by Sophie Schepps
The sound of galloping hooves marks the beginning of springtime in the Middleburg area as well as the thrilling return of steeplechase and point-to-point racing season, always popular with spectators and horsemen alike.
Middleburg-based jockey Kieran Norris, honored recently as the Virginia Steeplechase Association’s leading rider in 2015, is gearing up to run at several upcoming local meets, including the Middleburg Spring Races set for Saturday, April 23 at Glenwood, just outside of town.
Norris is originally from County Waterford, Ireland. Riding from the age of ten, he was the only equestrian in the family. His mother’s side owned some breeding stock and his father’s family had an interest in a different type of racing—greyhounds.
Nevertheless, Norris became an avid fox hunter as a teenager and after attending university in Ireland, a friend offered him a job that changed the course of his life.
“He was working at a stable and got me involved,” Norris said in his delightful Irish brogue. “He told me to come out and help him a couple mornings a week. I was there for about three or more months before they told me I should go out and get my jockey license.”
At 21, Norris was already several years behind most of his competitors. But what he lacked in youth, he made up for with experience. After a successful seven-year riding career in Ireland, Norris was ready for a new adventure.
“At first I didn’t even know there were jump races in America and I wanted a change,” Norris said. “The places I was working had lost horses and owners and it was either finish what I was doing or make a change so that’s when I decided to come over here.”
Starting out in Saratoga Springs, New York he eventually made his way to Maryland and competed in races there working for the late trainer Thomas Voss. Everywhere he raced, he noticed a number of fine horses from Virginia.
“I saw Richard Valentine’s horses and really liked how they looked so I asked him if I could come work for him,” Norris said. “That’s how I got in touch with Doug Fout, who I currently ride with. This will be our second season.”
Like all trainers, Fout, who operates out of Goose Creek Stables, is particular about how his horses run. His main focus is ensuring they are well-schooled jumpers.
“His horses are probably the best jumpers that I ride,” he said. “Most people I’ve worked for, their horses all do well. But he has set days when we just work on jumping. He has good staff back in the barn so he can spend his time out on the track watching us train.”
Fout’s attention extends beyond the horses. Norris said his pre-race instructions give him an extra needed boost.
“He’s good confidence-wise, too,” Norris said. “No trainer makes you nervous, but he fills you with the most confidence so you go out feeling like you’re going to win. He rode a lot himself and that makes a big difference. Some trainers like to restrict you with a lot of instruction, but he lets you do what you need to do.”
Norris tries to ride in every race at any given meet. After he’s assigned his Goose Creek horses, he then contacts other trainers to pick up more rides. The worst part of the sport for Norris is sitting around in the jockey room and waiting around to get back in the saddle.
And the discipline and physical prowess and fitness to ride in seven or eight races is daunting.
“I ride six days a week,” he said. “I get up at 5:15 in the morning and try to get on my first horse at 6. I start with Neil Morris and then I go to Doug’s and I’m done by 12:30. Then when the young horses come back to Smitten Farm in the late spring, I’ll be there in the afternoon to about 3.”
This year winning consistently over hurdles at the Middleburg Spring Races on April 23 is Norris’ main goal. The popular venue of Glenwood is his favorite track.
“The Alfred Hunt…is better than any of them,” he said. “It’s faster and everyone is able to watch. Some of the tracks you go out and might as well been out alone in a field and you can’t hear anything. When you are in Middleburg and can run past the crowd and can hear the shouting, it’s just a really fun meet.”