-By Dick Jerardi
John F. Kirby trained horses for decades; the last one, according to Equibase, was in 1999. Timothy Kirby began to train horses in 1991. And most recently, John Timothy Kirby, 22, took out his trainer’s license in 2017.
John T. Kirby’s grandfather and father were fixtures at the New England tracks for years – Suffolk Downs, Rockingham Park, Narragansett, Lincoln Downs, old track names right out of “The Sting”. One by one, those tracks shut down, but the memories of the John F. Kirby-trained African Prince and But Jim remain. So do those of that hard-trying mare African Princess, trained by Tim Kirby.
The Kirby family farm in Dover, Massachusetts, 30 minutes south of Boston, is down from 40 acres to 15. Where 50 broodmares and racehorses once roamed and the family’s foundation sire Sundance Ridge once stood is still home to John T. Kirby’s grandmother, mother and sister. But the horses are gone.
John and his dad Tim, however, are still training horses, now at Parx Racing with a small stable of seven between them. They have won just three races this year, but the Kirbys have proved through the years if they get good horses, they will run for them.
“When Rockingham closed, that was unfortunately the beginning of the end (of racing in New England),” John Kirby said, while standing near his horses in Barn 6. “When Suffolk Downs was denied casino gambling, that was about it for us.”
That’s when they sold part of the family farm and moved to Pennsylvania.
“We recovered and we’re here now,” John said.
He knows the family history even though much of it happened before he was born. African Prince, a Mass.-Bred like almost all of the family’s horses, was the best horse they ever had. The son of Liberty Hall won five stakes at Suffolk in the mid-1980s, one by 8 lengths, another by 20 lengths. Sadly, just at his very peak, African Prince, who had a stakes race named in his honor at Suffolk, was injured in a race on April 21, 1986 and had to be put down.
“He was an orphan foal,” John said. “We had our driveway at the farm repaved. He actually was let loose and followed my dad and grandfather around. We still have his hoofprints in our driveway.”
But Jim, a son of Mass.-Bred legend Rise Jim, raced 89 times at the Rock and Suffolk from 1989 to 1998, with 12 wins, 10 second and 18 thirds, the very definition of honest whether racing in state-bred stakes or $8,000 claimers.
“We always had Mass-Breds,” John said. “They treated us well. We mostly kept them when they were done and let them live out to their old age on the farm.”
African Princess, a daughter of Sundance Ridge, raced 45 times from 2002 to 2006 for owner John F. Kirby and trainer Tim Kirby, all at Suffolk. She ran in the John F. Kirby Stakes and won five stakes, including four for state-breds. She finished her career with $211,400 in earnings.
Seeing all that growing up, there was never any chance
John was going to be in anything but horse racing.
“My teachers would often scold me for having the ‘Daily Racing Form’ open inside my binder in high school,” John said. “If we had a horse racing, odds were that I would be at the track and not in the classroom.”
Now, John Kirby is here at Parx Racing every day. And he won’t be leaving anytime soon.