Sometimes you have to go through hard times to truly appreciate good ones.
Just ask Jack Kennedy.
The Dingle native was only 17 when he first tasted glory at the Cheltenham Festival, steering the quirky Labaik to a shock victory in the Supreme Novices Hurdle in 2017.
A year later, he left the Mecca of jumps racing having booted home four winners, one of whom was festival banker Samcro.
Pressure? What pressure?
Kennedy returned to Prestbury Park last March but left without a single winner.
That’s Cheltenham, magical one year, callously brutal the next.
This year brought other challenges, a frustrating run of injuries, most recently breaking a collarbone for a second time, denying him the momentum every jockey needs to excel.
This Christmas didn’t start great either, the much-hyped Samcro finding the ageing Faugheen too fast for him at Limerick on St Stephen’s Day.
Kennedy’s luck finally turned at Leopardstown on Friday, Abacadabras providing the Dingle man with a timely Grade One success and Roaring Bull swooping late to land the Paddy Power Chase.
His prospects of further big-race success on Saturday looked slim. Apple’s Jade went into Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle under a cloud, having looked a shadow of her brilliant best in her five previous runs.
She was, we would later learn from owner Michael O’Leary, in the last chance saloon, one more bad run would bring about retirement.
Things were not quite so desperate with Delta Work but he went into the Savills Chase with much to prove having disappointed on his seasonal reappearance at Down Royal last month.
But, to quote the old maxim, form is temporary, class is permanent. With Bacardys badly out of sorts, the value of the form of the Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle could be questioned but the rapturous reception the 16,251 people gave Apple’s Jade on her return to the winner’s enclosure spoke volumes about the enduring popularity of Gordon Elliott’s magical mare.
From a strict form perspective, it was a similar story with Delta Work.
Beating an exposed rival in Monalee by a head doesn’t scream Gold Cup winner in waiting but for Kennedy, who was completing a treble on the day having also scored on the Dermot Weld-trained Dalton Highway in the Irish Daily Star Christmas Handicap Hurdle, it was a special moment.
“That’s as good as you’ll get, I can’t believe it,” the 20-year-old said. “Everything’s gone to plan today so it’s great. I was probably a little bit closer than I wanted to be (with Delta Work), he was in my hands a little bit, but he was jumping so well.
“We went steady enough and he can be a keen horse. But he was jumping so well I was having to take him back at the back of fences so that’s probably why he got lit up a bit but it all worked out.”
Reflecting on Samcro’s shock defeat and perhaps on some level his own injury travails, Kennedy added: “You can’t dwell on disappointments, you have to get on with things, there’s more to it than one horse and you have to focus on what’s ahead of you.”
Unsurprisingly, Elliott was quick to pay tribute to his jockey.
Jack is riding out of his skin, he’s had a lot of bad injuries, but it’s good to see him back riding like this. He’s a top-class jockey.
Whether Delta Work is a top-class chaser remains open to debate but with the Cheltenham Gold Cup picture looking so muddled, he certainly deserves to be considered a contender.
“We thought he was a Gold Cup horse last year and our bubble got burst in Down Royal, but we’re not gone yet. You’ve got to have faith in your horses,” Elliott said.
Given her recent form, keeping the faith with Apple’s Jade required a leap but Elliott believed and was rewarded with the mare’s 11th Grade One success.
He wasn’t the only one who belied either as Apple’s Jade was backed into 6-4 co-favourtism and won by no less than 17 lengths despite continuing her tendency to give away ground by jumping markedly to her right.
“It’s brilliant,” Kennedy said. “I know she’s had a couple of disappointing runs but she put that behind her today and showed her class. She carried me today whereas she didn’t the last day. She seemed to be back to the way she always was, I was always happy on her. You grow up watching horses like her on the telly and to be associated with one like that is unbelievable.”
O’Leary was similarly delighted. “She jumped really well today. She may have jumped out to her right but she was kind of making ground at her hurdles. She seemed really keen. She was fairly lifeless, I thought, in Fairyhouse and Navan which is not like her. But it looks like she’s back which is great.
“It’s a great training performance by Gordon, there was clearly something wrong with her and hopefully the treatment for ulcers has fixed it.
“Today’s a great bonus, it’s wonderful to see her back. I’d imagine she’ll run back here in February, I can’t imagine she’ll go to Cheltenham but that will ultimately be Gordon’s decision.
“One more bad run and she is getting retired but if she runs like that and jumps like that then we’ll keep going. You know yourself, it’s like with all ladies, when they decide they’ve had enough they’ve had enough! I can’t persuade them to do any more.”
Nor can O’Leary be persuaded to reconsider his decision to wind up his Gigginstown operation. And if a day like Saturday couldn’t do it, surely nothing will.
Asked if the obvious enjoyment his children took from a day to savour might tempt him to reverse his decision to exit the scene, O’Leary replied: “Unfortunately, my children love winning. They’re very happy to come up here when there’s a presentation of a trophy to be got but you don’t see them too much in the unsaddling enclosure (for the losers).
The conversation going home in the car will be ‘where can we have pizza, can we go and see the new Star Wars movie before New Year’s Eve’. They couldn’t care less about the racing.
But will he miss the feeling of excitement winning brings?
“You’ll always miss the feeling but I’ve had a lot of those feelings, a couple of Gold Cups, a couple of Grand Nationals — it doesn’t go on. I get more satisfaction and a buzz now out of my children running around on a wet field, that’s where I get the buzz now, but these are great days.”
That they are but, while O’Leary’s days in the racing game are now numbered, the same, fitness permitting, can’t be said of Kennedy. This year may have tested his patience but a Grade One double and an 88-1 treble on one of the biggest days in the Irish racing calendar is some way to end it.
The decade ahead could be his.