Hunger for success keeps Kevin Manning at the top of toughest game of them all

Having rode his first winner in 1983, Ireland’s senior jockey shows no signs of letting up

Jockey Kevin Manning with trainer Jim Bolger after winning the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes with Verbal Dexterity during the 2017 Longines Irish Champions Weekend at The Curragh. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Jockey Kevin Manning with trainer Jim Bolger after winning the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes with Verbal Dexterity during the 2017 Longines Irish Champions Weekend at The Curragh. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Kevin Manning rode his first winner in 1983. That year Lester Piggott was champion jockey in Britain. Pat Eddery held the title in Ireland. The first commercially available mobile phone emerged in 1983. It practically weighed the same as Manning the apprentice, who 38 seasons later is still in silks and preparing for Irish Champions Weekend.

At 54 he is the country’s senior jockey. He is also one of its most successful. In May he became the oldest jockey to win an English Classic since Piggott three decades previously after Poetic Flare won the 2,000 Guineas. On Saturday the partnership will try to add the €1 million Irish Champion Stakes to their tally.

Piggott originally called time on race-riding when he was 50. Michael Kinane finished at the half-century too. Eddery was 51. Balancing the rewards of riding at the top level with the demands involved saw Johnny Murtagh call a halt when he was 43. So exhausted was he by boiling his frame down to make weight that the great American jockey Steve Cauthen stopped at just 32.

Yet in his unobtrusive way Manning endures – as much of a racing fixture as Jim Bolger who will leg his son-in-law onto Poetic Flare at Leopardstown – and still manages to confound the scales.

With little to spare from 6ft, the Dubliner is fundamentally the wrong shape to be a jockey. Despite towering over most of his colleagues he has got down to do as low as 8.8 within the last year. The regime required to ride at three stone under natural body weight requires Herculean discipline: doing it for close to 40 years makes Manning’s career the epitome of mind over matter.

AP McCoy once described him as the most dedicated jockey he has ever known. Others simply shake their heads at Manning’s resolve. When he’s not in the saddle there are tales of him spending most every waking hour pounding out mile after mile walking around the Curragh keeping active. Some of the stories might be exaggerated but friends insist not by much.

Kevin Manning on Poetic Flare comes home to win the Ballylinch Stud ‘Red Rocks’ 2,000 Guineas Trial Stakes at Leopardstown back in April. Photograph: Peter Mooney/Inpho
Kevin Manning on Poetic Flare comes home to win the Ballylinch Stud ‘Red Rocks’ 2,000 Guineas Trial Stakes at Leopardstown back in April. Photograph: Peter Mooney/Inpho

The man himself isn’t comfortable around such exaggeration. He is wary of the spotlight. Those seeking snappy revelatory post-race comments could be forgiven for pointing their microphones at the animal underneath instead. There is more chance of the whip-thin jockey taking on Anthony Joshua in the ring than of any Frankie Dettori-style showmanship in the winner’s circle.

So interviews on the eve of the biggest Flat date of the Irish season are not regarded as helpful and politely turned down. From that very first success on Keynes at the Curragh in 1983, through Derby glory on New Approach in 2008, and on to Poetic Flare, Manning has always believed in letting his horses do the talking.

If as a result one of the most remarkable stories of perseverance and dedication in all of sport gets overlooked then he gives every sign of being content with the lack of acknowledgement. Manning once suggested he is only too aware of how public opinion can rise and fall a lot more wildly than his body fat ratio.

“I often said to him ‘ how do you keep going?’ But he’s got that steel to him that people might not see in him because he’s so quiet,” Johnny Murtagh points out. “He’s riding as good as ever, and more than ever, picking up spares and still seeming to love it. He’s certainly as hungry as ever. And it’s hard to keep that hunger.”

Murtagh rode the first winner in his own stellar riding career four years after Manning did. He retired from the saddle in 2014 to concentrate on training.

“It’s huge testament to Kevin himself because he is very dedicated. He minds himself really well. When I was starting off Kevin Manning was struggling to do 8.9, 8.10. In recent years he has the weight really under control. Plus, experience does help a lot in racing. Now you have to have the physical strength too. And you have to keep the bottle. But he has all that,” he added.

New Approach ridden by Kevin Manning wins the Epsom Derby in 2008. Photograph: John Gichigi/Getty Images
New Approach ridden by Kevin Manning wins the Epsom Derby in 2008. Photograph: John Gichigi/Getty Images

If the scales have been one constant in Manning’s career the other has been Bolger. The rider was 12 when he started working for him. Twice champion apprentice he took over as No 1 rider in 1993. It makes him the longest-serving stable jockey in Ireland and Britain. A private family man he is married to Bolger’s daughter, Una, and the couple have two children, Clare and James.

The nature of his relationship with Bolger, a man with a martinet reputation, might run weight a close second in terms of questions Manning has long since tired of. To him it is straightforward.

“I think a lot of people have the wrong idea of Jim, that he’s very tough and hard to work for. It’s actually simple. He wants things done 110 per cent right and to the best of your ability. Once you do that, he’s fine. If you don’t then he will find someone else,” he once commented.

In 28 years Bolger has never had cause to try and find anyone else. In that time they have enjoyed huge international success. Alexander Goldrun won five Group One races including the Hong Kong Cup in 2004.Four years later New Approach was rated the world’s top thoroughbred with wins including the Irish Champion Stakes.

When Bolger proclaimed Poetic Flare as the most complete racehorse he has trained after winning the Guineas it was a considerable statement. Such readiness to forthrightly express his opinion is nothing new, although it is in notable contrast to his jockey. Nevertheless it is a partnership that has stood the test of time.

If Bolger is the frontman, ultimately it is Manning who plays lead on the track.

“He’s absolutely ruthless. Legal, but a tough man to ride against, one of the toughest I’ve ridden against,” said the former champion jockey Declan McDonogh.

Kevin Manning and Jim Bolger with the trophy after Alexander Goldrun’s win in the Hong Kong Cup at Sha Tin racetrack in December 2004. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images
Kevin Manning and Jim Bolger with the trophy after Alexander Goldrun’s win in the Hong Kong Cup at Sha Tin racetrack in December 2004. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

“Be it a 40-60 handicap or a Group One, he’ll still ride the same. He’s very strong and very neat and tidy. He always has a good hold of their heads. He’s a good role model for kids who are a little bit tall, to show how to tuck themselves in. He’s very neat on a horse for the size of him,” he added.

Evidence that time moves on, and how the species is getting bigger, is underlined by Manning now finding himself having to look up at some of the new crop of young jockeys. What never changes is how the task of making weight remains a daily grind that is ultimately faced by the individual alone. What rarely changes either is how seniors get slagged by their juniors for just being older.

Colin Keane, the current champion jockey, turns 27 on Sunday, exactly half Manning’s age. Apparently weighroom banter last year about the ‘R’ word – retirement – prompted some conspicuous investment in new saddles, a subtle reminder about the oldest guy in the room not going anywhere soon.

“There’s always a bit of slagging about the elder man of the weighroom, it comes to us all, ” McDonogh said. “No one’s getting younger and the kids have a lot to accomplish when they’re looking at Kevin Manning. They have a lot of ground to cover.

“Look at the results this year. Kevin has shown it year on year, when the horses are good enough he’s more than good enough to carry out the job

In control of his weight, still famously fit, just as keen on the day-to-day grind, and with the chance of another star talent around the corner, there’s no sign of Manning calling it a day. Frankie Dettori is 50 and talking about going on until at least 55. The Irishman is almost there already, still hungry in the best possible sense.

Lester Piggott winning the 1992 Newmarket 2,000 Guineas on Rodrigo De Triano, his 30th Classic win. Photograph: Chris Cole/Allsport
Lester Piggott winning the 1992 Newmarket 2,000 Guineas on Rodrigo De Triano, his 30th Classic win. Photograph: Chris Cole/Allsport

A long time in the saddle

Lester Piggott: ‘The Long Fellow’ retired at 50 in 1985 and started training. That ended abruptly when he was convicted of tax fraud and jailed. His comeback to the saddle in 1990 had a fairytale outcome within 10 days when he won the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Royal Academy. He enjoyed more big race success on Rodrigo de Triano before his final ride in Britain in 1994, aged 59.

Willie Shoemaker: The US ‘Piggott’ broke all records in North American racing during a career that lasted from his first winner in 1949 to 1990 when he retired aged 58 with 8,833 winners in all. The included 11 Triple Crown races. ‘The Shoe’ also landed the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic on Ferdinand. He was beaten a nose in the 1978 Epsom Derby.

Willie Carson: The five-time British champion jockey was 54 when he retired in 1996 after a hugely successful career that included four victories in the Epsom Derby. He won 17 English Classics in all with wins on the Queen’s filly Dunfermline in the 1977 Oaks and St Leger among the highlights. He also won every Irish Classic at least once.

Mike Smith: At 56 ‘Big Money Mike’ is still one of the top riders on the lucrative California circuit. It is 30 years since he won a Curragh Classic on Fourstars Allstar in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. Since then he has won nine Triple Crown races and landed the Triple Crown itself on Justify in 2018. He has a record 26 Breeders’ Cup victories.

Jorge Ricardo: Brazilian rider became the first jockey in history to ride 13,000 winners last year. Ricardo will be 60 later this month. He rode his first winner in 1976 at the famous Gavea racecourse in the shadow of Rio’s statute of Christ the Redeemer. Has been champion jockey in both Brazil and Argentina.

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