Jack Kennedy determined to treat Samcro as just another ride
Unusually mature teenage sensation has pressure of riding odds-on favourite
Jack Kennedy rides Samcro clearat the last to win the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown in February. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Altior will be the centre of home attention in Wednesday’s big race at Cheltenham. From an Irish perspective though the most eagerly anticipated event of probably the entire week is going to be Samcro’s appearance in the opening Ballymore Novices Hurdle.
Unlike Altior, the odds-on Samcro is nowhere near the finished article. The Ballymore will be just his seventh racecourse start. In comparison to proven top-flight Champion Hurdle or Gold Cup horses, Michael O’Leary’s star is a callow youth.
Nevertheless excitement surrounds him like no other runner because in a sport perpetually in pursuit of the next-big-thing nothing’s as big right now as Samcro.
Not since Florida Pearl burst on the scene two decades ago has there been such anticipation about an emerging talent. Prior to that perhaps the most valid comparison is with the ill-fated Golden Cygnet all of 40 years ago.
Racing’s hype machine rarely gets turned off in this sport but not for a long time has it hummed to the extent it does for Samcro. Just as significant is who has been fuelling it.
Even before this first start over flights the triple-bumper winner was praised by no less than Davy Russell as being “as good a horse as we’ll ever see”.
Just to stress his point Russell referenced the €380,000 O’Leary paid for the horse after he won a point-to-point less than two years ago.
The veteran champion jockey still described Samcro as “probably the cheapest horse that will ever be bought. I never rode him on the racecourse. I’ve only rode him at home but my God, you’re on about the feel, that’s the feel.”
This was last autumn at a media event. Jockeys usually tiptoe their way such things like they’re navigating their way through a minefield. Russell though couldn’t his enthusiasm.
Not surprisingly, on the back of such billing, and three subsequent outstanding victories over flights, O’Leary has been fighting a hopeless fight trying to douse the hype, at one stage even declaring the big, strapping chestnut with the white blaze isn’t Jesus Christ.
In politics, having to deny an outrageous accusation is often regarded as validating it. So in a sport permanently in thrall to the idea of the second coming of the equine God, Arkle, even the idea of Samcro is intoxicating.
It isn’t Russell with the responsibility of steering this dream machine around Cheltenham however. Instead of the veteran champion jockey it is a young man half his age who will feel the weight of responsibility on his shoulders come 1.30 today.
Jack Kennedy has got used to being a jockey prodigy. At 10 the youngster from west Kerry had TG4 cameras trailing him for his first pony race. At 16 he burst onto racing’s consciousness with a high-profile Navan hat-trick topped by the Troytown Chase.
Widely acclaimed as a future champion, and heir-apparent to the vintage generation of Russell, Walsh and Geraghty, Kennedy even broke his Cheltenham duck last year, persuading the famously reluctant Labaik to revel his talent when it counted most at 25-1 odds.
Kennedy is a rare talent and in Samcro looks to have a similarly singular partner. But there is both privilege and pressure in being aboard this supposed equine paragon.
Samcro is the sort of horse to define a career. Kennedy has already proved himself on board star performers as good as Apple’s Jade. But today is about a different level of expectation again. This is the sort of race that decides if definitions are positive or negative. And it’s hard to forget Kennedy is still just 18. He is determined though to tryto keep things as low-key as possible.
“I’ll ride him as I find him; just try to get him settled, get him jumping, and into a nice rhythm. Hopefully that will get him there and we’ll see what happens,” Kennedy says.
The young man has been repeating that mantra for weeks now, no doubt eager to sidestep talk of pressure and reluctant to venture anything that might inadvertently add to it. Media anxious for more Russell-type homilies about Samcro have had to make do with the straightest of Kerry bats.
It’s another reflection of the unusual maturity the teenager continues to bring to bear on his rapid rise to stardom. Caution rather than colour appears to be Kennedy’s preferred option, even in relation to Samcro.
“Everything has gone to plan with him so far but you never know, look at Death Duty last year. He went to Cheltenham and flopped. He has to keep progressing to be top class.
“I was surprised with the speed he showed at Leopardstown (Deloitte Novice Hurdle over two miles.) He looks like he’s going to be a three-mile chaser in time so I was a bit surprised by that, yeah. But it’s very hard to know with him. I don’t ride him at home. Shane McCann does. He’s very lazy at home. But he’s done everything well so far,” he says.
As a summation it’s very different to Russell’s from earlier this season. Maybe that’s because it’s the Kerry man rather than the Cork man who will be the one operating under the festival’s most intense gaze.
There’s a pressure that comes with that. Kennedy though has the air of a young man who wouldn’t swap either the pressure or the horse for anything.