You’ve seen Kieran Norris before. You gasped, you might have screamed. You probably elbowed your neighbor and screamed, “DID YOU SEE THAT!”
Norris, you see, is the jump jockey who skidded all over the ground with his mount Cornhusker in the second race Aug. 16, 2012. They took off fine, even touched down with the lead, then Cornhusker tripped on a four-leaf clover or something, and fell without actually falling while sliding on his belly and bashing his nose. Norris shot up the horse’s neck, lost his irons, bounced back into the tack and somehow stayed aboard. They finished fourth, in what looked like a practice session for Parkour.
Thursday, Norris was back – and in a much better mood as he guided longshot Awesome Pearl home first in the $75,000 Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes. Norris, who rides out for trainer Richard Valentine in Virginia, rallied the 5-year-old from the back of the 10-horse field to take over from a tiring Top Striker and edge Kingdom by a nose. It was the 15th career jump win for Norris, meaning he’s no longer an apprentice and also no longer just “that guy who stayed on Cornhusker” when it comes to talking about jump racing at Saratoga.
Now he’s that guy who got Awesome Pearl home at 35-1.
“It means the world, it’s pretty emotional,” said the Irishman. “It’s like getting one at Cheltenham for the English boys. It means a lot. Two years ago I was scrambling all over the place.”
Thursday involved more scrambling – of a different sort.
“We turned at the start and I gave my guy a kick to go on and they were 3 lengths gone,” Norris said. “I just had to make the best of it.”
Breaking from post nine in a field of 10, Awesome Pearl found himself way back – ninth and 17 lengths behind after a half-mile as Saint Jerome rocked on the front end. He had company as a peloton stacked up in the middle. There were horses everywhere. In the back, Awesome Pearl and Kingdom galloped along and kept pace – barely.
“I didn’t want to be back here,” Norris shouted to Gus Dahl aboard Kingdom.
“I didn’t want to be either,” Dahl hollered back.
It was exactly where they needed to be.
Favorite Saint Jerome was doing too much, racing on his right lead most of the way and jumping like Bambi’s father. Second choice Top Striker kept tabs on the leader. A mile in, things had settled a bit, but Awesome Pearl and Kingdom were still in the back. Norris saved ground around the third turn and stayed on the cones down the backside.
“We couldn’t go that early pace so I just had to sit and suffer whether I wanted to or not and it worked,” Norris said. “I just had to keep jumping because I didn’t want to get tailed off. What are you going to do? You can’t go as quick as they’re going.”
There’s no check engine light on a Thoroughbred, but you could almost see it as Saint Jerome tired first and backed up after the second-last. Top Striker took over and carried the field around the final turn. Behind him, the predators loomed. Kingdom got a clear trip around the outside. Awesome Pearl waited behind horses, maneuvered to the outside (in seventh) leaving the turn and then kicked.
It was over quickly. Top Striker mangled the last and lunged left. Kingdom landed running, Awesome Pearl did too and the horses who started in the back finished in the front.
“The more you get after him, the more he finds,” Norris said of his horse. “I didn’t have to hit him that hard. Knowing him helps. I know what he’s like. He goes out in the morning and you think it’s a pony you’re riding. Then once you get out on the gallops he’s like a different horse all together. I knew once he got into a battle, he’d keep fighting. He’s like a little terrier.”
Norris spent the summer in Saratoga two years ago, galloping for trainer Tom Voss. This time around, the jockey will be up and down the road with the Valentine horses. He was headed south Thursday afternoon. There’s no doubting the impact of a win, however.
“That makes the season,” Norris said. “I’ll be back in Virginia tomorrow, and a win will make it easier getting up in the morning.”