It’s good to be back.
In a year of battered jockeys, Kieran Norris returned for the Shawan Downs/Foxfield weekend Sept. 23-24. The National Steeplechase Association's 2016 champion jockey missed the summer after suffering an occipital condylar fracture in a fall at Radnor in May, the same day five-time champion Paddy Young was injured. By summer, 2015 champion Willie McCarthy also hit the shelf.
Norris rounded into form at Shawan Downs, finishing with two seconds over timber to finish the card, then put one on the board with a win on Waveless in the hurdle feature at Foxfield.
“Good to get back at it now, it was a little strange the first race I can say, once I got going again, it felt good again. It was like riding my first race, I was a little nervous. I was a little rusty for the first couple of races, but I got into it a bit better,” Norris said. “It’s great to be back, it was like my first winner but it meant a lot more this time, ‘Jesus, it’s good to get this.’ I appreciate it a lot more. For a long time I wasn’t sure I was going to be back for the fall season, then a chance ride, to win the way she did, that was unbelievable.”
Waveless accounted for Norris’ ninth win of the season, moving him into a tie for fourth with Ross Geraghty. Above him, Darren Nagle leads with 14 wins over Sean McDermott with 12 and Jack Doyle with 10.
“Winning the jockey championship last year was fantastic,” Norris said. “I would love to win it again, but there’s a lot of ground to make up on the boys in front of me.”
Making up for lost time, Norris tabbed rides in all six jump races at Virginia Fall this weekend. The 32-year-old Irishman is booked on Abel Archer for Jonathan Sheppard in the opener, first-time starter Midnight Man for his wife Madison Meyers in the second, stakes-placed Miguel Grau for Richard Valentine in the Randolph Rouse, veteran Worried Man for Doug Fout in the timber feature, first-timer Ten Saints for Sheppard in the maiden claimer and Shawan Downs runner-up Cocodimama for Julie Gomena in the maiden timber.
That’s six rides, six quality rides that could salvage his season.
“The phone is ringing again,” said Norris, who won eight races last fall to take the title from off the pace. “I’m thankful for that, I was a little worried they would forget about me.”
Yeah, that was one of the thoughts in Norris’ head this summer. The injury, to the bone at the top of the spine and the bottom of the skull, limited Norris' mobility at first. He gradually got back to work, first on the ground and later on horseback. There is nothing like four months of missing winners to give a jump jockey perspective. This summer, Norris stayed busy, walking horses, mucking stalls, car training at the barn he and Madison rent at Hickory Tree Farm just outside Middleburg, Va. With mucking and turning comes thinking.
“It was a good eye opener of what all jockeys go through, I count myself as lucky every day because I saw what happened to Paddy. Whatever happened to me, at least, I was going to get back to full health, whatever happened after that, I would take that,” Norris said. “Having won the title once, I feel like now I can enjoy riding more, not that I have nothing to prove, because I want to keep doing better all the time, for me, it’s time to enjoy riding because I don’t have that much more to go. I don’t take it for granted any more. It was an educational summer, very educational.”
At 32, Norris knows he’s got more jump races behind him than in front of him. That’s not something a jockey thinks about in hot blood – when he’s riding races – and something he definitely thinks about in cold blood – when he’s watching races.
“I’m glad it didn’t happen to me when I was younger, I might have gone a different direction,” Norris said. “Watching the horses win at Parx, then to see Mutasaawy win at Saratoga, that was hard to take, but it did give me the time to look at life without racing, there was good and bad. For now, I’m going to enjoy it.”