‘They aren’t hooligans; a top horse’s mindset is different’: meet Derby-winning jockey Adam Kirby *H&H Plus*

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  • Once better known for his exploits on the all-weather, Adam Kirby scored a win on only his second Derby ride. He tells Catherine Austen about that winning feeling, racing pigeons and his passion for starting youngsters

    AS Adam Kirby rode Adayar into the winners’ enclosure at Epsom after the Derby, the expression on his face was more one of utter disbelief and shock than elation. Not only had the 32-year-old won the world’s most famous Flat race on just his second-ever ride in it, but he could also see his fellow jockeys lined up outside the weighing room, grinning, whistling and applauding.

    This is a very rare sight in Flat racing. It indicates the level of respect accorded to him as a man and a horseman – and his peers’ recognition that consistent hard work can spark a slow-burning career into flame.

    Adam may have ridden more than 1,800 winners in the 16 years he’s been a jockey, but only seven of those have been at Group One level. His was not a name known outside of the sport, but a Derby victory means headlines around the world.

    “I was very surprised by that,” he admits. “You don’t see the lads coming out of the weighing room very often, which made it a lot more special. I’ve had no end of lovely messages and letters since. Lots of people have been happy about the way it turned out, which is a nice thing.”

    What the modest and softly spoken man means by “the way it turned out” is the fact that two weeks before the race, Adam was called up for the high-profile ride on John Leeper, the colt trained by Ed Dunlop and named after his legendary Derby-winning father, John Leeper Dunlop. It was a big nod to how far Adam, never a particularly fashionable jockey, had succeeded in climbing his way up the ladder of the riding ranks.

    However, three days before the Derby, the die was thrown again. Frankie Dettori was given the ride on John Leeper and, while Adam was snapped up by his supporter Charlie Appleby to ride what appeared to be Godolphin’s third-string in the race, Adayar, it seemed only to be a consolation prize.

    Adayar ridden by Adam Kirby on their way to winning the Cazoo Derby 2021

    Adayar ridden by Adam Kirby on their way to winning the Cazoo Derby 2021. Photo by John Walton-Pool/Getty Images

    What goes around comes around in racing; the champion jockey Oisin Murphy is then found himself without a Derby ride, as he was Charlie’s second choice for Adayar.

    “I can’t thank Charlie enough,” Adam says. “His loyalty is unbelievable.”

    Anyone who appreciated the intricacies of the situation found themselves shouting with delight when Adam held the Frankel colt, a 16/1 chance, tight to the rail as they flew round Tattenham Corner and then unleashed him with a beautiful, relentless charge down Epsom’s hill to the winning post.

    “It’s a great feeling, being in front in the Derby, but when you hit the front you just want the post to come – you haven’t won it until you pass it,” he says.

    Breeding champions

    IT’S the day before Royal Ascot starts, and we’re sitting outside his house, a few miles outside Newmarket, in burning sunshine. Children’s toys litter the yard. His car door is open to reveal the bags and bags of pigeon food he’s just picked up from Mole Valley Farmers. A peal of canine noise betrays the existence of 60 greyhounds – trained by Adam’s mother – while horses of all shapes and sizes and lineage clip-clop past. There are broodmares, yearlings, a couple of hunters, a pony for Adam and his partner Megan’s children (Charlie, five, and Evie, three), a donkey, a ferret, some budgies…

    The racing pigeons are a new addition.

    “I’m fascinated by the pigeons,” says Adam with a smile. “A chap gave me a little ‘starter pack’ to breed a few of my own, and I’ve just bred a lot which will be the right age to start racing soon. So I have raced them a good few times and they still come home, so they must like it.

    “Listen, it is a cheap hobby and it’s fun. It’s nice when you get home and they are already back. I’ve got some mates coming over with timers this week so we can time how long it takes them to fly around the world! I don’t know if I will breed any kind of champion, but you have to be in it to win it and it is certainly cheaper than breeding a Derby champion.”

    Adam’s father, Maurice, bought Vicarage Farm in Kirtling, Cambridgeshire, when Adam was four years old.

    “Mum’s horsey; Dad wasn’t really a rider, but when we got this place he could breed a few thoroughbreds. He bred a few nice ones, but it’s a money pit,” he says. “My brother and sister and I had a little pony called Timmy, and I was bombing around on him from the age of six.

    “A guy called Malcolm Bryson kept his horse here and I used to go out with him; he was the one who got me started, really. And there was a girl, Stephanie Reed, who used to come here and break the horses in – she was also a massive help to get me going and taught me how to ride thoroughbreds. She took me to a few shows – I wasn’t very good at that. I used to take the wrong course a bit, probably talking when I should have been listening. I had a great childhood here, and never wanted for anything.”

    Adam Kirby riding Unforgiving Minute to win at Lingfield

    Most of Adam Kirby’s wins have come on less prestigious tracks, such as here at Lingfield on Unforgiving Minute.

    Adam started riding out for trainer James Fanshawe when he was 12 – the year he left school.

    “I suffer badly with dyslexia and hated school,” he explains. “I couldn’t concentrate. All I’d think about was messing around with ponies and tractors on the farm. I’d get upset with myself – being dyslexic doesn’t mean you are thick – I’m just good at things that I can focus on and bad at things I can’t – but I was rubbish at things I wasn’t interested in.

    “However, racing actually helped as I would try to read the Racing Post and other things I was interested in. I think that is why I am more of an animal person than a people person.

    “I just couldn’t handle school any more, and Mum and Dad were very good about it and home-educated me. I would like to think I never looked back. If I could do it all over again, I would do the same.

    “I was tiny when I first rode a thoroughbred and was always run away with, but it was a hell of a buzz and there is no greater feeling than riding a decent horse.”

    Turning professional

    ADAM’S first ride as a professional when he was 16 was a winner – Broughton Knows for Gay Kelleway at Lingfield on 1 October 2004. At 5ft 11in, he is exceptionally tall for a Flat jockey, so he thought his nascent career might be short-lived.

    “I was getting heavy quite quickly, so I thought I may as well enjoy it while I could. I thought about jumping – I like jump racing – but I’m into the Flat, really. I did have one ride, in a Flat jockeys’ jumps race at Lingfield, and came second, but I didn’t get as much of a buzz as I thought I would,” he says.

    He has kept the weight off, however – at Epsom it appeared as though his cheekbones could poke out through his skin – and an association with the Lambourn trainer Clive Cox has been a happy and consistently successful one. Adam’s first Group One winner, Lethal Force in the 2013 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, was for Clive, as have all his top-level victories been until Adayar.

    He gets his jumping kicks out hunting, however. When the former Flat jockey Eddie Ahern was in England, he regularly took Adam hunting with the “thrusting” packs.

    “I used to have marvellous days following him,” says Adam with enthusiasm. “Sadly he has gone back to Ireland so I don’t get to go with him any more, which took the shine off hunting a little bit. It is nice to have a friend who is a bit go-ey to follow. I met some great people through hunting.”

    Adam Kirby at the Melton Hunt Club Ride

    Pictured at the Melton Hunt Club Ride, Adam admits to getting his jumping kicks out hunting with the “thrusting packs”.

    His winters are already very busy with breaking in yearlings – in a load that came from Charlie Appleby two years ago was his very own future Derby winner, Adayar – and any young sport horses he’s sent. He’s keen to do more with the latter.

    He says: “Ever since I have had my own money, I have bought a few and sold a few and messed about with all types of horses. I have a very good hunting mare in the field, best I’ve ever had; she’s just had a foal from a coloured sport horse. It’s come out red and white so I’m looking forward to having some fun with that.”

    The breaking-in business is growing.

    “I love to work with such quality [horses],” he says. “They aren’t hooligans; a top horse’s mindset is different. They learn first time. When you are going through that volume of horses, it’s quite obvious that I can’t break them all in myself, but they are broken as I would like them to be and it is a big team effort. Hopefully it is going the right way and will start to really kick on. It would be nice to be able to promise the staff, who are good riders and loyal, a full volume of horses all year round.”

    ‘I understand horses’

    ADAM admits that he finds horses easier than people. Pressed to explain why, he says: “I understand horses. For instance, a young one that is thinking about doing something naughty, I can see him thinking about doing it and so can act accordingly. You can correct things quickly; I get how they think.”

    It’s too early to know whether winning the Derby will change Adam Kirby’s life, but he doesn’t really care. He just wants to work with nice horses. And if you’ve got a young one at home that needs breaking in or educating, no matter what its parentage may be, he’d love you to send it to Vicarage Farm.


    This exclusive feature is also available in this Thursday’s Horse & Hound magazine, on sale 1 July 2021

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