Around 18 months ago, a friend of Michael Kinane telephoned to suggest that one of the most illustrious riding careers of the modern Turf was nearing its end. Micky Joe, he confided, was ready to pack up. There was so little left to achieve, and he wanted to quit before staleness diluted the vigour that still sustained his judgement and performance.
The tip-off proved somewhat premature, as Kinane finally announced his retirement only yesterday. What happened in the meantime, however, represented the sort of coda that seldom blesses even the most privileged of careers.
For Kinane knew he had to postpone his decision the moment he first rode Sea The Stars on the gallops. It was precisely this kind of thrill, after all, that had nourished him for so long – the first intimations of something special, as a new champion lengthens over the dewy Curragh.
There were times, no doubt, when even the steely judgement of Kinane – which asset always set him apart, in or out of the saddle – let him down. In Sea The Stars, however, he had unmistakably discovered an all-time paragon. The unprecedented success they shared this year duly crowned the CVs of two men universally saluted as masters of their respective disciplines. It was fitting, then, that the trainer of Sea The Stars should have been deputed to collect Kinane's trophy as Flat Jockey of the Year at the Derby Awards in London on Monday. John Oxx took the opportunity to pay eloquent tribute to Kinane, barely disguising its valedictory tone. He described how the understated veteran had grabbed his elbow and demanded a promise that he could still ride out "whenever the time might come for him to retire".
That time had already come, as Oxx must have known the moment Kinane sealed their champion's career with a typically nerveless ride in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October. "Today would be a great day to go out," Kinane admitted then. "But I have commitments for the year and I will see them out."
It was this same, unstinting professionalism that recurred in every accolade yesterday. But after flying home from the last of those commitments, in Japan, Kinane could at last acknowledge the inevitable. "At 50, I still feel fit and sharp enough to do any horse justice," he said. "But after the season I have just had, I have the privilege of being able to end my career on an incredible high. And that's what I want to do. I leave with a huge sense of gratitude to all the great horses I have ridden, all the great trainers whose genius developed them, and everybody else in racing – from the stable lads to the owners – who have made me deeply thankful for my involvement in the game. Teamwork is the key to success in racing, and I have been blessed with some of the best alliances a jockey could have."
It was for his own teamwork, of course, that he was cherished not only by Oxx but also, previously, by Aidan O'Brien and Dermot Weld. "Michael was just the complete professional in every way," Oxx said. "Not only was he a top jockey, with great skill and determination, but he always conducted himself perfectly. He had a great work ethic and never let anybody down. He worked terribly hard, right from an early age, and had that burning ambition and drive to stick with it. That's what brought him to a different level. But it was his reputation as a big-race rider everybody latched on to. He had the temperament, never made mistakes."
And so it continued, in unison, from those Kinane rode for and against. Henry Cecil described him as "a top-class jockey, gentleman and great ambassador". To Sir Michael Stoute, Kinane has been "the ultimate professional". John Hammond, trainer of Montjeu, recommended Kinane as the perfect role model for young jockeys.
"Not only very talented, but he was very hard-working and very discreet," Hammond said. "He was champion apprentice, and he's now 50. He has stayed at the top all the way through his career thanks to a lot of application, dedication and discretion. Many reach the heights early in their careers and then hit the skids. He held it together the whole way through."
Pat Smullen duly recalled Kinane as his "idol". "You always wanted to beat him," Johnny Murtagh added, "because if you beat him, you were beating the best." Fran Berry, likely to succeed Kinane as Oxx's stable jockey, has some act to follow.
Though Kinane has already bred a Derby winner, having sent a mare to Montjeu to produce Authorized, he professes "no great plans" for now. "I will just be a small-time farmer from next week," he said.
But the last word belongs to the man who helped to compose the last chapter. "You couldn't have planned it," Oxx said. "But it has been great for him to have had the best horse he ever rode in the final year of his career. It's the sort of end he deserves."
Journey to the Stars: Kinane's life and times
Born: Tipperary, 22 June 1959.
Father: Tommy, won 1978 Champion Hurdle on Monksfield.
Married: Catherine, in 1982. Two daughters.
First winner: Muscari, Leopardstown, 19 March 1975.
Irish champion apprentice: 1978.
Irish champion jockey: 10 times.
British Classic wins:
2000 Guineas: Tirol 1990, Entrepreneur 1997, King Of Kings 1998, Sea The Stars 2009.
Derby: Commander In Chief 1993, Galileo 2001, Sea The Stars 2009.
Oaks: Shahtoush 1998, Imagine 2001.
St Leger: Milan 2001.
Other big wins:
Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Carroll House 1989, Montjeu 1999, Sea The Stars 2009.
King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes: Belmez 1990, King's Theatre 1994, Montjeu 2000, Galileo 2001, Azamour 2005.
Breeders' Cup: Johannesburg (Juvenile) 2001, High Chaparral (2002 & 2003).
Melbourne Cup: Vintage Crop 1993
Belmont Stakes: Go And Go 1990.
17 Group One winners for trainer Aidan O'Brien in 2001.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Billberry (2.00 Lingfield) Trapped in traffic on his first visit here this winter, but made stylish amends next time and no less effective over this extra furlong.
Cayman Fox (6.20 Kempton) Hampered last time, and set off too hard on her previous start, but creditable efforts all the same and likely to last longer here.
One to watch
After contributing to his stable's revival last month, Lorum Leader (Dr R D P Newland) shaped well before his stamina failed over a longer trip at Sandown last Saturday.
Where the money's going
The Champion Hurdle hope Celestial Halo is 4-5 from 11-10 with the sponsors for the Boylesports International Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday.