Teenage sensation Jack Kennedy targeting Cheltenham glory

The gifted 19-year-old jockey will partner popular Apple’s Jade in the Champion Hurdle

It is less than four years since Jack Kennedy rode his first winner. Since then there have been almost 250 more.

They include 16 Grade Ones. He had four winners at last year’s Cheltenham festival. Next week he will return, with the weight of Irish expectation on his back, to partner Apple’s Jade in the Champion Hurdle. Kennedy is still just 19.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the young man from west Kerry is still a teenager, maybe even easier to take for granted the scale of his accomplishments at such a young age.

He is certainly a walking-talking rebuttal of every millennial snowflake cliché out there. If Generation Z really is reluctant to embrace responsibility, then Kennedy isn’t so much a throwback as a reminder of how jump jockeys have always needed to grow up fast. It’s the nature of the job.

Kennedy has broken his left leg once already and his right leg twice, along with suffering the usual list of bruises and concussions that are part of everyday life when your living is riding thoroughbreds over obstacles. Knowing it’s a case of when and not if you get hurt leaves little room for immaturity no matter who you are.

But it doesn’t take away from how rare a figure Kennedy cuts. No other rider in modern times can boast a superior level of big race accomplishment at the same age. Comparisons to perhaps the finest generation of jockeys ever seen in Ireland only further put in context the speed at which he has established himself among the top echelon of the toughest game of all.

Over two decades the triumvirate of Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell in particular have set unprecedented standards of excellence. When a nine-year-old Kennedy started pony-racing they were figures to be looked up to from afar. Yet it wasn't long before he found himself competing against them in a sport where no allowances are made for youth.

Kennedy is even able to look back at those first steps on his career with a certain detachment now.

“It doesn’t matter what age you are – everyone’s competing against each other,” he says. “Davy was the one I looked up to most when I was growing up. I still do. It’s the same with Ruby and Barry. I grew up watching them win big races. So it is a bit weird at the start, taking them on. But you’ve still got to try and beat them.”

Kennedy’s low-key manner means he’s unlikely to ever cut a charismatic figure like Russell, or project the easy confidence that once made Geraghty RTÉ’s Sports Personality of the Year. He doesn’t exude Walsh’s famously flinty self-assurance either. But on the track, where it counts, rivals quickly got the message that intimidating the youngster wasn’t advisable.

“There was never really anyone who’d do it in a nasty way. But if there was some way they could get an advantage over you, they’d probably try alright,” Kennedy now recalls in a way that says both little and a lot, a sign of the self-possession behind a young man able to look after himself in a way that starkly contrasts with so many other cosseted sporting protégés.

Sink or swim

Unlike academies in football or rugby, and perhaps because of how tough the game is, more than a bit of an old-fashioned sink or swim culture lingers in racing. Kennedy was barely into this teens when he started to spend school holidays riding out at some major yards. It's a regime Lester Piggott would probably still recognise and it never fazed him.

“I always enjoyed it, didn’t miss home much. I’ve been away from home since I was young so I’m probably a couple of years ahead of my age that way,” Kennedy says. He points to his older brother, Paddy, also a jockey, as a huge influence. “Paddy lives in Kildare so no matter where I was I was never too far from him. He’s been like a safety net.”

Throughout there's always been a sense Kennedy's is a rare natural talent to compare with greats of the past. Gordon Elliott was prepared to invest in it first. In November 2015 the wider world became aware when a gawky-looking 16-year-old rode a 147-1 hat-trick for Elliott on Troytown day at Navan. It included the big race itself on JP McManus's Riverside City.

By then perhaps the finest natural talent ever to point a horse at a fence had had his final ride. Paul Carberry spent nearly a year trying to recover from injury before calling time on one of the most colourful careers in the old game's history. He too had been acclaimed since youth as a champion-in-waiting. But he says Kennedy's fast lane to fame is on another level again.

“He came on the scene very quickly. I’ve never seen it like that. They only come up now and again,” Carberry considers. “He is very talented and for a young fella he has a very good head on his shoulders. He has a good racing brain. He has good style, and good technique over hurdles and fences. But it is the good racing brain that’s important. He’s able to read his races very well, the correct time to come or to wait. That comes naturally to some people. I can’t really fault him, even at his age,” he adds.

Another legendary ex-champion also points out how it is the subtle mental test racing provides rather than any blood and guts dash that often separates great jockeys from the merely good.

"The difference of a really top class rider and a nearly top class rider is their judgement of pace. A lot of them can ride. But to be good at pace is what really counts. That's something you just pick up and have – or don't," says Charlie Swan. "I rate Jack very highly. For 19, what he's done is amazing."

It's why Kennedy is generally presumed as the heir-apparent to his senior rivals. Walsh, Geraghty and Russell will all be 40 later this year. That Richard Johnson is two years older them all and still champion jockey in Britain proves old measures of age wearying riders need realignment. Nevertheless the stage is open for a new generation. Kennedy looks in prime position to step up.

Champion jockey

Both Walsh and Geraghty had been crowned champion jockey by 20. Shortly afterwards they started collecting the championship races that define careers. They include the Champion Hurdle.

On Tuesday the ten-time Grade One winner Apple’s Jade will try to give Michael O’Leary a first win in the race and complete the Ryanair boss’s collection of jump racing’s unofficial Triple Crown.

Like the Gold Cup and the Grand National, Kennedy concedes these are the races every jockey desperately wants to win. Bt the opportunity to win them is accompanied by a weight of expectation. Apple’s Jade is a mare that has captured the public imagination. Then there’s O’Leary, famously demanding and disinclined to pull his punches when it comes to those riding for him. It’s a combination to rattle the most experienced nerves.

“If you think about it too much you start to doubt yourself. I’d be fairly laid-back anyway.  I look at it like there’s hype about them for a reason. It means they’re good. So you’re going in with a very good chance. You try to make it into a positive rather than thinking about something going wrong,” is Kennedy’s view. It’s one Swan understands.

"I was a bit of a show-off. I used to ride better on big days. I used to like that [pressure]. Some people thrive on the big days because they like to show off. That's why Ruby Walsh is so good. It's why Tiger Woods is as good as he is. He wants to show off how good he is, and how he can do something extra special on the really big days," he says.

“There will be nothing bigger at Cheltenham 2019 than the three-pronged  prospect of Apple’s Jade taking on Geraghty’s dual-Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air and the Walsh-ridden Laurina.

That Apple’s Jade lines up at all is unlikely. It isn’t long since Elliott argued she would be lapped in a Champion Hurdle. However she and Kennedy have been a revelation this season, none more so than in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle . Doubts about her in a first start at the minimum trip in over two years were squashed in style. There too however her habit of jumping right showed up again.

There's a lot of pressure riding for Gigginstown. But the one fella can manage it is Jack

“It’s out of idleness more than anything. Most of the time she makes the running and with nothing in front of her she’s idling a bit. I know we were going right handed in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse. But when Wicklow Brave took her on she was straight as a gun-barrel. I don’t think it’s much of an issue to be honest,” Kennedy argues.

The finding out for sure is a prospect to relish, as is the prospect of Kennedy landing the most important success of his career. It would be one accompanied by connotations of a changing of the riding guard. For Paul Carberry however it’s a case of when rather than if about Kennedy winning these championship races.

“He’ll get to that in time. He has a great yard behind him in Gordon’s. Eventually he’ll probably end up being stable jockey to Gordon and that’ll help him. Gordon’s sharing a lot of the rides around [between Kennedy and Russell] because he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on Jack at a young age,” Carberry argues.

Swan agrees that Elliott has shrewdly shuffled commitments between the old master Russell and the young man who once admired him from afar. Inevitably though, time is in Kennedy’s favour.

“He has a big future ahead of him,” says the former nine-time champion and rider of Istabraq “There’s a lot of pressure riding for Gigginstown. But the one fella that can manage it is Jack. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”

It might be the most mature 19-year-old head in all of sport, and well able for the responsibility of carrying so many Cheltenham hopes.

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