James Kernan Interview Part 1 – “What drove me on was that Paul Darragh was in first and when he jumped clear, that spurred me on”

  • 21 March 2020, 15:51

The youngest member of Ireland’s famous Aga Khan “three-in-a-row” winning Show Jumping team from the late 1970’s, Co Armagh’s James Kernan talks to Horse Sport Ireland about his family’s involvement with horses for generations. In Part.1 of our interview, James talks about winning the gold medal at the European Junior Championships, his surprise call up to the Aga Khan team as a teenager and how horses such as Condy shaped his future.

Jane Darragh, wife of the late Paul Darragh, James Kernan, Captain Con Power, and Eddie Macken were honoured at a special reception in 2017 which was 40 years after the first of three Aga Khan wins in-a-row (Photo: Sam Barnes Sportsfile)

James Kernan was always destined to be involved with horses such was his family’s deep equestrian tradition. What followed was an incredible career for the Co Armagh native at the very top of the sport.

“My Grandfather was a dealer. He used to buy horses for the Egyptian Army and the Italian Army and my father Frank Kernan then got into showjumping and he started to produce horses to jump himself at shows. Then he got involved with Italy’s Graziano Mancinelli and had been dealing with him for 35 years. He bought a lot of our good young horses and he would come to the the Dublin Horse Show and buy maybe 30 horses at a time. I remember the Dublin Horse Show would finish on the Saturday and on the Sunday morning he would be pulling all the horses out one by one and those horses would be shipped then to Italy by plane in those days.

“Then my grandfather had bought this mare called Marcella, she was a fantastic jumping mare. Ned Cash, Seamus Hayes, and  Tommy Brennan had all won on her. My Grandfather said that this mare was never to be sold and she was to be kept for me for the juniors, which was great for me”

From an early age James made his mark on the Irish Show Jumping circuit and it wasn’t long before he would enjoy success on the international stage.

“When I was 14 years old I was on the Irish Junior team at the Europeans in Cork and I think I had a few bad rounds  – but it was great experience for me. Then the following year in 1973 we went to Belgium and I finished fifth with Marcella individually. The following year in 1974, I was on was on the team again at the Junior Europeans at Lucerne in Switzerland. I won the individual gold medal when I was 16 with Marcella to become the first Irish rider to become junior European Champion.”

Having made his mark at youth level, it wasn’t long before Kernan broke into the senior ranks and made his Aga Khan debut aged just 18.

“The following year I went back to defend my Junior title in Austria but unfortunately my horse went lame so we couldn’t compete. The following year I moved into seniors with a horse called Spring Trout who my father had bought down in Co Waterford from Nicholas Connors and Spring Trout gave me my first spin on an Aga Khan team when I was 18.

“I had competed on him abroad at shows in Amsterdam, Dortmund and ‘s-Hertogenbosch and he performed extremely well. All that year, which would have been 1976, he jumped really consistently. I don’t know how it came about but I got picked for the Aga Khan team that year. As far as I recall, the team was myself Con Power. and Ned Campion and Eddie Macken and we ended up finishing second, just behind Germany.”

The following year James would strike up an incredible partnership with a horse called Condy and together they would make history as part of the Irish team that won the Aga Khan three years in-a-row from 1977 to 1979.

“In 1976 we had bought a horse called Condy from Ned Cash Snr in Moat. Condy had won the B & C Championship, a class for young horses that year, and the amount of people that wanted to buy him was incredible, his potential was there to be seen at that stage. Condy was eight or nine when we jumped on the Aga Khan team in 1977. I wasn’t originally on the team to start off. I think Larry Kelly was picked initially but Sean Daly, the Chef d’Equipe at the time then put me on. I was shocked to be honest, I never dreamed I was going to be picked. When Sean picked me, it was a very bold decision but thankfully I went on and jumped double clear. We actually went to a jump-off so we had to jump three times and Condy was clear in all three rounds.”

Asked if he felt the pressure of jumping on an Aga Khan team at such a young age Kernan said:

“I was nervous. Condy didn’t have the biggest scope in the world so I would get up in the morning and the first thing I would do was look to see what kind of combination we had to jump. The individual fences didn’t worry me but if there was a big combination you would be worried. I can always remember I would be a bit nervous but as soon as the bell would go everything would just click. What drove me on was that Paul Darragh was in first and when he jumped clear, that spurred me on and I wanted to be as good as him and not let the team down.

“Condy was incredibly careful and would give you an incredible feeling over a fence, he was just a special horse.”

Look out for Part 2 of our chat with James Kernan over the coming days as he talks about his experience at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. how the stallion Touchdown holds a special place in his heart and why he thinks Ireland continues to produce so many top riders.

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