Spotlight On: Victor Kirby

Veteran Delaware driver exchanged one sport for another

interview by Rich Fisher

Victor Kirby—or simply Vic to his friends—is the classic blue-collar worker. He’s the guy who punches a time clock, does his job with little fanfare and is thankful to make a living. Kirby seeks opportunities to ply his trade rather than any adulation which stems from it.

The veteran driver—who lives across the street from his Milford, Del., farm with his girlfriend, Patty Brittingham, and her daughter, Erica—has won 4,669 races as of Feb. 25 and $48.11 million while driving predominantly in overnights at Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway. He has also won 537 races and $5.33 million as a trainer.

Kirby’s first drive was in 1995, but his most notable scores have been in the last five years. He was Harrington’s leading dash and money-winning driver in 2016-’17 and also led the track in purse money won in 2018. Kirby won two Grand Circuit stakes races in 2015 with Purrfect Bags for trainer Jim King Jr., and won his first major stakes race last year for Richard “Nifty” Norman with Bee Forever in the $398,650 Valley Victory Stakes for 2-year-old male trotters.

Raised by his mother, Sharon, Kirby learned about Standardbreds from his grandfather, Vinal Kirby. He attended Marymount College in Virginia at his mother’s insistence and earned a degree in communications.

Kirby was also the basketball team’s point guard and graduated in the school’s top-five list for career assists.

After a forgetful six-month stint as a bank teller, Kirby returned to harness racing and has been going ever since. He took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with Rich Fisher about his racing career and more.

 

HB: So you’re going to be 49 this August, and we know what comes after that.

Kirby: (laughing) Yeah, thanks for reminding me.

HB: When you were starting out, did you ever see yourself still going this strong at this point in your career?

Kirby: When I got done with school, the only aspect of the business I was interested in was being a groom. I guess they weren’t high aspirations, but I wanted to be a groom for a Grand Circuit stable. Back then in the late ’80s, a Grand Circuit stable was a lot different than what it is now. You traveled around and stayed with the horses. I just thought that was the coolest thing. I had no idea I would be fortunate enough to have gotten this far.

HB: You have won your first Grand Circuit races and first track titles in the past five years. Are you improving with age or just receiving better horses?

Kirby: I think it’s getting better horses. It’s all about the connections you make and having a good reputation. That’s when you get better horses to drive. I would definitely attribute it to that.

It always kills me when people say about me or other drivers that we have improved as drivers. From my standpoint, we’ve always been driving the same way, but when you drive better horses, you definitely look better.

HB: That’s all true, but you still have to prove yourself as a good driver to get good horses.

Kirby: Without a doubt. I think it’s also the way you handle yourself as a person. A lot of it is having good communication with the trainers and the owners. I appreciate positive feedback from trainers and owners and I’m sure they appreciate the same. When I was younger, I was dumb and kind of bull-headed. I would say things you shouldn’t say. I learned from my mistakes. You just can’t do that no matter what the circumstances are.

HB: What kind of education did you get working on your grandfather’s farm, which is now your farm?

Kirby: My grandfather was always stabled at the racetrack. That was a valuable lesson a lot of young people don’t get nowadays. I lived in a dormitory and we were on the backside at Brandywine Raceway, Rosecroft Raceway and Freehold Raceway. You learn a lot of things that are very good, and you learn a lot of things that are very bad. That was invaluable, not only from a horse standpoint, but just from a growing-up and maturing standpoint.

HB: What kind of impact did your grandfather have on you?

Kirby: He was everything. He taught me how to grow into what I think is an OK young man. Horse-wise, he never really had the big horses, but he worked for some pretty big stables and was pretty connected. He helped Joe Holloway when he had Jenna’s Beach Boy and She’s A Great Lady.

My mom raised me as a single mom and during the summers, she’d turn me over to my grandfather. Those were my two greatest influences growing up.

HB: Your mom demanded that you go to college. Even though you’re a career harness racing guy, how did a communications degree and playing collegiate sports help you in your profession, or just life in general?

Kirby: I was very fortunate that I went to school to play basketball. That was pretty much the primary reason I went. The communications degree is kind of funny. I was 19 and picking a major and, other than messing with horses, I didn’t care. So, I asked some people what I should do and they told me communications is usually the easiest jock major. My mom pretty much cringes when she hears that, but at 19 that’s what I was thinking: what’s the easiest way to get through this?

But I will say I owe everything to my mom for making me go to college. If there’s four years of my life I could have back, it’s when I was in college. Not only because I was playing basketball, but for the social aspect. That was a great, great time.

HB: So, did it help you moving on in life?

Kirby: Without a doubt. The communications thing—I was big on public speaking back then. I would say there’s been many times that’s helped me out. I’m sitting here talking to you and talking to trainers and owners. I’m not one to mince words, but I feel what I come across with is understood, so I would say it helped me.

HB: In comparing hoops to horses, what’s more pressure—trying to make two free throws with one second left and your team down by one, or trying to hold on to the lead coming down the stretch?

Kirby: Well, when there’s money involved, I’d say coming down the stretch. When you’re at that free throw line, there’s no money on the line. Now it’s about paying bills, so yeah, without a doubt, coming down the stretch and trying to hold on to that lead.

HB: You’re fresh out of Marymount and you spend six months in a bank management program. That doesn’t sound like you at all.

Kirby: It wasn’t me. I was in that phase where I graduated and had no idea what I wanted to do. As much as I had my sights on getting into horse racing when I was in high school, after those four years in college, I pretty much got away from it other than going to see my grandfather.

When I was in school, it was just basketball, socializing and academics. But when I got out, it wasn’t like I thought about getting back into the horses. I’d been away from it for four years.

I was living in the Virginia area, so my buddy hooked me up with a bank teller’s job. It was 20 minutes from Rosecroft, and I’d occasionally go there to pick up a little side money by picking up paddocking horses.

They say it’s in your blood, and boy it started creeping right back. I hooked up with a good friend of mine, John Wagner, who was top dog back then and kind of still is. I was helping him on weekends taking paddocks and I’d finally had enough of the banking business. I called my grandfather and told him I was going to work for John. He didn’t really like it, same thing with my mom. But they told me to do what I had to do.

My grandfather was valuable to my career, but so was John Wagner. He instilled how to drive in me. A lot of young guys always want to be a big-time driver or just a driver in general. I really didn’t care. I just loved being at the barn and working with the horses. John encouraged me to drive in qualifiers and it just kind of took off from there.

I was a groom for John, too. I got my driver’s license late in 1995. He brought me along the right way because he didn’t put me on horses that had a chance in the beginning. He really wanted me to learn how to drive a horse in a conservative manner. A lot of people still say I’m way too conservative, which maybe I am, but that’s kind of how I learned back then.

HB: When you started driving, when you met big-time drivers, was that a little intimidating?

Kirby: Not really. Big-time to me back then were John Campbell and Billy O’Donnell, but those guys were at The Meadowlands and in big stake races. I was driving in little overnights and cheap claiming races. I was not racing against them.

Back then you had a guy, Jimmy Morand, who was a top dog for years in Delaware and Maryland. He was always quick to lend some advice if he saw something I did wrong or could improve. There were a bunch of other guys I watched drive. It was educational learning from them and watching them.

And now, with some of the young guys coming up, I do the same thing. Some of them listen, some of them don’t. Whether they look at me like that, I don’t know. That’s their own personal opinion.

The more I talk to you and think back to way back then, it just makes me think more and more how much you learn over the years. That’s another thing you can contribute to my success recently; it was just a long learning process.

I read an article about Dave Palone and he was saying he’s a much better driver now than when he was young. I can relate to that.

HB: At what point did you start to say, ‘I belong here. I’m here to stay’? Or have you yet to say that?

Kirby: I can’t really say that. I appreciate the respect of my peers and the guys I race with. I have a good rapport with pretty much everybody. I think that’s just respect on the track we give each other. I receive that and feel I deserve it.

HB: What would you rank as your proudest accomplishments or your biggest wins? I would think last year’s Grand Circuit win was big.

Kirby: That was the biggest one money-wise. I can’t say that was the one race that really made me. As I’m getting older, I’ve actually been kind of slowing down. When I was younger, I would chase after drives and go where I could go. It just kind of wears on you. I’m at a point now where I stay local; if somebody asks me to go somewhere, I appreciate it. If I can go, I go. If I can’t, I can’t.

At this point, the biggest win of my career will be the next one.

HB: What about winning driving titles? That must have been pretty cool.

Kirby: That was pretty cool. I never imagined that. That was all thanks to the trainers and horses I got to drive. Anybody will tell you—if you’re not driving the right horses for the right people, you’re not winning a lot of races. That was pretty cool, something to hang on the wall and look at and appreciate I was the leading driver a couple of times.

HB: Is it also kind of neat you’ve done yourself proud in your home state?

Kirby: Yes it is, and you can thank the slots here. That was another reason I kind of got away from it in school. It looked like there was very little chance of making a good living doing this. I think slots kicked in at Delaware in 1995 and thankfully we’re still around and still going strong. That’s the biggest reason I pursued this and stayed with it.

I watched my grandfather and those guys back in the ’80s. It was a struggle for them just to make ends meet. It’s not like it’s any easier now, but at least we go for money that’s lucrative enough.

HB: You’ve also had some training success. Do you drive all the horses you train?

Kirby: Yes. When I went out on my own in 2000, I had quite a few more horses than I do now. Now I take three to six. I enjoy that. It gives me something to do during the day instead of lying around and watching TV and then going to the track.

I concentrate on trotters and have had a lot of luck with them.

HB: You own the farm that has been in your family for almost 80 years. It must be a good feeling to keep that tradition alive.

Kirby: The farm I’m actually on originated with my family back in the 1940s. My grandfather was there; he passed away in 2000 and I’ve been there ever since. That’s another thing I don’t take for granted.

HB: You live with your girlfriend of 21 years and her daughter, who you’ve watched grow up. But no marriage?

Kirby: I guess it’s common-law marriage by now. People always ask why we aren’t married, and I just tell them I don’t like paperwork.

HB: Are your girlfriend and her daughter interested in what you do?

Kirby: Patty is actually the director of the sports book and simulcasting at Dover Downs. She’s been around racing her whole life. Her dad, who’s deceased now, owned a couple horses with me.

I wouldn’t say Erica is a track kid; she just started a career in speech pathology. But she’s been around racing her whole life. Her dad, Bret Brittingham, also races. A lot of the accomplishments I’ve had, they’ve been right there with my mom.

HB: In 26 years, what have been the biggest changes in the sport when it comes to driving or training?

Kirby: Training-wise, it’s just tougher and tougher to keep up with the breed. Training is a tough game, period. Driving-wise, styles change all the time. When I first started, the top dog around here was Tony Morgan and then Tim Tetrick came in. Now you’ve got guys like Dexter Dunn and Andy McCarthy. Those guys are all great drivers, and they all have different styles.

HB: So, what’s your style?

Kirby: I take criticism sometimes for being too conservative, but when it’s time to rock and roll, I’ll do that too. I like to drive the horse with the insight the trainer gives me. You have some horses you can be more aggressive with and you have some guys say, ‘This one can’t take too much air, too much torture.’ You drive accordingly.

HB: How did you hook up with Nifty Norman?

Kirby: Probably about six, seven years ago he put me on one here or there. It just worked out. We get along on a personal level. Right now, he’s using Dexter Dunn and Dave Miller. If those guys are out of town and he’s got something in at Harrah’s Philadelphia or The Meadowlands, he’ll shoot me a text. When you get a text or call from a guy like him, you’re always willing to go wherever you are asked to.

HB: What do you do when you’re not racing? Any hobbies?

Kirby: No. Just working around the farm. That’s about all I have time for. Occasionally, we’ll take a trip somewhere. I’m not a golfer or anything like that. The farm keeps me pretty busy on days we’re not racing.

I don’t know if you’d call it a hobby, but I do like to go watch a high school football game or a high school basketball game when I can. It was too bad I couldn’t do it this year because of COVID-19.

HB: How about your future? Do you set a timetable for how long you’ll keep doing this, or is it just a case of doing it as long as you enjoy it and feel good?

Kirby: As long as I’m capable of competing, I’ll be driving. Maybe I’ll lean a little more on training. I don’t really have any long-term goals. I just kind of take it day by day and hope it keeps going as well as it can go.

HB: Are you hoping for more Grand Circuit races?

Kirby: If they come, great. If not, no biggie. It’s an honor when you get them. But I’m not sitting here by the phone praying someone will call. If I get a call to go somewhere for Nifty, I’ll go. If not, I’ll be here working on the farm. HB

Rich Fisher is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

226 More posts in Hoof Beats Magazine category
Recommended for you
In Memoriam: Ron Gurfein

Hall of Famer, three-time Hambo winner story by Gordon Waterstone Hall of Fame trainer Ron...