. We all know that it would be no problem to him but it would always be in the back of your mind that it might leave him a bit flat," confides his elder son.

Stick or twist? It's less of a high-stakes gamble and more a calculated risk but with so much at stake, pesky doubt's dark pall intrudes on their sunny skies. The decision, they believe, may be taken away from them because of the volume of entries and if they are forced to play the hand they are dealt, there is a sense, sitting around the dining room table, that it might be a relief.

Whatever way the cards fall they could still play a part tomorrow. Gretzky, Matthew's first winner as a trainer barely a month after getting his licence, is rated higher than Rawnaq on the Flat and needs fewer horses to drop out to take his chance.

The family trip to Galway this year will be swollen considerably by relatives, friends and well-wishers from around Kilmessan, heading to Ballybrit in the hope of continuing to share in their success. This year they return to Galway not to build castles in the sand and play games amidst the waltzers at Ballybrit, but as serious players in the on-track action. Whatever way it plays out, they will enjoy it as a family.

"Racing is a serious business but we try to keep it as a fun, family affair. It's very hard to say that and we do take racing very seriously but with our own two horses we try to enjoy them and have fun with them. If we get a bit of luck along the way like we are now, it's a bonus," is how Kevin Senior describes the family's attitude. "Everyone is trying to do their best and make the right decisions. It will work out sometimes and other times it won't but whatever decisions we make we will try and make them jointly. We have to go with it and everyone will share the blame or the joy."

The fun and games of summer holidays are a cherished memory but as they return to that setting, this week the Smiths are playing the game of life to win.

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