PHIL KIRBY’S determination to train bigger and better winners is self-evident on the owners’ balcony at Wetherby during the racecourse’s biggest day of the year.
His stable’s standard-bearer Lady Buttons has already won the Listed Mares’ Hurdle under Adam Nicol, and now Nautical Nitwit leads the Grade Two West Yorkshire Hurdle.
Yet, as Tommy Dowson’s mount hits the third last flight, Kirby turns round and curses and his jockey. He thinks their chance has gone. And then he has fresh hope as the horse pings the penultimate hurdle.
“Go on Tommy,” shouts Kirby, his wife Pippa and supporters, before Nautical Nitwit lunges at the last hurdle in front of their very eyes and Dowson does well to stay in the saddle.
Again the trainer turns round in despair. And then, to his surprise, the horse rallies under an inspired Dowson and gets up on the line.
The day is not over yet. Thirty minutes later, Kirby completes a memorable treble on Charlie Hall Chase day when Dowson atones for giving his trainer apoplexy by making all to land the finale on Wemyss Point.
A week later, the likable Kirby laughs when asked if he is still a frustrated rider. “It’s just hard. You don’t get many chances in these races,” he tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“You need everything to go right to win these races. It didn’t and we got away with it.
“I don’t think Tommy did anything wrong, it was bad luck the horse didn’t jump great. I want winners – better winners – but I know how hard it is to get any winner.”
It helps that Kirby, 39, is a more accomplished trainer than jockey. He rode one winner for West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy – and his career went downhill from there. Yet time spent working as a farrier also enabled him to train point-to-point runners and set up his first stables at Castleton when he first met owner-breeders Jayne and Keith Sivils.
They remained staunch supporters when the ambitious Kirbys rented stables in Middleham before acquiring their own 120-acre farm – and gallops – at East Appleton, between Catterick and Bedale, nearly three years ago.
And the faith shown by the Sivils is epitomised by the success of their horse-of-a-lifetime Lady Buttons who has now won Listed-level races over both fences and hurdles.
The popular mare’s rise to national prominence is indicative of Kirby’s progression through the ranks as he becomes established as one of the country’s dual-purpose trainers. “We have had lots of winners together,” said Kirby. “Because Buttons is so special, and has had a hiccup before, I was worried about the quick ground at Wetherby, but I thought she would win if she handled it.”
Future race plans are still to be finalised – the trainer is eyeing targets in Britain and Ireland. “She’s capable of winning more races and, hopefully, getting a big win. She’s definitely helped us get noticed. You can have midweek winners but you do need a Saturday horse for people to notice you in the bigger races. She’s been that horse.”
Yet, while Lady Buttons showed consummate class, the unheralded Nautical Nitwit gave Kirby professional satisfaction. “We have had Listed winners before on the Flat and over jumps. We have never had a Graded winner until now,” he said. “To win a Graded race and a Listed race on the same day, it shows we can do it with horses other than Buttons.”
With over 50 horses in training, Kirby is the first to praise his whole team at home – most notably his assistant trainer Simon Olley and his wife Sarah – for creating an environment where horses flourish.
“Simon does the day-to-day stuff in the yard. We know how each other works. He doesn’t want my job and I don’t want his job,” say Kirby.
Social media is also a key part of the stable’s success. Overseen by Kirby’s wife, the problem is if they don’t post regular updates – and footage from the gallops.
“People think there’s something wrong. The truth of the matter is we’re just busy,” says Kirby, who is speaking after driving the horse box to Sedgefield.
Yet, while Kirby has been instrumental in the development of his stable jockeys, the quietly assured Nicol and the fresh-faced Dowson who has the cheek to match his cherubic features, there are some jobs that he won’t delegate.
He is referring to his early- morning routine when he gets up at daybreak – 5am in summer and 6am in winter – and makes a 10-second walk to the stables to feed his horses and check their wellbeing. “It’s the one time I’m on my own and it’s very quiet,” he says. “It’s the one time you see if a horse is okay and eaten up. I conscientiously try and stick with it. It’s the one thing I am trying to do myself when there’s so much more to do each day.”
And now it’s clear why Phil Kirby was so animated when Nautical Nitwit came to the last. He, for one, knew what it had taken just to get this far.