1 October 2000
The Irishman’s fighting qualities are expected to steer Montjeu to another victory in the Arc de Triomphe today
When Michael Kinane was twelve he informed his mother at tea that while the five-stone class in the local boxing championships in Tipperary would be tough, the 4st 7lbs class “would be a doddle”. As he weighed 5st 2lbs at the time he would be needing less cake in future. Hunger is not a hard enough word.
For 29 years on since the weight was shed and the fights were won, hunger is still at the heart of it all. Not hunger in the self-starving sense – with his weight steadied on 8st 7lbs, Kinane will ride Arc de Triomphe favourite Montjeu on a comfortable saddle this afternoon – but hunger as in desire. Kinane’s cold, blue eyes beneath those curled ginger eyebrows now want victory, think victory and achieve victory at a higher and wider level than any jockey in history.
As he parades in front of the packed stands at Longchamp he will do so as the only man to have snaffled the globe’s top races in Europe, America, Hong Kong, Japan and in Australia, too. Even Dettori for all his stylish, flying-dismount brilliance has not yet touched the formerly impossible Melbourne Cup target which Michael Kinane and Vintage Crop hit in 1993. Kinane is special. Last week you could see why.
On Thursday at Newmarket he brought Minardi back into the Newmarket winner’s circle after a marvellous finale to the Group 1 Middle Park Stakes, whose £89,000 purse takes the 11-time Irish champion’s UK winnings this year to almost £2,400,000, the top of the British table. But on Wednesday Michael was somewhere very different. He was at Ballinacolla. The man who also in 1993 had shocked the world by turning down the Sheikh Mohammed job in Newmarket was back where only a real Irish countryman would go.
To understand Kinane’s inspiration you have to see him as a creature of roots and a man of space. Admittedly there was not a lot of the latter in the car as we sped across Kildare in something little short of a monsoon. But the roots were there aplenty. Wednesday’s fellow passengers were father Tommy, irrepressible at 67, and Thomas, the oldest of seven brothers and sisters, the pair of them chattering away while Michael made plans on his mobile.
Our destination: the Irish National Ploughing Championships in County Laois, where some 50,000 locals had come to marvel at new machinery, chew the cud and, despite Ireland’s remarkable 21st century Celtic Tiger modernisation, to still revel in such traditional things as sack tossing and team racing between riders from local hunts.
“Of course, it’s good to have diversion,” he says in shrugging explanation as to how he keeps his powder if not his person dry. The little rain-suited figure huddled under the umbrella has this year had just 181 rides (for 59 winners) in Ireland and another 124 (for 26 successes) in England. Compare that with UK leaders Kevin Darley 870 (for 140) and Pat Eddery’s 744 rides (for 120 winners).
We may now be trudging through ankle deep mud as the storm lashes out from a mackerel sky, but here is a man who puts quality first.
Not in a flash way; not one in a thousand recognised Ireland’s most successful sportsman of the last decade as family Kinane, all of them riders in their time and father, Tommy, winning the Champion Hurdle at 44, picked at their chips opposite the wood-fencing stand. But pursuing excellence in a manner where Kinane, at 41, can harness his ferocious commitment and God-given gifts to extend his achievements as well as to repay the wife and two daughters he would not uproot even for all that promised gold from Araby.
The house we had left that morning is a newly-built mansion of neo-Georgian splendour set in 80 green acres, just next to Punchestown racecourse, near Naas. The lodge inside the great iron gates gives a perfect granny house for parents Tommy and Frances, another one is soon to be started for Thomas and his family to move in to help. The sweeping, lamp-posted drive sweeps round a duck lake to a front door which opens in to a marble hall with chandeliers, balustraded staircase and a sense of stylish luxury light years away from the day father Tommy quit his £33 building job in London to return to work at his brother’s stable in Tipperary for £2 a week.
“This has been an expensive project,” says Michael quietly, “and we’re not finished yet.” He tilts his face up and gives a grin which, though warm, still has a canine glint about it which reminds you just how hard a road it has been, this getting of wisdom. The first winner may have come with the first ride that March day at Leopardstown in 1975, but trainers Liam Browne and then Dermot Weld, who for more than a decade preceded the present golden three-year association with Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle, were task masters of the toughest kind.
Browne was strict almost to the point of brutality and, when Weld took Kinane up to championship level, it was by challenging him to deliver to the most demanding of standards in Ireland and overseas. Gradually, the raw talent which first surfaced in the boxing ring evolved into the complete, cool-manoeuvring, compulsive finishing package which won two other races besides Minardi’s at Newmarket last week.
“Oh, he was such a brilliant little boxer,” enthused Kinane senior. “So quick and sharp and determined. And he took those qualities to riding ponies and then racehorses, too. Over the years he has calmed his temper but he still takes no prisoners when things really matter.”
The son listens to the father with amused affection. “You have to earn your stripes,” Michael says meaningfully, “it’s a matter of confidence and understanding and not getting yourself into bad positions. But if your body holds up there is no reason why you can’t get even better as you get older.
Over the years the body has taken a fair share of battering, worst of all in 1994 when he was nearly kicked to bits when coming down in the midst of the pack one night at Happy Valley racetrack in Hong Kong. And only three months ago a lower back strain looked set to ruin the rest of the season until admirer (and Ballydoyle owner) Alex Ferguson got him over for a vital week with the Manchester United rehabilitation staff. Kinane returned to partner Montjeu to a victory at Ascot as awesomely smooth as last year’s Arc de Triomphe success was relentlessly powerful.
“Sitting on him is quite different from ordinary horses,” says Kinane, “he has so much pace that if you just go to change him up a gear, whoosh, you’re right on top of the leaders. He wasn’t quite himself last time but if everything is right at Longchamp, I don’t think anything, not even Sinndar, has got the guns to match him.”
“Mind you,” he adds, “Montjeu has a little bit of attitude. If we got into a toe-to-toe slugging match with Sinndar, he would definitely be second favourite. But,” he says now almost whispering, “I guess it’s up to me to prevent that happening.”
On the way in to the ploughing championships there was a white advertisers’ hoarding stuck in the hedgerow with the question: `Thinking of Changing Your Job?’ Race fans must hope that Kinane will give us a year or two yet.