The Week in Review: Back-of-Van Ride to Victory for Trainer Kirby in Claiming Crown


Hero Tiger | Coady


When trainer Tom Van Berg won two Claiming Crown races Saturday with his first horses in that series, most racing regulars made the connection to his father, the late Hall-of-Fame conditioner Jack Van Berg. But a link to another family legacy in that series might not have been as apparent: John Timothy Kirby, 25, who also saddled his first Claiming Crown starter to a victory in his first-ever race at Churchill Downs, is a third-generation horseman with strong roots that run deep in New England.

In fact, after more than a half-century of raising and racing Massachusetts-breds, the Kirby clan managed to outlast all Thoroughbred racing in their home region. That meant that even before Suffolk Downs ceased racing for good in 2019, the youngest trainer in the family had already been forced to hit the road and relocate to Parx in Pennsylvania to ply his trade.

The Claiming Crown likes to bill itself as the “blue-collar Breeders' Cup,” and that's a pretty fair analogy. But how many trainers at the national level are willing to make a 675-mile van ride in the trailer with their lone entrant for that event, like Kirby did with Hero Tiger (Hero of Order), the 4-1 winner of the $100,000 Ready's Rocket Express?

“I rode in the back. Just wanted to make sure he shipped good and everything,” Kirby told Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (PTHA) video correspondent Dani Gibson post-win.

“Bobby Mosco's horse was on there, too,” Kirby added, referring to Out of Sorts (Dramedy), the 10-length victress of the $150,000 Tiara who completed a Parx-based double in a Claiming Crown otherwise swept by home-track Kentuckians.

“Everything went so smooth and the stars aligned. We just got so lucky,” Kirby said.

Perseverance and a horse-first work ethic honed by three generations didn't hurt either.

John T.'s grandfather, John F. Kirby, had always worked around horses growing up, and he began training Thoroughbreds in 1953, when racing in New England consisted of a robust circuit in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine, plus a summer and fall slate of regional county fairs.

Kirby started breeding Thoroughbreds at his Smokey Valley Farm in Dover in 1967, about a half-hour southwest of Suffolk Downs, and he had already built up a small band of broodmares by the time Massachusetts started earmarking money for state-bred purse incentives in 1972.

After training for outside clients for two-plus decades, the elder Kirby cut back to focus on his homegrown racing stock in 1975. When the Massachusetts-bred program expanded to include state-bred stakes in 1981, at least one Kirby-raised horse would win at least one of those stakes each year for a streak that lasted three decades.

The horses that carried the family's green-and-white shamrock silks were known for durability and soundness. One foal from Kirby's 1968 crop named Brik (“Kirb” backwards) won 23 races from 184 starts.

The family was hardy, too, and although not standings-toppers at Suffolk, they were widely respected for their horsemanship. In 1985, John F. Kirby said in a Boston Globe profile that between the farm and the track, the work schedule was “seven days a week, from dawn until exhaustion.”

Timothy Kirby, John T.'s father, began training in 1991 and still has a small stable at Parx. Patriarch John F. Kirby stopped training in 1999 and died in 2011. The once 40-acre family farm got downsized in pieces as the horses left the property and the bloodstock business in New England dried up and vanished.

The youngest Kirby recalled in a 2019 interview with the PTHA's Dick Jerardi how as a high schooler, he was often reprimanded for reading a Racing Form hidden inside his binder.

“If we had a horse racing, odds were that I would be at the track and not in the classroom,” John T. Kirby said.

But Kirby got schooled in other, more meaningful ways. Just as important as race results, he learned from his father and grandfather, was what happened after the finish.

“We always had Mass.-breds,” Kirby said in that PTHA write-up. “They treated us well. We mostly kept them when they were done and let them live out to their old age on the farm.”

On a raw, unseasonably snowy Saturday at Churchill that surely must have given Kirby flashbacks of the bygone, brutal days of winter racing at Suffolk, there was a moment at the head of the homestretch when it looked like Hero Tiger, despite being full of run, was going to get squeezed out of contention because a narrow gap that jockey Luis Saez had been aiming for turned into a wall of horseflesh before the 6-year-old gelding could punch through.

“Honestly, when that hole shut on him, I thought he lost his momentum. But Luis really rode him hard and got his momentum going again, and this horse just has the biggest heart–the biggest heart,” Kirby said, his voice momentarily cracking with emotion after the highest-profile win of his career.

With limited stock, Kirby has won 14 races from 98 starts this year, hitting the board at a 45% clip while competing primarily at Parx, Delaware and Penn National. But he's no stranger to New York, where he's won one race each at Saratoga and Belmont in 2021 and '22, the most recent victory being a 21-1 upset in June with a $45,000 claiming turfer who blitzed six furlongs in a swift 1:07.34.

Back on Sept. 4, Kirby dropped a $40,000 claim slip for Hero Tiger at the Spa on behalf of owner Gregg O'Donnell, and Saturday's claiming Crown win returned $56,000 on that investment.

Instead of taking credit, Kirby complimented his jockey in a post-race interview while brimming with enthusiasm about bigger and better things to come.

“The first horse we ever put [Saez] on, he won at Saratoga. And then earlier this year they [nearly] broke the track record at Belmont,” Kirby said. “So we're 3-for-5 with Luis, and this is just the beginning. We'll get him a lot more mounts.”

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.

Liked this article? Read more like this.

  1. Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby Concludes at Nakayama
  2. This Side Up: Missing The Point
  3. Q & A With Breeders' Cup President and CEO Drew Fleming
  4. Kiaran McLaughlin Joins TDN Writers' Room Podcast
  5. Ninetyprcentmaddie Possible for Wood Memorial

Never miss another story from the TDN

Click Here to sign up for a free subscription.