Appreciating the evergreen, quiet genius still riding out in his 80s

The 82-year-old trainer John Kiely has run four horses, this season. All have won, writes Johnny Ward.

AFTER THE LATE Carlingford Lough landed a gamble in the 2013 Galway Plate, John Kiely muttered amid the mayhem he may now retire.

Jockey Mark Walsh and trainer John Kiely Jockey Mark Walsh and trainer John Kiely at Leopardstown Racecourse. (File pic) Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It was, of course, a joke – and none of the party bought the gag. Carlingford Lough, for one, had five Grade 1 races still to win, two of them aged 10. His trainer, the man who knew the horse best, was only 76 years young back then, rendering the thought of his putting the feet up quite preposterous.

Nearing six years later, Kiely calling time is a suggestion so fanciful as to deprive any journalist the chance of it ever entering the hack’s head. WB Yeats extolled a fisherman in Connemara; the poet might have been describing a man from Dungarvan.

It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.

This ode to Kiely, in an online publication, is something of a contradiction, given how rooted he is in the ways of the past, a rudimentary country life that is becoming anachronistic. On Monday at Roscommon, the horses were hacking to post in the nightcap, Jerandme a seemingly unbeatable odds-on favourite. Fran Berry, working for Racing TV, had one last glance at the racecard.

Berry rode often for the trainer between the 1998 Galway Hurdle – when Kiely’s Black Queen grabbed his mount (Tidjani) up the hill – and Monday night’s meet at Roscommon. “I knew Jerandme looked a good thing but the more I looked at the second-favourite, trained by John, everything started to add up.”

Berry sought the betting, accepted 5/1 about Kiely’s Forest View and would soon reflect on the latest opportunity to wallow in the greatness of one of the gentlemen of the game.
“John would hatch plans for horses ages in advance. I remember riding a mare by Shantou in a mile-and-a-furlong maiden in early 2014 and wondering what he was doing running her over a distance so obviously inadequate.

“Her name was Toe The Line. A few months later I rode her to win a €150,000 handicap on Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown over a mile and six. I’ve no doubt all of this was thought about a long time before it happened.”

Berry laughs on recollection of that Galway Hurdle defeat: he can recall how sure he was of victory for much of the race. “John was considered a veteran back then,” the rider adds, over 20 years after the race and mere months after his own retirement.

Let’s go back another decade. Michael Caulfield – his English accent betraying his upbringing, his name a nod to his Irishness – was working as a stable lad and took up a three-year course on stud and stable husbandry. He rang Aidan Murphy, dad of trainer Olly, for advice.

“We’d worked together at David Nicholson’s, see. I needed to spend six months of the course getting some experience and Aidan says to me: ‘I know a fellow in Dungarvan; he’ll give you a job’.”

Some months after Ray Houghton had decided a game between the two countries closest to the young man, Michael Caulfield was off to Dungarvan. He would have what he now describes as “the greatest Masters, the greatest PHD anyone could have”.

John Kiely married and marries conservative ethos with hunger to learn when it comes to horses. Berry notes he was timing his work on the gallops long before it was the norm. Caulfield remembers his wife, Marian, and the smell of her soda bread in the morning.

“John is tee-total, a religious man, and I’ve little doubt what he does now is what he did when I was there three decades ago: he gets up as early as he did, makes his cup of tea the same way and has Marian’s soda bread in the morning.”

I have met Kiely a few times and what strikes you is his manners, humility, decency and simplicity – traits that mask his greatest one.

“Genius, there’s no doubt about his genius,” Michael goes on, “yet it is such a simple regime. Before riding out, we would milk the cows, tend to the sheep and do a bit of fencing – then onto the horses. And trying to ride work with John was quite something.

“I wasn’t much of a rider but John would show you in eight to 10 yards, teaching a horse how to race, almost everything you needed to know.”

Caulfield was not good enough to be a jockey. Indeed, he remembers a 12-year-old horse in Kiely’s one day running away and carting him into a chicken factory in Capoquin – all foul flailing and flustered akin to a scene from a comedy.

For all of that, he has enjoyed a fine career and is now a sports psychologist. Regularly, he thinks back and thinking back brings him to County Waterford.

“He taught me so much and I wish I had even one per cent of his patience and understanding,” Caulfield says.

“John would say to me: ‘You’re in a rush Mike! Take your time’. He waits, he waits, the solution appears. He is a man with extraordinary common sense.

“More than that it’s his understanding; his feel for people, his feel for horses. Above all else, he’s the finest gent I’ve met in my life; he helped make more people than he could even begin to imagine.”

This article is topical as it was a week in which racing illustrated the futility of bowing to advancing years. So far this season, the 82-year-old Kiely has – between the Flat and the jumps campaign – run four horses. All have won.

The night after his latest Roscommon winner, 16-year-old See Double You was at the same track and he only came home in front in a handicap hurdle run over more than three miles.

The last 16-year-old to win in Ireland before See Double You was The Lady’s Master in Tipperary in 1987. For his young trainer Ronan McNally, he will probably never see anything like it again.

I could not get over See Double You’s ability to defy his years, only for Google to tell me that his equivalent human age is 48.

“That’s nothing,” John Kiely might say. “Sure I am still riding work at 82.”

Only that wouldn’t be his style, this wise and simple man from Dungarvan.

At Limerick on Saturday, Star Of Oscar‘s time looks nigh in the finale (6.10), while Fairyhouse’s feature Sunday is the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Brownstown Stakes. This is a race John Kiely has not managed to win but he can feel no shame: Aidan O’Brien has also yet to win it. In the penultimate race (5.35), De Mazzaro looks lively.


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