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Keith Donoghue

It was early last December that Gordon Elliott told Keith Donoghue that he could ride Tiger Roll in the Cross-Country Chase at Cheltenham later that month, and that he could ride him again in the Cross-Country Chase at the Festival in March.

Tiger Roll ran okay in December.  It was the first time that he had run over the cross-country course, it was the first time that he encountered the hedges and banks that are unique to that track.  He lost ground at his obstacles early on, the leaders got away from him, but he warmed to his task, his fluency improved as the race developed, and he finished off his race to take fifth place behind his stable companion Bless The Wings.

When he went back to school at the track in February, different horse.

“He was great in February,” says Donoghue.  “Johnny Burke was riding Bless The Wings, we went into the first fence behind him and we landed in front of him.  Tiger Roll just knew how to jump the fences by then.  He had figured it out.  I couldn’t wait for the Festival.”

Horses in the Cross-Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival carry 11st 4lb.  On Tuesday night, the night before the race, Keith Donoghue weighed 11st 9lb.  On Wednesday morning, he put on his sweat suit and ran. 

He likes running.  It’s how he likes to lose weight.  He can run 5km in 17mins 20secs.  He ran around the cross-country track and he ran some more.  Then he got into the sauna and he shed a few more pounds.  By the time he got out of the sauna, he weighed 11st 2lb.  He had the luxury of a 2lb saddle.

It was a different story last year.  Labaik was Donoghue’s ride in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  Labaik was quirky, but he was talented and Donoghue knew him well.  He told anyone who would listen to him that Labaik would win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  People laughed.  No chance.

The rider’s goal was to get his weight down below the 11st 7lb that Labaik would carry in the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser, but he struggled.  He was suspended for a couple of days in the lead up to Cheltenham and, when he wasn’t riding, his weight crept up.  He worked hard, but his weight wouldn’t come down.  Eventually, he had to admit defeat.  His body gave up. 

“I actually rode the week before Cheltenham last year at 11st 12lb,” says the rider.  “But that was it.  I couldn’t do any more.  I was going running, but I couldn’t sweat.  I couldn’t lose any weight.  And in the end, I was that drained, I was that dead in myself.  I didn’t care in the end.”

If you were asked to guess Keith Donoghue’s profession as he sits there talking quietly, nothing on the table in front of him, no cup of coffee, not even a glass of water, you wouldn’t guess jockey.  He is slim, but he is tall.  He is fit and lean, and that’s the problem.  There is no excess weight.  It’s hard to see from where he can lose any more.

“I didn’t have any choice.  My body wouldn’t let me do anything.  I was just run down.  I didn’t have the energy to move.  I just wanted to go and eat.  I was actually relieved in the end.”

He didn’t go to Cheltenham last year.  He watched the opening race with Paul Carberry.  He watched as Labaik and Jack Kennedy bounded up the hill to spring a 25/1 shock in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  It was a surprise to most people, but it wasn’t a surprise to Keith Donoghue.  At once he felt vindicated and devastated.  Delighted for the horse, delighted for Jack Kennedy, delighted for Gordon Elliott, gutted for himself.  He quietly got up, walked out the door, got into his car and drove home.

“For weeks afterwards, I didn’t want to see anybody.  I felt like I was letting people down.  People talking shite too, saying that I should be able to lose the weight.  They don’t know what you are going through. 

“It’s always on your mind.  It’s always there.  The busier you can be the better, so that you don’t think about it.  And you’d be moody, especially with the people who are closest to you.

“It’s a constant struggle.  One good meal, and you’d be 12 stone.  Or you’d be out, and you can’t even sip water because you have a few pounds to lose.  And people going, but it’s only water.  They don’t realise.  Only my closest friends actually know what I go through day in, day out.

Gordon Elliott told him to come in to ride out.  No pressure.  Just ride away, see how it goes, figure out what he wants to do.

“Gordon is so good to me.  I went riding out away with him, and my weight stabilised at around 12 stone.  I wasn’t worrying about it.  I find that, when you worry about it, it’s harder.”

He continued to ride out for Elliott and continued to try to do the right things.  He doesn’t drink and he tries to eat the right foods.

“I’ve been to nutritionists and all, but I know myself.  You get to know your own body.  I live at home and my mam makes sure that she cooks the right foods.  Only for my mam, I could be 14 stone.”

It was last May that Gordon Elliott told him that he had a horse going at Downpatrick in a maiden hurdle, Dorans River, who would carry 11st 12lb, that he could ride it if he could do the weight and if he wanted to.

“I actually wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back,” recalls Donoghue.  “I was happy enough tipping away, riding out, my weight in check.  But then I thought, feck it I will.  It’s what I want to do.”

Dorans River won.

“It was daunting enough, going back, going back into the weigh room.  But the lads were great.  And when we won, the number of messages I got.  It was unbelievable.  It was only a maiden hurdle at Downpatrick, but people seemed to notice.  And I started to realise, people are behind me, there’s nobody against me really.  That meant a lot.” 

He rode Tiger Roll to win the Cross-Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last week.  That meant a lot too.

© The Sunday Times, 25th March 2018