Mick Kinane: legend of flat racing still focused on success

Retired jockey hasn’t lost his competitive edge in role as a commercial breedee

If the trouble with retirement is indeed the lack of a day off, it appears to be far from a problem for Michael Kinane. The competitive urge inevitably flickers at the idea of "Champions Weekend" but six years after the most decorated jockey in Irish flat racing history decided to hang up his saddle those pangs don't last long any more. There's too much else to do, thank you very much.

For instance the legendary rider's career as a commercial breeder of thoroughbreds can already boast the 2007 Derby winner Authorized, ridden by his friend and former rival Frankie Dettori. That famous day at Epsom, the winning breeder rode Archipenko.

As Dettori showboated, Kinane’s famously granite expression looked torn between satisfaction and fury. Archipenko had finished last. Even in such circumstances, the competitive urge furiously raged.

Two years later, however, the peerless Sea The Stars produced an unparalleled season that propelled him to his own legendary status and gave his jockey a perfect cue to leave the riding stage. Kinane’s timing was always impeccable: there was no long retirement run-in, just a simple statement issued during the winter lull and quiet satisfaction at a seminal sporting career finished at 50.


Pat Eddery has counter credentials for being Ireland's finest ever flat jockey but there is no disputing Kinane's claim to be the most important produced by Irish racing. Eddery forged his career in Britain. Kinane stayed at home at a time when Irish-based jockeys usually got skipped over when it came to the top international events, almost unconsciously touching the forelock to the best abroad, if not knowing their place then often regarding being "jocked off" by Piggott & Co as near inevitable.

International acclaim

Hindsight makes Kinane’s transformation of that mindset seem inevitable but there was nothing inevitable about the young “Mickey Joe” taking to Italy or Germany most Sundays during the 1980s, backing himself against anyone anywhere. He was able to exploit Dermot Weld’s subsequent global ambitions which yielded landmark victories such as Vintage Crop’s

Melbourne Cup

and Go And Go’s Belmont Stakes.

By then the rest of the racing world had cottoned on. For a couple of decades Kinane was among the world's most celebrated riders, as worshipped in Hong Kong as he was acclaimed throughout Europe, in the process opening up the road to international acclaim for those following such as Johnny Murtagh. But Kinane originally made it happen through willpower and self-confidence as much as talent. That competitive urge, however, isn't some tap to be turned on and off.

He describes the first year of retirement as an enjoyable “novelty”, the usual daydream stuff of those used to living lives at 100mph: travelling but revelling in not having to dash around any more or being required to step on the scales every day. He put on a couple of stone, enjoying the time to do things he couldn’t before, until that time became a problem.

“It was the second year that was hard, basically in terms of filling time. There are a lot of emotions involved in riding racehorses, the adrenalin, it’s like a rollercoaster, all-consuming; like any sport, you have to be so focused. And weight is a big thing too. So when you stop and you’ve been successful, it leaves a huge void in your life,” Kinane says.

“Even going racing felt weird. I had to become a racegoer. As a jockey the weighroom is your sanctuary, you’re in your little bubble and there’s great camaraderie. All of a sudden, you’re on the outside looking in. I found that quite difficult. But it’s like anything: you adapt.”

Extra weight didn't feel right so it came off, cycling around quiet Kildare roads and riding work twice a week for John Oxx. Kinane jokes he could make a short go of in riding 'Champions Weekend' but probably wouldn't last very long. He looks fit enough though for a few of his old colleagues to shift uneasily were he to show up again in the inner sanctum today.

Instead, and hardly unreasonably, the Tsui family, who own Sea The Stars, have turned to someone with a lifetime of experience across the gamut of the game to manage their bloodstock interests.

Then there’s the sales season about to start which is always make or break for all commercial breeders. There’s even the continuing lease of his newspaper column, helping with the Jockeys Pension Trust and the 24/7 task of being a sporting legend, but, best of all, a sporting legend still involved, which means nosy hacks continue to pester him for “state of the nation” opinions.

Great equine talent

Kinane holds a record seven Irish Champion Stakes victories, the last of which was on Sea The Stars, and is intrigued by the complexity of today’s renewal. Always a piercingly perceptive judge, he appreciates form-lines, constituting as they do firm evidence rather than imaginary fluff of the academic variety. But he’s in indulgent form when presented with a painfully fluffy Sea The Stars v Frankel query.

The year after Sea The Stars retired, that other great modern-day equine talent, Frankel, first stepped onto the track, carving out an unbeaten career and forcing the handicap rating system to be recalibrated. Officially, Frankel was rated 4lbs superior to Sea The Stars. But Kinane insists his old partner only ever showed 85 per cent of what he was capable of due to an understandable reluctance to do no more than necessary.

So it’s a dumb, futile but totally irresistible query: who’d have won a match?

“It wouldn’t have been a match at a mile and a half but it would have been fascinating at a mile and a quarter. Frankel would certainly have dragged it out of him at that trip. Frankel was freakish. I’ve never seen a horse move like him, even at the walk. He seemed to get energy off the ground. He would have run to the end of the Earth for you, so exuberant,” Kinane says.

So would you swap?

“No,” he grins. “But I’m biased.”

Is that just sentiment?

“No,” he says. “I was lucky to ride some of the best horses in the last 25 years and they all usually have a weakness you’re trying to mind a little, like slight temperament issues or a problem with a leg or a muscle twinge. But Sea The Stars had no weakness. He had it all. Sound in mind and body.”

Sea The Stars’ style was entirely opposite to Frankel: if not indolent, then hardly exuberant either, perfect, in the normal course of events, for keeping ahead of the handicapper. So was there 5lbs more in the locker?

“He put up his best performance in the Arc and I remember after passing the post he fell asleep on me. Christophe Soumillon came alongside to pat me on the back and my horse woke up, thought he was in a race again, and took off. He honestly ran away with me as far as the seven-furlong gate. Was that a tired horse? No. He had loads left,” Kinane says.

No swap then? “No.” And the accompanying shake of the head is firm.

He remains passionate about racing and brings with it a rare breadth of global experience. He favours the French system on the always controversial subject of interference rules and reckons, on balance, professional stewarding is most effective in terms of policing what happens on-track.

“The French rules are clear and that’s good: if you interfere with a horse, and affect it’s placing, you’re put behind it. I think that’s the fairest. A lot of interference here and in Britain goes unpunished. But you know immediately in France, when you look at a replay, if you’re going to be done. So as a jockey you know you have to be very careful,” he says.

Kinane cut his teeth here on country tracks, policed by a mix of stipendiary and amateur stewards, but also subsequently in Hong Kong where stewarding is strictly professional.

The whip

“Betting is a huge industry in Hong Kong and racing has to be policed very clearly there. Towards the end I used to go out there for a month or six weeks in the winter just to sharpen up. It was so good for your riding, racing so tight: I used to come back and think we were going slow. Everyone gets suspensions in Hong Kong. That’s the flip side. But it’s black and white. Amateur stewards here do mean well and give their time which has to be appreciated, but on balance I would be in favour of professional stewarding,” he says.

That’s significant because Kinane’s instinctive reaction to another controversial subject – the whip – understandably still appears to firmly come from a jockey’s perspective.

“Automatically counting the number of times a horse is hit, as they do in England, is a cop-out, an easy way of doing jockeys who have become isolated. Only jockeys get done. Trainers and owners don’t lose out, only jockeys. People in these positions should be able to read into a situation better,” he says.

“I hate to see misuse of the stick. But I’m 50 kilos. The horse is 500. It’s a mismatch. And if you ride a horse, it’s a different animal if you don’t have a stick. A lot of these colts take advantage, like bold kids. These animals are hard to handle and you need an element in your favour. The stick is a tool to make them concentrate. And you can’t hurt horses. If you hurt them, they won’t run for you.”

Some of the best in the world will run this weekend. Kinane really likes Legatissimo, wherever she lines up, and reckons Free Eagle’s freshness is a major Champions Stakes plus. Then there’s his old sparring partner, Dettori, still at the hub of it all. Little wonder the old competitive streak might be roused, except he will be there today in suit and tie, not silks.

It’s not much of a stretch however to trace a link between this new, self-confident, industry showpiece and the pioneering jockey of old – which, when you think about it, is some legacy.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column