Never judge a book by its cover, or in Adam Kirby’s case, by the first couple of chapters. Despite being one of the busiest in the business, little is known about the jockey who has flourished over the last two seasons. That’s because Kirby prefers to let his riding do the talking.
Catching up with him is an achievement in itself. During the week in question he is commuting daily from his home in Kirtling, near Newmarket, to Glorious Goodwood via evening stints at Sandown and Ffos Las. It is a particularly arduous schedule.
Our photographer, George Selwyn, arranges to meet him before racing at Goodwood and sets up a scene around the sauna. On arrival, however, Kirby is in no mood for it and gives Selwyn short shrift.
Days later, an attempt to locate Kirby’s house reaches a dead end when he is apparently not at home. The only sign of life is the hostile barking of three dogs. And efforts to raise him on his mobile phone founder on the absence of any signal in the vicinity.
When contact is eventually made, it turns out Kirby’s house is up a narrow alley to the side of an indoor school, which opens up into a row of barns and a secluded house. It’s the sort of set-up you’d never stumble across by chance. It suits Kirby well.
Irritated by the delay in tracking him down, he is perfunctory in early conversation. But it isn’t long before the man from a family deeply immersed in greyhound racing proves good value. He speaks honestly and directly. He doesn’t dance around questions many in his profession would be unwilling to contemplate. It is soon clear he is not cut from regular cloth.
As we discuss the strength-sapping nature of the summer riding schedule, Kirby stops in mid-sentence and says: “I wasn’t very good to your photographer at Goodwood the other day, and I’m sorry about that.
“He wanted to take photographs when I was in the sauna and changing into my gear, but I was there to work. I didn’t want anyone around me; I needed to start concentrating on what was going on [in the weighing room]. It makes things difficult, but I shouldn’t have brushed him off. I’ll apologise when I next see him.”
Those words open an interesting window on a man some describe as uncommunicative, even brusque. Yet people of that ilk rarely backtrack to rue how they’d handled themselves in run-of-the mill circumstances some days earlier.
His intolerance of distractions ahead of his rides also highlights the modern jockey’s mindset. Kirby, 25, is much the youngest among this season’s leading jockeys. The weighing room’s cavalier era, now long gone, was never even sampled by the man who has won the last two all-weather riding titles.
The new era requires professionalism, dedication and an indefatigable work ethic. Its extreme demands create pressures unknown to jockeys of yore. It has become a deadly serious business, especially with the intense analysis to which riders are subjected by racecourse stewards and the media.
Such scrutiny is not something Kirby would be willing to accommodate but for the fact it comes with the territory. He still lives at home, which he proudly declares has been very much the making of him.
“I have lived here since I was four years old,” he says. “My lovely mum, Anne, trains more than 50 greyhounds here and there’s not a lot I can’t turn my hand to around the place. There’s my brother, Spencer, who’s a chef, and my sister, Melanie, who cares for the elderly. We are all very close.”
The only family member absent, Kirby’s father Maurice, is much lamented. It remains a profound regret to Kirby that Maurice never realised his desire to see his son win his first Group 1 race, courtesy of Lethal Force’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes triumph at Royal Ascot last year.
“Unfortunately he passed away in his sleep not long before,” Kirby relates. “I was obviously thinking about him on that day and all sorts of emotions went through my head.
“I also got a big buzz out of it, because it was very important to me,” he continues. “For some reason you feel you are incapable of winning a Group 1 race until you do – if that makes any sense. I’d ridden in a few and been placed, but to actually win one is great because you know then that you can mix it with the best.”
An interesting cameo arose on the combination’s next start, when Kirby rode Lethal Force to win the July Cup in course record time. It reinforced Lethal Force’s status as the best sprinter in training, an accolade some were inclined to withhold on the basis that Kirby had somehow stolen the Diamond Jubilee.
Plenty of jockeys would be happy to take the credit but not Kirby, who addressed the issue after the July Cup. “I couldn’t understand why some people were putting him down after Ascot,” he reflects.
“You can never go without the horse. If Lethal Force was still around this season I firmly believe he would have won those races again. He’d have run all over them.”
It was appropriate that Lethal Force came from Clive Cox’s stable, to where Kirby transferred his apprenticeship from Michael Wigham, in Newmarket, more than ten years ago. Each party within this enduring partnership has prospered: Kirby’s deeds in the saddle have matched the progress made by Cox from stables overlooking the Lambourn valley.
Indeed, Kirby would have broken his Group 1 duck 20 months earlier had he stuck with the Cox-trained Reckless Abandon in the 2012 Middle Park Stakes. The jockey chose instead to ride Moohaajim for Marco Botti, who has been another rich source of rides.
“I thought my moment had arrived that day,” Kirby recalls with a wry smile. “I hit the front in the final furlong and thought I was going to put the race away, but Reckless was very tough. He came back at me and we got beat a neck. I’d also got beat a neck when Xtension finished third in the  Dewhurst. That’s why you wonder whether that first Group 1 will ever come.”
There were no repercussions even though Cox might have felt aggrieved his regular jockey had deserted the camp. “It was fortunate for Clive and unfortunate for me,” Kirby says, “but there were no hard feelings. We’d had a chat about it before the race.
“Clive and I have always had a very open relationship,” the jockey continues. “I think it works so well because we both tell each other how it is. I ride everything for him when I can and hopefully I always will.”
Kirby’s talents have drawn wider appreciation in a year when he has ridden for nearly 150 different trainers. He has slipped the straight-jacket often attached to successful jockeys on the all-weather. So much so that he recently forged a new and potentially rewarding alliance, this time with Charlie Appleby’s Moulton Paddocks stable.
“I had one ride for Charlie at the start of last year and had ridden some winners for him by the end,” the jockey relates. “Then, four months ago, he asked me to start riding out for him and it has gone on from there.”
The opportunity arose when Appleby’s then-stable jockey, Mickael Barzalona, returned to France. “We’ve had some good days and I’m pleased to be any sort of part of a set-up like that,” Kirby says.
It would be brilliant to be champion, but being realistic that’s not going to happen because I’m too heavy
Appleby said at the time he wanted to put up jockeys that would suit each individual horse, rather than have one retained rider. When Kirby is asked about the particular qualities he brings to the table, he pauses for a while.
“Well, I think I’m reasonably good at getting horses settled and into a rhythm. Horses can’t race at both ends; you have to get them to chill out. I’d say I’m a better horseman than a rider. It’s all about timing it right, doing everything at the right stage. And while I can get horses to relax, I think I’m pretty good at waking one up as well.”
The Appleby/ Kirby axis enjoys a particularly high strike rate (42% at the time of writing) and the highlight to date was French Navy’s victory in the Group 3 Diomed Stakes on Derby day at Epsom.
Mention races like the Derby and Kirby’s face becomes animated. He has yet to even ride in the blue riband but leaves no doubt about what it would mean to win it. So much so that he would prefer to achieve that than to become champion jockey.
“It would be brilliant to be champion, but being realistic that’s not going to happen because I’m too heavy,” he says. “But if I could choose, I’d rather win the Derby.
“When you speak to people who know nothing about racing, they have heard of the Derby and the Grand National. To be champion jockey wouldn’t mean as much to the man in the street.”
For Kirby to entertain the prospect is a rare departure from the norm. He says he never even thinks about winning the Derby, he never sets himself targets; he just puts his head down and grafts.
In that respect Kirby has much in common with David Evans, the trainer who has been the most fertile source of winners for him this year. Kirby has been down to Evans’s Welsh stables – “it was quite an eye-opener” – the pair having combined to telling effect during the winter all-weather season.
“David has been great to me,” Kirby says. “So much about this game is getting on the right horses. You move up the order when jockeys like Ryan Moore and Richard Hughes are not riding. That makes a big difference, and David is right up there among trainers who do well over the winter.”
But the link is more than professional: Kirby has been dating Evans’s daughter, Megan, for two years now. Megan runs a small livery business from the Kirby family home and the jockey is appreciative of the support of a woman whose family, like his own, sets great store by hard work.
Kirby is at a stage in his career when there is much to look forward to. He is firmly grounded, recognising throughout these good times that the pendulum might easily swing the other way, although he hasn’t yet had to rebound from a serious career setback.
He says he was fortunate to have had Kieren Fallon as a neighbour during his formative years. The real benefit, though, is one that Fallon himself lacked in his youth: the presence of a ‘big brother’ who knows from experience all the potential pitfalls awaiting young jockeys with stardust in their eyes.
Indeed, there is something of Fallon’s latter-day demeanour about Kirby: guarded in public, keen to keep those outside his inner circle at arm’s length, yet stimulating company once the ground rules of engagement are established.
By the end, the man whose welcome lacked warmth espouses courtesy. He is far from gregarious; he takes his cue from others and responds accordingly. Show him respect and he will duly return it. In the world of racing, with its many snakes and ladders, that is no bad way to be.
Holding the whip hand
Adam Kirby’s momentum ground to a halt in August when he was suspended for 18 days, six of them deferred for two months, after he rode Es Que Love to win the Group 2 Lennox Stakes at Goodwood on July 29. The suspension, for persistent misuse of the whip, ruled him out of the York Ebor meeting.
The offence, for hitting Es Que Love in the wrong place, triggered a clause requiring Kirby to sit before the BHA’s disciplinary panel. It was his fifth whip offence in the last six months.
While disappointed, Kirby acknowledges he must correct a whip action with his left hand (he is right-handed) that can lead to him hitting horses in the wrong place.
“I have been practising a lot and getting help with it,” he says. “I am working on it all the time.
“On Es Que Love, unfortunately it didn’t go through my mind to get my arm further back, so I ended up hitting the horse short of his backside. It wasn’t deliberate in any way, they were only flicks, and the horse was absolutely fine afterwards.”
Kirby’s predicament was compounded by a sore shoulder that required treatment before he went out to ride that day. “It didn’t help,” he reflects, “but it’s over now, it’s behind me. It does take the gloss off winning a big race. Your adrenaline is up, you’re trying your hardest and you don’t really think about things as much as you would in less important circumstances.
“I feel I’ve been unfortunate with a lot of whip bans,” he continues. “Most of them have been small. One of them was for giving a horse three gentle backhanders when he was winning easily, but I didn’t know that as I hadn’t looked back and I wanted to teach a babyish horse something.
The totting-up process works against someone like me, who has 1,000 rides a year.”
Kirby is inclined to take whip suspensions to heart, adding: “I get upset about it because I don’t mistreat horses in any way and never have done. But I’ve got to get on top of it, and I will.”
Part of Kirby’s problem is his height. He is unusually tall for a jockey and rides at 9st. That isn’t conducive to a smooth, streamlined riding style, but a more relevant factor is his age. It is easy to forget that the 25-year-old is still learning about important aspects of race-riding.