Some sportsmen explode precociously into the headlines — and disappear as quickly. Some, while respected by their peers, have to graft their way through the tack-on paragraphs and body copy before they win recognition. If you had looked up Shane Kelly on the internet a few months ago, you would probably have had to be content with references to a sultry-voiced American soul-singer or an Australian Olympic cyclist. As he swung into the saddle aboard Amanda Perrett’s Pagan Crest for the first at Newmarket on Saturday, I was reflecting that, if you had sought odds at the start of the season on the 26-year-old jockey from Leitrim who shares that name riding 100 winners this season, you would have been generously accommodated. But there must be every possibility that Shane Kelly will make the next target in his career, which is now on the cusp between that of the journeyman jockey and the well-rewarded top flight of riders.
S.W. Kelly, as he usually appears in the racing programmes, had his own ponies at home in Ireland. At 15 he went to apprentice school, the same one as big-race specialist Johnny Murtagh and championship-challenging Robert Winston. He rode out for Frances Crowley and John Oxx, and in 1997 he was Ireland’s champion apprentice. But then came the lean period which so often follows the loss of those riding allowances. Shane broke an ankle badly and was off for three months. His weight increased and suddenly it was hard-going.
Mentored by Barney Curley, the gambler and trainer whose quiet acts of kindness never attract the same notice as his public dust-ups and who has pointed many a young rider in the right direction, he came to try his luck in England in 2001, getting opportunities with the likes of Jamie Osborne and William Haggas. Two years ago he rode 43 winners and finished 38th in the table. Last year it was 51 winners to finish 30th. This year he has ridden 61 already and currently stands in seventh place.
An athletic figure with muscular shoulders tapering to a nothing waist, Shane Kelly is modest and appreciative of the chances he has been given. ‘The all-weather has been the key,’ he says. ‘This year I got lucky with some early successes. Terry Mills gave me a few rides and it has clicked from there.’
Notable among those rides, of course, has been Terry’s sprinter Resplendent Glory, who provided Shane with his first Group Three success. He says, with obvious affection, ‘He’s only a three-year-old but he has the heart of a lion and enormous speed. Hopefully, all he can do is to improve.’
The combination successes have begun to arrive. Along with Amanda Perrett’s Pagan Sword and Robert Cowell’s Smooch, Resplendent Glory gave Shane a Salisbury treble on May Day. Earlier in the year there had been a four-timer on the all-weather at Wolverhampton. One of the four was provided by Jeremy Noseda, for whom he sometimes rides out, and three were trained by Mark Brisbourne, to whom he pays tribute: ‘Even though he’s got a hundred horses he struggles for the quality ones and he does a phenomenal job with what he’s got. He’s been huge to me.’
Shane Kelly acknowledges the hundred winners as a target, but adds, ‘I’m not thinking about it all the time. I ride every day as if it is the first one.’ You have to be lucky, he says, with injuries and not falling foul of the stewards. He was fortunate, he reckons, to be off only a week after a tumble at Windsor, immediately recalling the death of poor young Tom Halliday and Frankie Dettori’s nasty fall at Sandown.
Shane does not seem to incur the stewards’ wrath too often, although he was stood down for 14 days over the running of one of James Eustace’s horses earlier this year, and there was a £250 fine for a weighing-room fracas with Neil Callan at Lingfield, memorably described at the time by their solicitors: ‘All that happened was handbags at ten paces and a frank exchange of views.’ So Callan wouldn’t be his best pal in the jockeys’ room? ‘Oh, that’s all in the past tense, forgotten. It was a heat-of-the-moment affair. He’s had a hundred winners and I wish him nothing but the best of luck.’
He has to sweat every day to ride comfortably at 8st 7lb and 8st 5lb at a pinch but does not need more than the job and a few good walks to keep him in trim. ‘Race-riding every day is enough to keep you fit.’ But isn’t the ‘every day’ a grind compared with the easier life in Irish racing? ‘Oh, I couldn’t go back and do what the lads in Ireland do. Racing’s so much better over here. Yes, it’s hectic and if you sat back and thought some days with all the driving you’d wonder, “How the bloody hell do I do it?” But you’re self-employed. Nobody’s pushing you and riding winners makes it all a lot easier.’
Not a surprise really. Even riding the quality of horse he does for Aidan O’Brien, Kieren Fallon has been heard to mutter about the quieter life of Irish racing. Winners, after all, are a drug, if a comparatively harmless one. And does Shane model himself on anyone like Kieren? If anybody, clearly it is Johnny Murtagh, who has helped him with introductions to English trainers like Amanda Perrett. But there is no special model, he says, ‘not with the top seven or eight all riding so well’. No reason, given the breaks, for him not to join them.