THE Oxford Dictionary defines ‘Doyen’ as ‘the senior member of a body of colleagues’.
In the world of racehorse trainers, that title is the undisputed property of Kevin Prendergast, born on July 5th, 1932, in Caulfield, Australia.
He is the eldest of four children born to Irish jump jockey Patrick Joseph ‘Paddy’ Prendergast and his wife, who returned to their native country in 1933.
Son of Geraldine, Athy horse breeder and dealer Patrick Prendergast, Paddy had served his time with Curragh trainer Tom Coombs and then James Daly, without ever threatening to set the world on fire. He had tried his luck in England before venturing to Australia.
On his return, he began working for owner-trainer W J ‘Trousers’ Kelly in Palmerstown House, during which time Kevin was joined by Paddy junior ‘Long Paddy’, Eileen and Beryl.
Following their parents’ separation when Kevin was 10, the girls continued to live with their mother, while the boys were entrusted to the care of their Prendergast grandfather, as grandson ‘Long Paddy’ recalled.
“My grandfather, who was Paddy as well, was as good a judge as there ever was of a horse. He was a dealer. I remember one evening he came home with 22 donkeys from Castledermot and he had a market for them in Manchester – 22 asses, and we up all night. They were running into ditches, running up and down the road and only Kevin and myself in our bare feet trying to manage the f**kers!”
Sent to school in Newbridge College, only to be expelled, Kevin completed his academic education in Rockwell College, Cashel, where he played hooker on the winning Munster Senior Schools’ Cup team.
During those formative years, Kevin’s father had rapidly progressed from failed jockey to headline-making trainer, his initial fortunes founded on bargain buy Spratstown and consolidated by the versatile Pelorus.
At 17, Kevin returned to the land of his birth, serving four years as head lad to leading Randwick, Sydney trainer Frank Dalton.
On his return he acted as assistant to his father in Rossmore Lodge, by then thought to be the largest public training stable in Europe.
P J ‘Darkie’ Prendergast had made his name internationally with his flying two-year-olds that had captured all before them in these islands, attracting the increased patronage of American owners to an extent previously unknown in Ireland.
Descended from generations of jockeys, Kevin Prendergast began riding as an amateur in 1957, the year in which he married Leslie Daly from Skibbereen. Kevin achieved headline success on Rising Spring, winner of the inaugural Players’ Amateur Handicap at the 1959 Galway Festival, trained by his father.
Kevin’s talent in the saddle quickly attracted the support of up and coming country trainer Paddy Mullins, though not without Prendergast senior’s misgivings. What was his elder son and heir doing risking his neck riding for some backwoodsman?
Kevin joined the trainers’ ranks in 1963, opening his account in that role when riding M J Sheehan’s Zara to win at the Phoenix Park in March, following up at Leopardstown.
By 1966, his ever-expanding client base included H E the President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera.
Just as his famous father had done, Kevin excelled with two-year-olds, carrying off the first such contest each season on seven occasions.
In the process of turning out progressive totals of winners, Kevin was beginning to make his name as a mentor of apprentice jockeys. The more successful graduates included Pat Black, Gabriel Curran, Declan Gillespie, Robert Eddery, multiple champion jockeys Kieren Fallon, Charlie Swan and latterly Chris Hayes.
Quite why they and all who worked for Kevin refer to him as ‘Spot’ has become enshrouded in mystery at this remove.
Having emulated his father in retaining a succession of Australian stable jockeys – among them Laurie Johnson and Paul Jarman – Kevin put his trust in his home-grown protégé Gabriel ‘Squibs’ Curran.
They combined to hit the big time with Neil Schibbye’s Nebbiolo, winner of the 1976 Gimcrack Stakes en route to 2000 Guineas triumph over the Rowley Mile.
Twelve months previously they had initiated their Guineas double with Davy Brennan’s Northern Treasure in the Irish equivalent.
Some years earlier Kevin had shown his innate horse sense in his handling of Norman Butler’s quixotic grey Pidget. Wally Swinburn rode her to win the Irish 1000 Guineas. But her subsequent form intimated to her trainer that Pidget responded best to a total stranger in the saddle.
In his bid for the Irish St Leger, Kevin engaged wily veteran TP Burns, who was only allowed to sit on her for the very first time in the race itself, to successful effect.
Kevin doubled his Irish St Leger tally with Mrs Rita Moore’s Conor Pass in 1973, taking his tally in the final Irish classic to four thanks to Ollie Lehane’s Oscar Schindler in 1996 and 1997.
Jean Pierre Binet’s Arctique Royale in the 1981 Irish 1000 Guineas and staunch supporter Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Awtaad in the 2016 Irish 2000 Guineas completed Kevin’s classic tally to date.
Having once had a string of 70 on his 300-acre Erindale holding, assisted successively by Jimmy Lenehan jnr, Jimmy Mescall and Stephen Craine, Kevin now confines himself to a stable of 20, possibly his only concession to becoming a nonagenarian. Leslie, his lifelong partner and mother to their eight daughters, died just before the Coronavirus lockdown in 2020.
Kevin Prendergast is on record as declaring: “Prendergasts don’t retire. They die.” At his age, such a statement inevitably begs parallels, if any should exist in the annals of racing.
One such was John Howe Osborne, described as the most successful and popular jockey in the North [of England] in the second half of the 19th century.
Born in 1833, John Osborne opened his riding account in 1848 continuing as a jockey until the end of 1892, by then with a dozen classic winners to his credit, notably Pretender in the 1869 Derby. Turning to training at Brecongill, Middleham, he was still riding work in 1921, turning out winners.
Meanwhile, Eve White, PA and housekeeper Eileen Fields, aided by Kevin’s daughter Andrea Carey, are readying Erindale for that milestone birthday celebration. Many happy returns!