The Inside Rail

Welcome back, champ.

Great to see Jack Doyle named on Kaiser Black at Gowran Park Saturday. The 2019 co-champion broke his jaw at Callaway Gardens in November, had surgery at Johns Hopkins, went home to Ireland, returned for the award’s dinner in January and has now settled back in Ireland. 

Part of the feel-good story of the year, Doyle shared the title with Mikey Mitchell after the former broke his jaw in the penultimate meet and the latter sat out the Charleston Steeplechase to share the title.

Asked if he would have done the same thing, Doyle smirked as much as you can with a mending jaw and said, “We’ll never know.”

We'll know about Kaiser Black Saturday. Rated 155, Kaiser Black has triumphed in three of his last four starts, spanning nearly two years. The Irish-bred isn’t fickle, he’s won with Doyle, Davy Russell and Jack Kennedy. Off since winning at Naas in March, the 9-year-old chaser faces a stiff test Saturday. He is trained by Doyle’s father, Pat. 

Father is glad to have his horse back and his son home. 

• Below is a feature on Doyle and Mitchell. It was published in Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred's January edition. 

Jack Doyle sat outside the jockeys’ room at Callaway Gardens Steeplechase. The 30-year-old Irishman had ridden four races – fell off a maiden claimer, pulled up a timber horse, finished third on a maiden, just missed in the feature. The second-to-last race meet of the year, Nov. 9, was to be Doyle’s second-to-last race meet in America. Doyle had one race to go at Callaway, another five races at Charleston eight days later and that was it. He was going home to rejoin his father’s training yard, to close the books on a five-year American sojourn that had exceeded all of his expectations. Well, all but one.

In a sweat-soaked T-shirt, Doyle looked up from a folding plastic table, snuffed out a cigarette and admitted that this was it.

“I’ve gotten as much out of here as I can get,” he said. “Being champion would be great, but if I can walk out of here . . .”

The words spilled out like a bowl of yogurt across a counter. In 24 words, Doyle explained the jump jockey’s life, the balance between winning and walking, the devil’s deal.

Fifteen minutes later, Doyle wasn’t walking out of here.

Vying for a win in the finale, trying to wrestle back the one-race lead he had started the day with, Doyle drove Zanzi Win (Fr) to no man’s land at the last fence, the in-and-out spot, too long to gun, too late to hold, the 4-year-old dived low and jutted into the ground with his front legs. He stayed on his feet, but shot Doyle out the side door like he was being thrown from a taxicab. Sportswear (GB), trying to pick up a down-the-docket check, hit Doyle squarely, like a bus following the cab, breaking his jaw in eight, maybe nine places. Triumph had been replaced by travail. Doyle curled onto his right side, a fetal adult, blood pouring from his mouth, clotting his nose, a hunk of flesh was gone, exposing the side of Doyle’s molars. He could only moan.

An ambulance ride would end his 2019 season. And his American career.

Tied in the race for the National Stee-ple-chase Association’s champion jockey trophy with Michael Mitchell, Doyle was out of bullets. That was it. He would have to get lucky and hope Mitchell would go winless over a depleted jockey colony at Charleston and wind up with a tie for that coveted championship.

And then Mitchell took the luck out of it.

While Doyle wrestled in a hospital bed in Georgia, Mitchell wrestled with the decision to see out his season. The 28-year-old Brit had clawed back to a tie with Doyle with a sand-and-sieve, front-running gem aboard Storm Team in the Callaway feature, the race before Doyle hit the deck. Doyle finished second aboard City Dreamer (Ire). The field was waved around the final fence after comrade Kieran Norris broke his arm, ribs and punctured a lung on the previous circuit. Mitchell said the detour won him the race. Doyle said it cost him the race. Only jockeys know the margins, the variables, the nuances of a crazy game.

That night, Mitchell flew back to his Maryland base without Doyle, who had traveled with him to the races. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Friends and rivals, they had caught the early flight to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, driven the hour or so to Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, shared the quiet solitude of two hungry jockeys, moved and counter-moved each other through five races around the undulating, right-handed Callaway course. Mitchell organized Doyle’s car left at his house, made sure his tack found its way home, checked with friends enduring a waiting game outside Doyle’s hospital room. All while ruminating over next week’s rides. Sunday morning, champion trainer Jack Fisher met Mitchell in the tack room of his Butler barn.

“So, Charleston, what do you want to do?” the trainer asked.

And that’s when a sentiment that had been shared by most over the previous few weeks came to be. See, Mitchell and Doyle are respected. They’re liked. They work hard. They ride well, and ride cleanly. They respect the game, which earns them respect. Neither had ever won a champion-ship. Mitchell, who rides short, looks at jumps like speed bumps. He perches, knees out and finishes like a flat jockey. He had come back from a broken jaw a few seasons ago. Doyle, who rides long, an enveloping leg giving horses confidence, hands low, always low, came back from a broken pelvis a few years back.

Mitchell jumped out to a big lead with three triples in the spring. Doyle clawed it back with a torrid summer and early fall. If there were a swing vote, maybe it would go to Doyle as he was heading home at the end of the season and is two years older than Mitchell, but both deserved it. Doyle went 20-for-95, on the board 45 times. Mitchell went 20-for-86, on the board 44 times. A bad word for either one? Never. Their peers, their bosses, their friends wanted both to win and, perhaps, more importantly, didn’t want one to lose. At the Callaway barn Saturday morning, owners and trainers passed the time and hoped for a knot.

“I like both of them,” Fisher said. “They’re both good riders and neither has ever won it. I’m hoping for a tie.”

Everybody nodded.

And that was before Doyle’s jaw shattered like a champagne glass on a chimney wall.

A day later, Fisher decided to leave his Charleston runners in the barn, he wasn’t going to be an accomplice. Mitchell, after talking to his parents in England and a few other older, wiser confidants, decided to opt off the rest of his rides.

Tie game.

“Going down to Charleston, I was putting myself into a position where I was taking away from someone else. I’ve won. Jack’s won. The only other outcome would be winning a race and taking that title away from Jack. That’s what hit me,” Mitchell said. “I know how hard I’ve worked to try to get that title. The amount you stress over rides, the amount you stress over your weight, you put everything in for that season. For him to be sitting in a hospital bed and have me go down the following week and have the chance to take that away from him just didn’t seem fair. I was happy to share the title.”

Doyle appreciated the gesture, wedging words through wires inserted at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore two days after the spill.

“Fair play to Mikey Mitchell. I always wanted to be champion jockey. Again, not the way I wanted to be champion jockey and not the way I wanted it to end, but fair play to Mikey,” Doyle said. “Nobody said anything to me, I had no phone in hospital, I got out on Wednesday, that was the first time I heard about it. Maybe somebody had said something to me in hospital but I was pretty out of it. I texted him and said what he’d done wasn’t necessary, but I appreciated and best of luck to him in the future. He’ll be champion jockey again, barring anything drastic happens.”

Back to the life of a jump jockey, drastic is around every corner.

Doyle started his career in the 2005-06 season in England and Ireland. He won 186 English races and another 20 in Ireland, and was the stable rider for trainer Emma Lavelle for five seasons. His career had stalled at the end of the 2013-2014 season. On the way home from the races, after logging miles to be beaten miles, Doyle called his father Pat. Jack wanted a summer vacation, somewhere, anywhere, before returning to Ireland. His career was over in England. His dad called an old friend, Andre Lynch, working at Coolmore, who called Gary Murray, husband of trainer Elizabeth Voss. Doyle was on his way to America. Saratoga to be exact.

“I had no idea who I was working for. They said something about Saratoga. I didn’t know what Saratoga was,” Doyle said. “As far as I was concerned I was going on a working holiday for the summer. All I had to do was get a flight home.”

Doyle guided Makari (GB) to win the Grade 1 A.P. Smithwick for Voss and scooped up a rich allowance race with Syros for Fisher. And like always, Doyle, wasn’t forcing anything, allowing his career to extend organically.

“They said something about getting a visa and coming back. I looked into it, sorted it and that was it,” Doyle said. “The one thing I love is riding horses, riding races, it gave me the opportunity to do it for another five or six years.”

Doyle picked up the ride on Demon-stra-tive and won the Grade 1 Iroquois the next spring, a year in which he also won two Grade 1 stakes with Bob Le Beau (Ire), and has been a mainstay ever since. Ousting two Irish raiders from trainer Willie Mullins, Doyle won a second Iroquois with Rawnaq (Ire) in 2016. He won six Grade 1 stakes in five years while flirting with the jockey championship. He led the earnings table in 2015, but finished second to Paddy Young for the official crown. Doyle was well in front in 2016, but broke his pelvis in September and wound up fifth. In 2018, he finished second to Darren Nagle (by a single win).

As for 2019, it looked hopeless as Mitchell capitalized on riding first-call for Fisher, tripling at Middleburg, Virginia Gold Cup, Radnor and Fair Hill to take a commanding lead into the summer. That’s when Doyle began to boil, winning four races at Colonial Downs, two at Shawan Downs, three at Foxfield to close the gap. He singled at Virginia Fall, Far Hills, Montpelier and Pennsylvania Hunt Cup to tie it up.

Like Doyle and most of today’s transient jockey colony, Mitchell came here on a whim as well. Born to a non-racing family in Rugby, England, Mitchell learned to ride, liked it, got a job galloping for trainer George Baker and went on a world tour, pitching his tent in Australia before moving to New Zealand where he was champion jockey in 2015, winning that country’s Grand National that season.

Mitchell rolled into America as part of his world tour, a place to tick off like he had ticked off England, France, Australia and New Zealand. There was talk of Japan. He never made it to Japan.

Mitchell rode seven races in 2014 and another two in 2015. Winless and wondering over those two seasons – more of a vacation than a vocation – Mitchell picked up opportunities in 2017, winning nine races and another 12 in 2018, including back-to-back Grade 1 A.P. Smithwicks at Saratoga for Arch Kingsley and Ricky Hendriks.

With momentum and seeing an opening, Mitchell landed the most coveted job in steeplechasing with Fisher.

“My job is to keep it simple,” Mitchell said in April. “His horses are so well trained. As long as I give them the opportunity, they can take it.”

It was that simple through the spring and summer but got complicated by fall. At Belmont Park in September, Fisher reminded Mitchell, in the midst of a 0-for-20 skid, about the margin that had dwindled. Mitchell just stared at him. Don’t ever tell a bald man he’s going bald, because he knows.

The wins drizzled rather than poured but Mitchell kept it simple, picking up two crucial fall scores with handicapper Pik Em, a stakes win aboard Gibralfaro (Ire) and saved his best for last, eking out 21⁄4 miles on the front-running Storm Team at Callaway.

A tie at the top never felt so sweet.

“There’s no money . . . it’s stupid . . . we beat ourselves up all year for that title, just for that satisfaction, that all that work has paid off into knowing you’ve got a championship title behind you,” Mitchell said. “To have that title beside your name . . . it’s huge. It’s something that people can’t take away from you, under your name it’s always going to say champion jockey. I don’t think other people realize what it’s like for a jockey to win the title.”

In 2019, two jockeys knew the feeling.