The tiny township of Mitchell is located in Queensland’s Maranoa region, about 90 kms from Roma. The town services a sheep and cattle farming district, with most of the population living on the outlying properties. Only 1311 townsfolk were accounted for in the census of 2011.
When Mitchell’s most famous son was born there in 1890, the locals could go for days without seeing a neighbour. Who would have guessed that the boy born to Irish immigrant parents was destined to become the 15th and shortest serving Australian Prime Minister. Francis Forde inherited the top job after the death of John Curtin, but was defeated in a leadership spill just 8 days later by Ben Chifley.
Another of Mitchell’s best known products has already held a job in the racing industry for nigh on half a century, with plans to stick around indefinitely.
There wasn’t a trace of racing in Kevin Kemp’s background, but he was besotted by horses from the moment he first sat on a pony. Most of his mates owned ponies and those kids would be out all day, every day. “If I got home before dark, Mum and Dad would wonder what the hell was wrong”, recalled Kevin.
1969 was the year of the first Moon landing. It was also the year young Kemp landed in a city that looked like a sprawling metropolis next to Mitchell. He got to Grade 9 at school in Toowoomba, but the minute his fifteenth birthday arrived, young Kemp was off and gone.
His love of horses and the fact that he tipped the scales at 46 kilograms, prompted him to apply for an apprenticeship with a local trainer whose name escapes him.
When Kev heard there was a job coming up with Gold Coast trainer Bill Krafft, he broke all records getting his papers transferred. Bill Krafft also trained a few pacers, and like so many before him young Kemp quickly formed an attachment to the standardbred.
There was one defining moment that could have tipped the scales in favour of harness racing. “I was at Albion Park one morning when Colin Pike was jogging the great Paleface Adios”, recalled Kevin. “That chestnut with his big baldy face was an absolute legend in harness racing and known to most horse lovers. Colin broke the rules in letting me sit on the side of the gig and told me all about the champ as we jogged around. It’s a hell of a memory”.
Kev never got to drive Paleface Adios, but he did establish a pretty good strike rate in a brief career in the sulky. He had a total of five race drives for two wins - Flashfoot and Nultee are the names that will remain with him forever.
As a jockey he fared a little better, winning around twenty races but is brutally honest in his self assessment. “I had two problems as a jockey”, said Kev over the weekend. “Firstly I was always going to have weight problems and secondly I was bloody hopeless”.
He was, however a very good track rider and enjoyed the role immensely. He rode work for several years and would often be approached by leading trainers to help out. “One very good horse I got to ride work on the Gold Coast was Tauto”, recalled Kemp. “He won a string of good races, including the 1971 Cox Plate. It was a thrill to sit on him”.
By 1975 the training bug was starting to bite and Kev headed back to good old Toowoomba to become a strapper for Norm McCallum. During this time he took out a trainer’s licence, constantly keeping an eye out for a horse to train.
He had to go all the way to Longreach to pick up a young, unraced horse who was showing a semblance of ability. “God he was small”, said Kev. “He looked more like a kid’s pony, but there was something about him I liked”.
“Don Fajen won first up at Ipswich, then ran two fourths in town”, said the trainer. “Then came an astonishing seven straight wins. He won a Novice at Eagle Farm on Stradbroke day, followed by wins at Doomben and Ipswich. Then came four wins at Toowoomba. He was definitely the horse to kick start my career”.
For the next few years Kevin Kemp worked in the boning room at the local abattoirs and drove a taxi from time to time. He liked to train one horse on a hobby basis, always hoping a good one would materialise. Under Thunder kept Kev interested by winning several races.
Fate intervened in a spectacular way in 2001, when Toowoomba trainer Debbie Waller decided to retire. Two horses arrived at the Kemp stables, destined to change the trainer’s future.
Startell had already won seven races for Debbie, but reeled off another five wins for Kevin including the Weetwood and a listed Brisbane Hcp ridden in both by Stathi Katsidis. The other new recruit was the hardy Stormy Lodge who also won five for the Kemp stable.
The trainer has always acknowledged the support of the Cronin family. “I used to ride their bonny mare Bernalla in trackwork at Clifford Park, little realising she would one day figure indirectly in my training career”, said Kevin.
Bernalla’s grandson Tellem was one of Kevin’s all time favourites. The tough as teak gelding won 16 from 60 starts for $575,000. He won the Weetwood twice (2005 and 2007) and the Listed Glasshouse in 2004, ridden in all three by the talented Stathi Katsidis.
It was around this time that Kev experienced a career highlight. He made a very rare excursion to Sydney with a mare called Winsome Dancer, who won a 3YO and upwards fillies and mares race at Rosehill with Mitchell Bell up - her ninth career win. “A massive thrill for a Toowoomba trainer”, said Kevin. “It’s satisfying to win a race in Brisbane, but to get one home at Rosehill is something else”.
The trainer has tremendous affection for the gallant mare Sold For Song, winner of four races with multiple placings for a hefty $636,000. Her wins include the listed Daybreak Lover and the listed Gold Edition. Her placings include a close second in the Group 2 Gilgai Stakes at Flemington during the Melbourne Cup carnival. “She’s such a trier”, said Kevin admiringly. “She’s rising seven, but is back in work and I’m confident she’ll do a good job this time in”.
Right up there with Kevin’s career highlights was a quinella in the 2014 Weetwood Hcp - his fourth success in the historic sprint. Typhoon Red and Nozi Tomizawa combined to just edge out stablemate Kempelly.
You’ll recognize the names of other handy winners from the Kemp yard in recent times. Fighting Teo, Tisani Tomso, Mr. Marbellouz, Tisani Boy, Plumaro, Under The Leaner, Brave Dazzler, Jack’s Back, Zouzoukakia and Puff’s Girl have all paid their way.
When iconic trainer Jim Atkins passed away at age 94 in 2010, the curtain came down on a great era in Queensland racing. Respected by all sections of the industry, the great horseman was still training at 93.
When Jim’s stables came up for rent a few years ago, Kevin Kemp was the first to put his hand up. “Rarely does a day go by that I don’t see the ghosts of horses like Dalrello, Grey Affair, Just Now and Prince Ruling”, said Kevin. “I hope I can get one as good as any one of them before it’s time to call it quits”.
At 65 Kevin Kemp is just as keen as he was when punching his pony around the paddocks at Mitchell. Every time Kev and his wife Judy attend a yearling sale, the good lady is firm in her assertion that they are “only having a look”.
So far this year trainer K.Kemp has come home with three yearlings from the Magic Millions January sale, and another three from the March sale. “That’s a pretty good look”, said the trainer.
Talking to the locals at Clifford Park on Saturday, it was increasingly obvious that Kevin Kemp is a very respected member of the local training ranks. He’d love to train horses into his nineties, as Jim Atkins did. “I don’t know if I’ll get that far, but I’m sure as hell going to give it my best shot”.
(Banner image courtesy Trackside Photography - Dynamisante from the Kemp stable wins recently at Ipswich.)