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An Interview with Ex-Jockey William Kennedy

‘How are you enjoying retirement?’ I asked the recently retired National Hunt jockey William Kennedy.

‘I’m not!’ he answered with a laugh. To love the life you live and then leave behind that adrenaline rush of riding winners is tough; that’s what William is going through at the moment.

Reflecting on his career, there were many individuals to thank but the owners, trainers and, of course, his fellow jockeys were on the long list. ‘I loved my twenty years as a jockey and I’d also really like to thank the lads and lasses who worked at the yards for all they’ve ever done. They are the heart and soul of racing.’

Having been brought up in a racing family on The Curragh, County Kildare, he crossed over to the UK to make it as a jockey. His first ever winner was in October 2003 on La Luna at Kelso for his boss Noel Chance in a conditional jockeys’ novices’ hurdle by fourteen lengths. His talent was confirmed when winning Champion Conditional for the 2005-6 season.

With 63 winners, William’s best ever season was in 2016-17 when he was riding for Donald McCain; big victories included an Imperial Cup for Dr Richard Newland on Ebony Express and back-to-back Lanzarote Hurdles – both for Nick Williams – on James Du Vassey and Swincombe Flame. Over the years, William also was associated with Paul Webber who trained Time For Rupert, arguably the best horse William rode, as well as Alex Hales, Sarah-Jane Davies, Ian Williams and Jonjo O’Neill. Retiring on the second last day of the season with two rides at Southwell for Olly Murphy, on one of which he finished third, he finished with over 450 winners.

William, 41, lives in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire with his partner Rachel Hawkins, a businesswoman and their five dogs: two Italian Greyhounds, two miniature dachshunds and a Jack Russell. Despite this being the end of William’s beloved race riding career, there will be many doors open for this likable, diligent, stylish ex-jockey.

Did you have a horsey childhood? I very much had a horsey childhood: obviously my dad had been a jockey and by the time I came along, he was training so I was always around horses. My first pony was called Bruce. Myself, Fiona Chance (now Johnson), Stephen Craine and a couple of others were around the same area. A gang of about six of us used to get out on our ponies on the plains of The Curragh. We’d go out in the morning to make obstacles with fir bushes and then go and get the ponies, riding them back out in the afternoon to jump over them.

Was a career in racing inevitable? I always wanted to be a Flat jockey from a young age but I turned a bit tall and a bit heavy – plus, my brother Vivian had been killed in a race so my parents weren't obviously keen for me to start. Therefore, I completed my leaving certificate and finished school, and from there I went to work for Godolphin for a season in Dubai. It was a great experience and I really loved that.

At the end of my season in Dubai, I had the option to go and work for Owen Harty, who was Godolphin's American establishment at the time. But I still wanted to try and ride and to be a jockey so I came back to Ireland but was struggling to get a foot in the door anywhere. My dad didn't have enough horses. I then did a little stint as pupil assistant trainer for Mikey Grassick on the Curragh.

How did you come over to the UK? I was watching Channel 4 Racing at the start of the new jump season. John Francome was on there talking about a lack of young guys coming through the jumps game in the UK and it triggered me to give it a go.

I ended up with two options: my mum makes racing silks and she’d made all of Ferdy Murphy's colours even though he was training in the UK so had an option to go to there or to Noel Chance’s. I'd grown up with his daughter Fiona and the family, and that was the connexion to choose to work for Noel Chance. Plus, he’d just trained his second Cheltenham Gold Cup winner!

Favourite racecourses: My answer to this is you always like the course you've had success at. In my time riding for Donald McCain, I had a lot of success at Bangor and in the early part of my career, I had quite a bit of success at Market Rasen so both of those courses stick out to me.

Obviously, every time I’d get in my car to ride at any of the Grade 1 tracks – Cheltenham, Newbury, Aintree, Ascot and Sandown – if I didn’t have any butterflies in my belly or any excitement at all to ride at those tracks, then you're not human. So, any day I got into my car to ride any of those tracks felt like a good day. The stand-out one of those is Sandown because I had a few successful rides round there, including in the Imperial Cup.

The only racecourse I never had a winner at was Ascot, which will always bite me that I didn't get the full house. Jamie Moore put me up on one ride of his at the last meeting there this year when he was injured and we finished third.

Least favourite racecourse: Hexham.

Did race riding ever take you abroad? I had a handful of rides in Ireland before coming to the UK and then the only winner I ever had round there was in Leopardstown bumper on Supreme Leisure for Noel chance as a 7lb claimer. I had the pleasure of riding for Jonjo O'Neill in the Irish Grand National on Alfie Sherrin. I also had a couple of rides in France but I never went too far.

Best horse you rode: Time For Rupert (pictured above) for the obvious reasons. Plus, Clubs Are Trumps did have a special place as I won five on him.

Most memorable day on a racecourse: This is always a tricky one but one stands out: Time For Rupert winning at Aintree at the Grand National festival at 50-1. A couple of weeks before, he’d got knocked into early in the EBF Final at Sandown, ruining our chances, so I went into Aintree a little bit forgotten. I’ll never forget when Paul Webber legged me up, we looked at each other and I said, ‘This horse’ll go close today’. Paul agreed – we were both quite bullish about his chances. My brother Niall and my dad had come over so it was nice they were there.

What aspects will you miss about race riding? The biggest thing I’ll miss is the winning. Riding winners is what you want to do. The next thing is the weighing room, being in there with all the guys.

After winning the Lanzarote on Swincombe Flame

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Generally, what does racing do well? Racing is very inclusive and it brings people from all walks of life and from all different backgrounds together.

Where could aspects be improved? The obvious one is prize money but my backup point is that a lot of the governing bodies in racing are all trying to make subtle differences in racing but I think that everyone needs to pull together.

The prize money needs to be bettered then everyone will benefit. Like a pyramid, if the prize money is better then it’ll filter through to everybody; that everyone gets a better cut. Instead of jockeys having to take money off agents and valets, instead of annoying the other people within the sport. Making only little changes doesn’t benefit anyone and you can’t keep asking owners for more money.

We need to come together as one – too many bodies – the National Trainers Federation, Jockey Club, BHA – are all fighting their own corner. I believe there has to be an amalgamation of all the bodies and then everyone can figure out how to get extra prize money.

(L-R) Will rode succesfully for Donald McCain, race day hoasting and with partner Rachel at Royal Ascot

What does your future entail? I’m still regretting my decision to give up but I feel if I did it in a year’s time, it still wouldn’t feel any better. It was just about the right time if there’s such a thing – I would love to go on forever. I literally lived my dream for twenty years so for that I’m very very lucky and I know how privileged I was. Not many people get to live their dream.

Now, I’ve got to work for a living! I’m not rushing into anything at the moment and I want to explore a few different options. I am a qualified jockey coach, and I work for Dave Crosse at race meetings doing corporate hospitality. I’ve done a little bit for Race Day TV and I’m keen to pursue doing racing media. I’d love to go down that route.

My dream job would be an owner’s racing manager or a syndicate’s manager – I’d love to go around sitting on horses, to keep riding out a bit.

Racing hero: Just to be boring, I’ll say AP McCoy.

Is there anything you have time for now that you didn’t have time for whilst you were a jockey? the funny thing – and I’m answering this truthfully – I’m so worried about what I’m going to do next and so busy in my own head, I haven’t got into a routine of doing anything yet. However, I’m looking forward to not having to say no to nights out, birthday parties, weddings and being able to go away on a ten-day holiday without any worries.

Best racing party you’ve been to: It has be AP McCoy’s party in Adare Manor. If anyone says they were at that one but have been to a better one, they’re lying!

Favourite meal: Burratta salad for starter, surf ‘n’ turn (steak and lobster) with fries and tiramisu for dessert.

Favourite drink: Ironically for an Irishman I didn’t drink a pint of Guinness until I was thirty-nine. Now, I love it and it’s my favourite drink.

Favourite snack: crisps – I love crisps!

Favourite holiday destination: Palma in Mallorca.

Favourite music: Everything!

Favourite book: I’m not a huge reader but the best book I’ve read is The Secret Race by Daniel Coyle. It’s about doping in cycling and is incredible. One for a laugh on holiday is This is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay.

Other hobbies: Golf and cycling.

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