Even a sport as prone to hyperbole as racing seldom amplifies a moment in quite the terms used after Geordieland finally consented to win a race at York earlier this month. Several days later, Shane Kelly's conversation outside the Goodwood weighing room was interrupted by Frankie Dettori. "If this man doesn't get ride of the season, there's something wrong," Dettori announced, wagging his finger. At York, moreover, Geordieland's trainer, Jamie Osborne, had suggested that "nobody in the history of racing" had ever been treated as badly as Kelly.
Whatever the substance of that remark, there was no mistaking the redemptive nature of Kelly's performance on a horse infamously reluctant to put his head in front. In no less a race than the Yorkshire Cup, Kelly icily restrained his mount on the bridle even as Royal And Regal broke clear of the field, pouncing so late that not even Geordieland could pull himself up before the post. It was a ride that would have tested the nerve of Dettori himself, never mind a man who had only just had his licence restored after a year's suspension.
"It's well documented that the horse broke blood vessels last year," Kelly reflected. "And sometimes horses that have done that will run keen, because they're afraid of what might happen – they get overexcited. Luckily, he relaxed great at York, considering how steady they went. I was just lucky that everything fell into place. Two strides after the line he was probably beat again. Once you stop on him, he pulls up. If you go to the front a furlong and a half out, you know you're going to get beat, so there's only one option and that's to drop in. In that sense your hands are tied."
Kelly felt more nervous watching a replay of the race than riding it: at the time, he was simply relieved to have repaid the fidelity of Osborne. He had only completed his ban 16 days previously, having been found guilty of passing information for reward.
At the most, Kelly considers himself culpable only of ingenuousness in a changing disciplinary culture. "I've served the 12 months, and I've taken it on the chin," he said. "I'd like to think I'm mentally stronger for it. There are probably people who think I should have got longer. And then there are people that understand the game, and know what's gone on.
"I wasn't found guilty of stopping horses, the BHA [British Horseracing Authority] made it quite clear I wasn't riding horses to lose. If I was guilty of anything, I was guilty of giving my opinions, or talking about the chances of horses I was riding. In this age, with the betting exchanges, you just can't do that. If that was naïvety, or a slip-up, that's what it was."
Accustomed to leaping into his car after riding work, the Irishman found it hard to adjust to the sudden emptiness in a manic lifestyle. He is no golfer. He took to touring Declan Daly's yard in the evenings, learning the routines that underpin a jockey's opportunities on the racecourse. "I kept my eye in, because horses are in my blood and I know nothing else," he said. "I never was negative. I'd had two bad injuries, a broken back and then a broken leg. I looked on the year as a chance to get my body in good shape again, and had a second op to get the pins removed from my leg. I don't believe there's any point being bitter or sour. I just had to think that when I came back I'd be better and stronger. To be negative doesn't help you, it makes you worse."
Of course, nobody in his right mind would miss the sort of life Kelly describes – "every day you go out, you don't know if you're going home that evening" – and the wasting, as he acknowledges, has reduced him to "skin and bones". But he has achieved bodily equilibrium, by managing his diet and rejecting alcohol, and his gaunt features misrepresent the dynamism within. "Look at Seb Sanders," he said. "He has got where he is by hard work and dedication. If you put it in, it will happen. At 29, I'd like to think I have plenty of time on my side."
He would not be the first jockey to find the foundations he needed in adversity. Tonight he has mounts in both the Group races at Sandown, including Enjoy The Moment for Osborne in the Betfair Henry II Stakes. "Look, it would have been quite easy for me to jump into a plane and bugger off to America," he said, thinking back to this time last year. "But that would have been running away. I was better off working with the people who were standing by me. That was the only pressure I felt at York. People had put their trust in you to deliver on the day. But I knew in my mind what I had to do, and thankfully it worked out."
(Great Leighs 2.30)
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