This interview was published in the Dublin Horse Show Magazine in July 2019.
DARRAGH Kenny is in the kitchen on the yard when I arrive in Meijel after the 40-minute drive from Eindhoven. It’s the Monday after his first European show of the summer in La Baule, France, where he finished third in yesterday’s five-star Grand Prix.
“Oh hey Jude,” he says as I peak my head through the door and interrupt his lunchtime sandwich-making. “Do you want a cup of tea? We should have gotten you to bring some Irish teabags!”
It’s business as usual in his stable today, where the majority of accents are Irish, even if the American twang is sneaking through in Darragh’s, hence the need for home comforts. Balou du Reventon and Important de Muze are on their to Rome for the five-star Nations Cup after excellent performances in La Baule and Darragh is riding young horses, making plans with staff and seeing to issues in the yard.
His father Michael is spotted doing jobs on the roof of one shed, while Darragh’s mother Catherine is on a well-deserved holiday. They are a vital part of Oakland Stables, the business Darragh runs with his friend, American show jumper Hardin Towell.
He bought the five-acre Dutch facility and home, which he shares with his girlfriend Jessica Mendoza, just over a year ago. The Offaly native seems ahead of his 31 years, but it’s not that long ago since he was winning everything on the Irish circuit before leaving to try and ‘make it’ in America.
He grew up at the beautiful Belmont House Stud and was coached all through his young career by his parents. “They did a massive amount for me. In hindsight, they knew a lot more than I even realised,” he said, paying tribute to Michael and Catherine.
“I am very lucky that they are still involved, my father helps me with the farm a lot and my mum helps me with the training. She nearly does a better job with the training than me, so it’s quite enjoyable to have them around. Some days it’s not but most days it is,” he adds with a laugh and a nod to a normal parent-child relationship.
It was winning a bursary at the Dublin Horse Show to train with Missy Clark and John Brennan in 2007, aged 17, which should have given him the initial start in the US. However, it didn’t work out quite as planned when Kenny had a bad accident on the second day, and he believes it was a sign.
“I always believe that things happen for a reason and everything is meant to be, and probably at that stage I was too young to even be there. I had a bad fall off a golf cart and ended up in intensive care, I had ruptured my spleen.
"I never actually even got to train with her. We were out there for two weeks, I spent the two weeks in hospital.”
Two years later and the Irish were beginning to do big things in Wellington, Florida. When Darragh expressed an interest in “seeing the place”, Michael rang Missy and asked could he take up the bursary opportunity now. A week’s visit to her North Run Farm turned into three months and he was bitten by the bug.
“I came home and spent the summer in Ireland, I had a lot of good horses and nice success and everything like that, but I realised at one point that if I really wanted to ride at the top level and be very successful, I would have to leave Ireland.
“So I decided to go back to America. Missy and John gave me a huge opportunity. They taught me a lot about riding, about producing, training, about the business in America and they were very very good to me, they always tried to put good horses underneath me and gave me a good chance.”
That partnership lasted almost five years and he relished every opportunity, from his first FEI World Cup Finals, first senior cap for Ireland and everything in between. It came to a natural end when Missy and Darragh were going in opposite directions and Oakland Stables was born in September 2012.
“I remember I didn’t have so much money and it was a big step. My barn manager at the time, Mavis Spencer, I think for the first three months she worked she never even got paid! We were trying to just struggle along. But it turned a corner and it got better and better and I was very lucky to have a few good clients and horses and it just kept improving.”
Towell is relatively new to come on board, although the pair had done business together for many years. “I had a business partner who helped me start the business, Courtney Donaldson, and she then had kids and a family and got busy so we decided it would be better to separate the business and I took the main part of it and went forward.
“I’ve been friends with Hardin for 10 years now. He worked for the Gates family, and we had already during that point probably owned about 10 horses together, so when they decided to go their separate ways it made the most amount of sense for us to do it together.”
Kenny has been lurking around the very top of the sport ever since his senior debut in 2010, despite losing a number of high profile owners and sponsors along the way. He laughs and cringes when telling the story of that debut.
“I actually never even rode on a Division 2 Nations Cup. My first senior Nations Cup, and I was only talking about this a few days ago when I was in La Baule, was in La Baule Superleague with Obelix. I managed to completely screw it up!
“I remember it as clear as day. I jumped an oxer in the Nations Cup and you had to go around a big corner and there was about 20 strides to the water jump and I ended up jumping straight in the middle of it! A complete miss!”
His first championship came four years later at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, aboard Hyperion Stud’s Imothep. The combination finished 12th individually, but a year later, at a crucial time in the lead up to the Rio Olympic Games, Hyperion Stud took their horses away from Kenny.
“We had a great relationship for a while and it worked very well, and then kind of…situations change and you have to move on. Imothep took me to levels I hadn’t been at – jumping in Aachen and on the team in Dublin, the things I dreamed of!”
Darragh Kenny and Imothep at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France \ Nigel Goddard
Then along came Sans Soucis Z who helped him achieve one of his three lifelong goals when part of the winning Aga Khan team in 2015. But soon after, he too was gone to another rider.
How does he deal with the bad days? “You know, I went through a period of time a few years ago where I was having a really difficult time with everything that was going on in my life. I had horses but I didn’t really have horses and I was struggling with it. I was struggling with the direction everything was going, I had a hard time of it,” he explained seriously, sitting back on the kitchen chair and thinking long and hard.
“When I was young I had a very good friend of mine die, and then I kind of felt like you have to just ‘live life’ and everything like that. Then I had a really rough end of one year and one of my business partners and very good friends, Andreas Rodriguez, was killed in a car crash and it just made me realise that, you know, you have to achieve something with your life, you have do something. It is not just about going out and enjoying it unless you’re not achieving something.
“It made me really open my eyes and think ‘you’re being a complete idiot and you’re not thinking about anything’.
"You really need to figure out what you’re going to do with your life and what you want from your life, how you are going to make it happen.
“And I think that was a huge turning point for me in my career and my personal life, that moment definitely changed my life fully. And now, yeah for sure I get upset when I have a bad round and I want it to go better but I just realised that I need to keep working for the next day,” he said with a passion that he hadn’t previously expressed.
His attitude is now totally positive and he keeps bouncing back after each knock back. “You know I think … one thing that is good about me now is I always have a long-term outlook on everything, whether it’s with owners, horses, whatever…I think ‘I want to make this last as long as I possibly can’.
“McLain (Ward) always talks about how the best riders in the world aren’t just the riders that can win on one horse but that can win on numerous different horses and stay at the top level for a very very long time, and that is what I want to do. I don’t want to be somebody who in two years’ time nobody has ever heard of again. I want to be at the high level for years and years and be competitive.
“I have some incredible owners and a few incredible clients right now. We have 25 horses who are under eight years old, we are always thinking about the next group of horses, the next day, the next year and the next championships.
“It’s not just about this year, and of course the Europeans is extremely important to us and it needs to happen and go well, but you also need to think about the future.”
The Europeans are indeed top of his priority list this year and although he is part of the Paris Panthers Global Champions League team, helping Team Ireland qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games in to the forefront of his mind.
Missing out on last September’s World Equestrian Games in Tryon after with selected with Babalou 41 was a big disappointment.
“I will do whatever I can for the Global team and that is where I am in a good situation because I have plenty of horses. The horses I am going to aim for the Europeans aren’t going to have to do a lot of the Global shows.
“Balou (du Reventon) would be my main aim for the Europeans. I think he is an incredible horse, he has done amazing things the last year with me and it is only going to get better. We bought the horse in May last year and he was top five in five CSI5* Grands Prix last year and was fantastic in Shanghai earlier this year.
“I am very lucky. My owner has just bought Important de Muze for me to keep. I am going to ride the horse through the Europeans and we will keep him there as a second back-up to Balou. I think he is well capable of doing that and well capable of doing a super job at a championship if needed.
“And then probably the horse will be for sale again after the Europeans, but I want to be very strong in the horses that I have for a championship so we don’t miss out opportunity to go to the Olympics. I am very lucky that Ann (Thompson) also has the same thought process, she really wants us to go to the Olympics and for Ireland to do well,” he says about the owner of Balou, Important de Muze, Cassini Z, and Classic Dream, among others.
With two riders in Europe looking after the close to 25 young horses in his programme, Darragh wants to produce more youngsters himself. “I think if you want the best young ones, you have to produce them yourself. That is the direction the business is going. It is so hard to buy a Grand Prix horse or even to find one!”
He also breeds some foals “as a hobby” with William Funnell at the Billy Stud. “I have five broodmares there, they breed from them and we own them in partnership together. Unless you are extremely serious about it, it is very difficult to do it well.”
Currently ranked 17th in the world (at the time of writing), the highest Irish show jumper, Kenny is en route to achieving one of his short-term goals of being within the top 10 riders in the Longines world rankings by December. [UPDATE: On October 1st, he entered the world's top 10 at number nine.]
“Since I have been young, I have had three main goals in my life. At one point I would like to be number one in the world because I think that is a huge achievement.
“For sure, an Olympic medal is one of my biggest dreams; that is everybody’s biggest dream. And then I was lucky enough to win the Nations Cup in Dublin in 2015 and that was also one of the things I wanted to do in my career. I was lucky to have done it at a very young age and hopefully there will be a few more.
“For this year, because of the horse power I have, my short term goal is to be in the top 10 before Geneva [in December], I would really like to jump the top 10 final in Geneva.”
I remind him that his partner Jessica Mendoza has one up on him, having been travelling reserve for Britain at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games with Spirit T. “Yes she does, and she constantly reminds me of that!” he laughs, as we wrap up a long interview.
There is no doubt that Darragh Kenny will give it everything to match that record.