“ACCIDENTAL TRAINER” SEAN MCDERMOTT GETS FIRST WIN
Born in Ireland, where has won more than 100 races riding over jumps, Sean McDermott has enjoyed similar success on the steeplechase circuit since coming to the United States. He has ranked in the top five in both races and money won every year since 2015, twice leading the country in purses earned.
Yet even that success didn’t prepare the 38-year-old native of County Kerry for how it would feel to be in the winner’s circle as a trainer.
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Favorite Image, a Maryland homebred of the late Bob Kinsley’s South Branch Equine, made it happen with a front-running triumph at odds of 6-1 July 23 at Pimlico Race Course. The 3-year-old gelding ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.98 over a firm turf to win the maiden claiming event by a comfortable 2 ¼ lengths.
“[It was] very different,” McDermott said. “I’ve ridden a lot of winners all over the world, from Australia to Ireland, England, America, everywhere. The first one as a trainer is more pride, especially with this horse because the previous advice Mr. Kinsley had gotten was to give this horse away. They thought he was too small, but he was actually just a very late foal and a late developer.
“The same horse, as a yearling on the farm where he grew up, he managed to stick his foot in a John Deere lawnmower somehow. They were able to fix it up and it doesn’t affect him. He’s a very tough, hardy horse but he’s very [mischievous] so his nickname around here is ‘JD,’ he added. “It was more of a proud moment seeing him win because he had been written off more than once. It was good to see him get up the straight. I’m very proud of him and very happy.”
It was the first win from 23 starters for McDermott. He ran nine horses in 2020, two on the flat and seven over jumps, during a pandemic-shortened season. He debuted June 27, 2020 at Great Meadow with Aardwolf, who also gave McDermott his first flat starter Sept. 3 at Laurel Park.
McDermott’s horses have raced primarily on the flat this year, at Laurel, Pimlico, Parx and Penn National, and he also has three seconds and a third in four races over jumps. Meanwhile, McDermott continues to ride in steeplechase events with two wins from 21 mounts. He is named on Decisive Triumph for trainer Mark Beecher in one of two non-wagering jump races that lead off Tuesday’s card at Colonial Downs.
“I am a jump jockey, really. I’m an accidental trainer,” McDermott said. “This definitely was not a planned vocation. I guess covid had a lot to do with how this came up.
“Basically, myself and my fiancé were looking for an apartment or a house to live in, and Mr. Kinsley was looking for somebody to take care of a recent property he bought in early 2020,” he added. “That’s where we fit in.”
Kinsley, founder and operator of his own multi-faceted construction company, was also a prominent steeplechase owner and philanthropist. He passed away last June at the age of 79.
“[The property] had a barn and a few arenas and he needed some yearlings broken,” McDermott said. “Then covid hit and racing was stop-start, steeplechase in particular, which depended on crowds to attend for the purses. Mr. Kinsley had a good way of not taking no for an answer. The barn was full and it just kind of spiraled into training, and here we are.”
McDermott operates out of Maple Springs Farm in Monkton, Md.
“We’re kind of sorting through them but there’s 11 or 12 here now. We’re kind of grading them all and downsizing a little bit because Mrs. Kinsley doesn’t have the same love for the sport that her husband did, but she’s planning to keep it going a little bit,” McDermott said.
“There’s a mixed batch of homebreds. There’s maybe two steeplechasers and the horse that won, he seems pretty good after the race so we’ll probably run him back in a few weeks. He will start over hurdles in the fall. He can mix the flat and hurdles, no problem. He always stays pretty well,” he added. “We’re looking for a couple of new owners to come in on a couple of these horses to help Mrs. Kinsley out, so we’ll see how that goes.”
According to Equibase, McDermott is a three-time Grade 1 winner over jumps as a rider, taking the 2016 Lonesome Glory Handicap and 2017 and 2019 Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle Stakes with Scorpiancer. He also rode Scorpiancer to victory in the 2017 Temple Gwathmey Hurdle Handicap (G3).
National Steeplechase Association statistics show McDermott has the national leader in money won in 2016 ($648,750) and 2017 ($719,550), also ranking second with 14 wins from 100 mounts in 2017. McDermott had eight wins and $184,500 in purse earnings from 48 mounts last year.
“I can’t ride as much as I would like at the moment. I had to turn down the Jack Fisher job again this year and give up some pretty nice horses to ride but I committed to the Kinsley family and given Bob my word that we’d get the best out of the horses,” he said. “They’re all homebreds, and I wasn’t going to go back out on my word. I’m sure that job will be there for me again.”
McDermott made note of another significant difference between riding winners and training them.
“It’s kind of reality. Being a small operation, you still have to go back and do all the work yourself,” he said. “When you’re a jockey, you’re patting them and you’re getting all the praise, but you get off them and you walk away. You don’t have to go back to a barn of horses and take care of them.
“Hopefully we’ll be getting a couple of 2-year-olds started in a few weeks and [Favorite Image] will run back,” he added. “The steeplechase horses this year have all been second without winning. They’re running to the max so, hopefully, we can improve them a little more.”