Flourishing trainer Philip Kirby talks to Hannah Lemieux about his Festival hopeful, dealing with setbacks and why his horses work in an outline
Ten years ago, a one-month-old foal arrived at the North Yorkshire yard of trainer Philip Kirby alongside her dam, Lady Chapp. Fast-forward a decade, and this bonny youngster has become one of the top National Hunt mares in the country, effortlessly combining good looks with steely determination and toughness.
Lady Buttons has become the yard’s flag-bearer since making a winning debut on the racecourse in a Wetherby bumper in 2013 and, with 15 victories now under her belt, the Grade Two and Listed winner heads to the Cheltenham Festival in a bid to claim a first Grade One for herself and her trainer.
With entries in both the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase, although she has been declared for the former, the “Queen of the North” — as she’s affectionately known — is equally comfortable over fences as she is on the hurdles course.
“Lady Buttons has been with us from the start and her work has always been very good; she was always above average and better than other three-year-olds in the yard,” says Philip of the daughter of Beneficial, who is owned by her breeders, Jayne and Keith Sivills. “She is a very straightforward horse to train, relaxed and talented, who loves her work and does as little or as much as is required.”
Philip adds that she is clever and can adapt easily, is quick over a hurdle yet impressively scopey when it comes to jumping a chase fence.
“Jumping is her strong point, which is why she was entered for the Champion Chase,” says Philip, who has now decided she will run in the mare’s hurdle. “We’ve always thought she’s a better chaser than hurdler because her jumping is so brilliant, but the more winnable opportunities for her have come from hurdling.”
Lady Buttons has moved three times with Team Kirby and the newest set-up is a purpose-built racing yard, a stone’s throw from the A1 in the village of East Appleton.
Her work rider, Jennie Durrans, fondly refers to her as “Queen” when I ask what her stable name is. One thing is for certain, Lady Buttons knows she is top dog in the yard; so much so, she has a solarium placed 24/7 in her stable. She has a beautiful head and a genuine eye, and proves particularly photogenic while the H&H photographer snaps away.
Despite being unproven around Cheltenham (finishing fourth in last year’s OLBG Mares’ Hurdle), Philip believes she has every right to be there.
“I won’t run her to make up the numbers, she deserves the chance to run at the Festival,” he says. “But we won’t know if it’s a ‘track thing’ until she underperforms again there.”
Jennie describes the supermare as “Benjamin Button” because she seems to be getting better and better with age. And with that, the dilemma for connections now is how long to keep her in the racing game before she heads off to her broodmare duties.
“Her owner/breeders will definitely keep her for breeding,” says Philip. “But it is undecided whether that will be at the end of this season or next, because she is running at her best ever this year. I am conscious not to keep running her for too long but then again, if she’s in her best form is it silly to retire her?
“I know we’re running out of time with her but I’d love for her to win a Grade One, not only for the yard but for her — she deserves it.”
The highs and lows of racing
Philip is flying the flag for jump trainers in the north of England, while also successfully training Flat horses, and his yard has been gradually increasing over the years. He now has around 100 horses, including broodmares and the youngstock he and his equestrian artist wife, Pippa, have bred on the 100-acre Green Oaks farm.
Early on, being a licensed trainer under Rules was not the plan Philip had in mind. Having started as a stable lad for late trainer Ferdy Murphy, Philip had a few rides as an amateur jockey — winning on his first — before training to become a farrier. While shoeing, he trained a handful of pointers and impressively became the champion hunter chase trainer with just three horses.
“Realistically, I never thought I’d be able to make a living training horses, but then my numbers started to grow and I had an owner who wanted me to take out my training licence. I had a great start early on,” reflects Philip.
Four years ago Philip and Pippa, with their two daughters, moved to their current yard, which at the time was a derelict farm. The land is owned by Philip’s friend John Bell (also an owner with Philip) and the pair have invested heavily in the farm. Within six months, the stables were up, a sand arena and lunge pen installed, and an all-weather gallop put down.
The trainer, who often rides out and most days can be found in the tractor harrowing the gallops in between each lot, has experienced both the highs and lows of racing. But this year he will have his first “proper” Grand National runner in Top Ville Ben, after Don Poli was purchased the day before the National at the Aintree sales last year by Darren Yates and placed under Philip’s name.
“It was all a bit surreal,” he says, “because I couldn’t really say I trained Don Poli for the National. I had prepared Blaklion for the race, before he sadly got injured.”
Don Poli completed the National in 19th place, but Philip was hit with a blow over the summer when that horse, plus Blaklion and Interconnected, who was purchased for a record £620,000 at the sales, were all moved from his yard. Philip accepts it is “part and parcel” of the training game.
“Obviously, it is disappointing but every trainer gets their horses from elsewhere, and you just have to smile and move on — it doesn’t worry me too much in the long term,” he says.
“It’s all part of the job and you have to get on with it and be pleasant, as there’s every chance that owner could come back one day.”
With the added influence of his wife, who’s also a showing rider, Philip likes his horses to be worked in an outline in the arena before they canter, to learn how to “use themselves”.
“I’m conscious that I have to get my horses as fit as the big trainers have theirs down south, but my philosophy is to have them fit, happy in their minds and healthy, and placed in the right race on the right day,” he adds.
Having horses quality enough to run at the Festival and in the Grand National is something all trainers, big and small, aspire to. Philip has been knocking on the door for a while now, and 2020 could be a big year for this flourishing trainer.
Ref Horse & Hound; 5 March 2020
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