Gifted ‘natural’ Kennedy eager to maintain his inexorable rise to the top

Young Kerry rider has a handsome lead at the top of Ireland’s jockeys’ table as he heads in to busy festive programme

Jack Kennedy is clear at the top of Ireland’s jockeys’ table and goes into the Christmas programme with an enviable book of big-race rides to look forward to, all of which is no surprise to anyone.

The thing with Kennedy is that, although he’s only 23, expectation has surrounded him for so long that such a position has come to be seen as all but inevitable.

Perhaps it’s part of the prodigy deal. The young Kerry man has been making headlines since he was a gawky 16-year-old riding a 147-1 hat-trick for Gordon Elliott at Navan in 2015.

At that time Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell were in their pomp, although with the finish line looming as they closed in on 40. Even then there was a sense that after their exit, Kennedy would be heir apparent.


So, when Russell, the last of the great era-defining triumvirate, retired recently it felt almost apt to see Kennedy top of the pecking order.

Not that the passing of any generational torch was inevitable. Assumptions get made for the quiet man from Dingle but don’t get indulged much by the man himself. He has learned the hard way how they get punished by injury.

None was more frustrating than breaking his right leg once again at Leopardstown in the very next race after winning the 2020 Irish Gold Cup on Delta Work. It put him out of action for seven months.

Despite such interruptions, Elliott’s loyalty to his protege has never wavered, making them a formidable team.

“A huge amount of trust has been built up between them over the years,” points out one figure close to the Elliott camp.

“He’s one of those jockeys that always seems to be in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t just happen by accident. He’s extremely good tactically. And he’s a very quiet man which never hurts in racing!” he added.

It’s ironic then how Kennedy’s greatest single moment to date came on a ‘spare’ for Henry De Bromhead that yielded 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup glory on Minella Indo.

Rachael Blackmore’s decision to opt for A Plus Tard left connections looking for a good ride going abegging. Not for the first-time, Kennedy filled the gap.

“For a young man he’s such a mature rider. Those old injuries are behind him and he’s the ‘go-to’ man now. He’s a champion in the waiting,” said trainer Enda Bolger. “It’s like a good soccer player, he just has it.”

Elliott was the first to invest fully in that ‘it’ and has supplied the bulk of Kennedy’s 72 winners to date this season.

“It’s already my best season so far,” Kennedy pointed out. “68 was my most winners in a season before this.”

Finally enjoying an uninterrupted run with injuries, unlike his rival for the jockeys’ title, Paul Townend, Kennedy holds a lead of 27 winners going into the Christmas action.

Townend has the power of Willie Mullins behind him but it is still a significant gap to bridge.

“It would be great [to win the title] but I’m trying to ride as many winners as I can. I’d say I’ll start thinking about it closer to Punchestown, just keep my head down, keep riding winners,” Kennedy said.

Davy Russell is one figure who is sure it’s a question of when and not if Kennedy becomes champion jockey.

The 43-year-old triple former champion was Kennedy’s idol growing up and the pair have been working closely alongside each other at Elliott’s in recent years.

“I’ve known him since he was 13 years of age, and you know what, he was a jockey when he was 13,” recalls Russell from watching the youngster in pony races. “People don’t really realise how much of a natural he was and is.”

It’s a word that keeps cropping up.

“He’s just so natural,” Barry Geraghty once commented. “A lovely pair of hands, horses generally settle for him, horses jump for him. He’s [got] a lovely laid-back attitude but he’s very committed.”

Russell’s retirement means Kennedy is the undisputed No. 1 at Elliott’s with all the opportunities arising as a result. The Cork man is sure his ex-colleague will relish them. He also doesn’t entertain talk of comparisons with his own generation.

“People say we were a golden era of jockeys. But we’re gone now. There will be another golden era, and people putting pressure on them.

“Jack is in a great position, and he has a great way of making use of that position. I can see him and Paul Townend and those lads being around for a long time,” he said.

Russell retired at 43. So did the renowned former British champion jockey Richard Johnson. Theoretically at least there’s a reasonable chance of Kennedy looking at two more decades of competition at the highest level.

There is every prospect too that such longevity will wind up being taken as read.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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