By Johnny Ward in Dublin
There’s a tale rarely told from the Punchestown Festival of 2016. A leading senior rider made a brazen move at a crucial stage of a race that could have been curtains for the mount of Jack Kennedy, a hot favourite.
On their way back to the weighing room, Kennedy, who had just turned 17, told the other jockey that if he ever did a move like that on him again he would have to deal with the consequences.
This is not the Jack Kennedy one usually reads about in an interview – neither the kid who looks like he should be in school nor the one who might be confused for having just gotten out of the scratcher. Like Samcro, his mount next week, “laid back” does his demeanour a disservice.
There was never any danger of the pony-circuit star who shot to fame almost overnight as a jumps jockey getting ahead of himself. If a criminal tends to go down the wrong road as to betray a shaky upbringing, the opposite is also true.
“Plenty of lads think they’re too good once they get going,” Olly Murphy, Gordon Elliott’s former assistant, says. “Jack’s far from that.Kennedy has an enviable book of rides at Cheltenham this week (PA)
“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.”
If you are one of the many who will be shouting home Apple’s Jade or Samcro, fear not that the pilot may have a mental wobble, burdened by the omnipresent chatter about certs and good things.
“My hopes for the week are really just getting around and staying in one piece. Falls over there are part and parcel of the game but if you are worried about that, don’t be at it at all,” he says.
“I’ve a great book of rides but I wouldn’t treat this any differently, to be honest. Winning on Labaik last year was amazing, I suppose a little unexpected – a dream come true.
“With Cheltenham, there’s a difference with the atmosphere but I didn’t feel much pressure: it’s the same as going anywhere in Ireland on a Saturday or Sunday for good racing.
“Riding Samcro, it’s just another race really – just do your job. If you start changing things, you’re in trouble.”
He cannot yet be sure what his full book is but the confirmed mounts are not too bad for a kid who is not 19 until April 22: Samcro, Apple’s Jade, Mengli Khan, Dounikos, Shattered Love.
Davy Russell will ride Felix Desjy in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, Mitchouka in the Fred Winter and others too.
Gigginstown has no official retained rider and Kennedy might bemoan the veteran Russell getting the nod ahead of him at times. Instead he extols the Corkman’s character and class.
“I couldn’t ask for things to go any better and sharing the rides is working well. We help each other as best we can with horses we have ridden before and Davy has been very good to me.Samcro routs his rivals at Leopardstown last month (Racingfotos)
“He’s a great help; I’d go to him with any problem for any advice even before we were sharing rides, before I started riding.
“I looked up to him growing up as one of the best in the business, a great horseman; the way he gets them settled and jumping, it’s unreal. He would have been one of my heroes.”
That sharing of the Elliott bounty means that Kennedy, a native of the extreme northwest of Ireland and picturesque Dingle, knows he has good rides and exceptionally good rides – just not how many. It starts off in the first race, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, which he won last year on Labaik.
Mengli Khan is hardly comparable to Labaik, who was generally more likely than not to plant himself at the start, but Kennedy admits he is not, nevertheless, wholly straightforward.
“He will find it hard to reverse the form with Getabird from Punchestown but is in good form and once everything goes right he will run a big race,” he enthuses.Mengli Khan will have another crack at Getabird in the first race of the Festival (PA)
“As for when he ran out at Leopardstown, I don’t know what to think; it wasn’t like him. And he was as straight as a gun barrel in Punchestown.
“He can be a tricky ride – he can be keen – but once there’s a good gallop he will settle away, although he would not want the ground too soft.”
Then there is one of a select bunch of odds-on shots throughout the 28 races, OLBG Mares' Hurdle title holder Apple’s Jade.
Russell deputised for her regular injured partner when she beat Supasundae at Christmas, her fifth victory on the bounce, four of those at the top rung.
“Benie Des Dieux looks the main danger but hopefully all going well she should do the job,” Kennedy says. “She is a very straightforward ride in that you can put her anywhere. She has gotten stronger too.”
Before we get to Samcro, we discuss two of his other novice mounts, Dounikos in the RSA Chase and Shattered Love, who could have gone there but instead drops back in yardage in the JLT Novices' Chase.
“Dounikos ran very well at Leopardstown behind Monalee,” he says. “He jumps great and stays very well, doing his best work at the finish: he will come up the hill well. He seems to be improving.
“Shattered Love has an each-way chance with the ground being on the slower side. She will be getting the mares’ allowance, jumps great and travels away. Tactically she is kind of like Apple’s Jade – I’d be handy I’d say but she can be put anywhere really.”
We can associate horses with riders and vice-versa: Istabraq and Charlie Swan, Best Mate and Jim Culloty, Moscow Flyer and Barry Geraghty.
Barring calamities, Jack Kennedy will get up close and personal with hundreds of graded horses but he has the ride on Samcro and the pair are well-matched.
“At Leopardstown he made good horses look like bad horses,” he said. “The Ballymore will be the best race he has run in so I won’t be going over expecting an easy race or anything like that.
“The main worry is travelling over but he is a very laid-back and relaxed horse. At Leopardstown in February, he was in control all the way and he can be very lazy; when he got to the front he was doing what he had to do.
“I’d like to see if something took him on what he would do. He is a pleasure to ride: he jumps great, he settles but he’s kind of not behind the bridle either. He does it all right.”
And all the hype, the pressure – will it get to him? “It doesn’t bother me at all really to be honest,” he insists.
Kennedy has only completed the chase course once at Cheltenham, yet he may ride Outlander (50-50 to run, says Elliott) in the Timico Gold Cup. At times one forgets how young he is.Outlander is Kennedy's possible ride in the Gold Cup (PA)
Yet Elliott gave him his first ride on a hot favourite (in Clonmel shortly after he turned 16) and Gigginstown boss Michael O’Leary was not going to disagree.
“Michael and (brother) Eddie have put their faith in me and I am very grateful for them having so much faith. They are straightforward to ride for; it’s all about not complicating things.”
Kennedy will be staying with his brother and fellow jockey Paddy, his parents and friends from Dingle next week. The role of Paddy in his development can hardly be exaggerated, to the extent that Jack admits: “If it were not for my family I don’t know what I’d be doing but I was always likely to do whatever Paddy ended up doing.”
That grounded nature is evinced too when he talks about missing out on Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle fancy Hunters Call, trained by his old buddy Olly Murphy.
“Olly is doing brilliantly. He texted me the other morning saying the horse wasn’t out and while I was very disappointed it was more so for him than me,” he says. “I have plenty of good rides; it was probably his best runner.”
He mentions a few he will not be riding: Felix Desjy (“I’d be worried he can be a bit hot; if the occasion doesn’t get to him he’ll run a big race”), Flawless Escape in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (“great chance”) and De Plotting Shed (will run “a big race”) in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase.
Kennedy has that old head on young shoulders, precocious and chilled. Just like Samcro.