Champion jockey Kieran Norris admits he'd contemplated retirement the past few years – starting when he broke his neck at the Radnor Hunt Races in 2017.
A spill in the day’s first race, a maiden hurdle, landed the National Steeplechase Association’s leading rider in 2016 in the hospital with a fractured occipital condyle, the bone that connects the skull to the backbone. The accident was a turning point in his career.
“It was important to me to finish my career on a high note,” Norris said. “Too many guys hang on for too long, and you start to hear people say, ‘he used to ride really well,’ so I decided to get out before I was pushed out.”
Norris made a full recovery and bounced back to win the 2018 Virginia Gold Cup aboard Sara Collette’s Zanclus, but the idea of hanging up his tack was hard to shake.
Norris retired from race riding in August. The Middleburg, Va.-based rider has been a fixture on the NSA circuit for the last decade, picking up notable wins at the 2018 Virginia Gold Cup, 2014 Jonathan Kiser Memorial Hurdle Stakes and 2013 International Gold Cup.
Sitting down for a cup of coffee on the first cool day of September with Norris at Common Grounds – the curbside coffee shop on Middleburg’s main drag – provided the perfect place to discuss retirement, racing and what’s next.
Horses and hunting are a way of life in the rural region along the border of County Waterford and County Cork, Ireland, where Norris grew up.
“I used to follow the hounds on foot until my uncle gave me a pony,” he said. “I didn’t know how to ride, so I fell off a lot.”
Norris developed an interest in racing after attending local point-to-points. The professional whipper-in at the County Limerick Foxhounds introduced Norris to a friend who needed help legging up some racehorses. Norris spent a year there learning the ropes before taking a job with notable Irish jump racing trainer Sean Aherne. Norris earned his jockey’s license, then rode his first winner for Aherne.
“My friend was supposed to ride this filly, but he offered her to me instead,” Norris said. “She had jumped tires, ditches and whatever else we came across while riding out, but never a brush fence until her first start, which she won. She was my first winner.”
Aherne connected Norris with flat trainer Eddie Kenneally, a fellow County Waterford ex-pat, who offered him a job galloping at Churchill Downs. Over the next several years, Norris built his career as a jump jockey while working for various flat trainers during the week to make ends meet. In 2012, Norris met his wife, Madison Meyers, when both were working for Kentucky-based trainer Jimmy Baker at the Saratoga Race Course meeting.
Norris began to turn his attention to his own training business in 2016, when he and Meyers started Ballyerin Racing. With a barn full of horses, Norris and Meyers decided that 2020 would be his final season riding races. This year’s COVID-ravaged race schedule didn’t go as planned, but Norris still managed to ride one last winner at the delayed Middleburg Spring Races in mid-June.
“The original plan had been to finish the season at Montpelier (Hunt Races), but after the Colonial (Downs) meet was cancelled due to COVID, I decided to call it a day,” Norris said. “Virginia is my home, and I wanted to finish here.”
Still, it’s a bittersweet finish.
“I’ll miss the camaraderie of riding with my colleagues,” Norris said when asked what he’ll miss the most. “I’m good friends with most of the guys who’re riding on the circuit today; we’ve spent a lot of time together.”
When asked Norris for the highlights – to name a few top career moments, favorite race meet and the best horses he’s ridden – some answers came easier than others.
“Without a doubt Middleburg (Glenwood Park) is the best track as a rider,” he said. “It makes you use your brain. It really tests the rider.”
Norris said he’s had the ride on too many brilliant horses to remember them all, but named 2018 Virginia Gold Cup winner Zanclus and 2014 Kiser Memorial winner Awesome Pearl as two special mounts.
“Winning the Kiser Memorial was special for a lot of reasons,” Norris said, referring to Saratoga’s $55,000 stakes race run over national fences named in honor of a fallen jockey. “It was my first win at Saratoga and Awesome Pearl was a little bit of a longshot. Jonathan Kiser was a rider that a lot of guys really looked up to, I didn’t know him, but winning that race was special.”
Norris said that being named 2016 NSA champion rider was a major milestone in his career. He was up against the two-time NSA champion rider Paddy Young, who had 12 wins going into the final meet of the year at Springdale Racecourse in Camden, S.C., to Norris’ 13. Norris picked up the win needed aboard Check Mark Stables’ Willow U in the fourth race on the Colonial Cup card to edge out Young and earn the title.
“When you’re young, everyone wants to be champion jockey, but you don’t think it’s attainable. To have started fresh in the U.S. without a lot of background and to work my way here meant a lot,” he said. “My friend (the former professional whipper-in at the County Limerick Foxhounds who helped Norris get his start in racing) called to congratulate me and said ‘I used to think you were terrible out hunting, now you’re champion jockey!’ ”
After a recent visit to Norris at the Middleburg Training Center, it’s clear he has no plans to slow down. After joining him for a gallop on the track, we hacked out around the property as the late summer morning’s pink light broke to the east over the gables of the training center’s barns, the Blue Ridge visible to the west. At its inception, Ballyerin Racing was geared toward breaking and pre-training young horses, but with support from local owners, the business has transitioned to include more horses in race training.
“Some of our owners have kept their horses with us to train after they’ve gone through our breaking and pre-training program,” Norris said, naming Sara Collette, for whom he rode 2018 Virginia Gold Cup winner Zanclus. “Madison and I just trained our first winner for her (Sept. 12 at the Old Dominion Hounds point-to-point). It made me feel like my career has come full circle.”
Norris hopes to become a “pretty powerful stable in the Mid-Atlantic,” targeting state-bred races in Virginia and Maryland, “but we’d like to make some trips to New York as well.”
Norris named a few horses that he’s particularly excited about from a barn full of promising prospects.
Gordon Keys’ homebred 4-year-old Great Notion gelding Grateful Bred broke his maiden at Laurel Park in July for Meyers and Norris and added an allowance victory sprinting on the grass in late September.
“He’s a big strong horse, rough and ready sometimes, but he has a huge engine,” Norris said of the Maryland-bred.
Single Focus, a 4-year-old gelding by Warrior’s Reward, did his pre-training with Norris, went to Barclay Tagg in New York, and is now back in Middleburg. He notched his first win at Laurel Park in a maiden-claiming race Aug. 20.
“He lost an eye as a foal, but he’s a quiet, easy going horse,” Norris said.
Given his now vast experience in several parts of the game, Norris can’t help but agree with the late Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia words “it costs a lot to win and even more to lose” from the band’s hit song Deal.
“Madison and I started the business with our own money and have run our own horses, so we know what it’s like for an owner when things don’t go as planned,” Norris said. “That experience puts us in a unique position – we understand the financial side of owning racehorses – so we can help our clients make the best decisions for their horses.”
But perhaps the biggest change on Norris’ horizon is a new foal in the barn: Norris and Meyers are expecting a baby girl in mid-October.
“She’s going to change everything — my whole life!” he said. “I’m lucky that Madison is so well organized and efficient. It’s going to be a big adjustment, but we’ll take it in stride.”
IV Hendrix is the professional whipper-in and stable manager for the Middleburg Hunt. He graduated with a B.S. in Animal Science from North Carolina State University in 2019. When IV's not keeping up with hounds, he’s following his favorite bands – Phish, Widespread Panic, and the surviving members of the Grateful Dead – on tour.