Donn's Articles » Colin Keane

Colin Keane

Lexington KY, Wednesday late morning, a couple of days before the 2020 Breeders’ Cup meeting, and Colin Keane and Shane Foley are going for lunch together.

Rivals on the racecourses all over Ireland all year, together they lit up the Irish Flat racing scene, pushed each other forward, pushed Keane to triple figures again and Foley damn close in a year that had a gaping two-and-a-half-month hole.  Their duel for the championship a thread that ran through the entire season.

But friends off it.  Almost 4,000 miles from home, and you go for lunch together.

On their way, they meet the French jockey Mickael Barzalona.

– Are you riding Tarnawa?

– Sorry?

– Are you riding Tarnawa in the Turf?

– No.  Christophe Soumillon is riding Tarnawa in the Turf.

– Christophe just tested positive for Covid-19.

The two Irish riders sit down for lunch.  That’s desperate.  You feel for Soumillon, if it’s true.  What else is he set to ride?  Order Of Australia in the Mile.  He’s an outsider.  But Tarnawa, that would be a big one to miss.

As they talk, Colin Keane’s phone rings: Dermot Weld.  Will you ride Tarnawa on Saturday?

“I was shocked at first!” recalls Keane now.  “I was delighted though, obviously.  So grateful to be given the opportunity by Mr Weld.  He said that Christophe had two more tests to do, but if they came back positive too, then the ride on Tarnawa was mine.”

Colin Keane had ridden for Dermot Weld just once before: the Dark Angel filly Angel Bright in a three-year-olds’ handicap at Cork in August 2012.  They finished second.

Colin Keane claimed 7lb that day.  That’s how long ago 2012 is.

“Right place, right time,” he says, but there’s much more to it than that.

He spoke to Dermot Weld and he spoke to Oisin Orr.  They discussed the filly, and they kicked possible tactics around.

“There was no real set plan,” says the rider.  “Two things Mr Weld said to me, that she can be a bit sluggish at the start, so be sure to get her away, and that I should go inside or outside, but not in between, that she is a filly who doesn’t like to be crowded.”

Just over an hour before Tarnawa, Keane rode Siskin in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.  His first ride in America on his first visit to America.  It was tight, it was fast, and Siskin underperformed.

“He was disappointing, there’s no other way to look at it.  We were very happy with him going into the race.  He had been training well over there.  I had breezed him a couple of days beforehand, and he had gone well.  We were very hopeful.  But he just didn’t pick up, he just didn’t perform.”

He put that disappointment behind him and went out to ride Tarnawa, the first time that he put the famous Aga Khan colours on his back.  Different horse, different race, all starting on level terms again.  The filly wasn’t that quickly away, as expected, but she was fine.  Keane shook her up a little and moved her out off the rail.  One away from the inside and eighth of the 10 runners as they rounded the first turn.

“It was a bit of a stop-start gallop, they went fast to the first turn, then slowed it up.  But they started to pick up again half way down the back straight, and I was always happy with my filly, I was happy with our position.”

Tarnawa travelled well down the back straight.  They were well back in the field, but Keane had Frankie Dettori and Lord North just in front of him, and a ton of horse underneath him.  He wheeled to the outside as they sling-shot off the home turn and his filly picked up.

“I knew when I gave her a squeeze as we rounded the home turn that she had lots left.  She finished off her race well in France to win the Prix de l’Opera, and we knew that she stayed a mile and a half well too.  I knew about a furlong out that we were going to get there.”

That was some feeling, crossing the line.  A Breeders’ Cup Turf, on his first visit to America and just his second ride there.

“Relief first, I suppose.  That we got there.  Then you enjoy it.  The interview afterwards before you even come back in.  The year that’s in it, obviously we didn’t have the Breeders’ Cup crowds, but there were owners there and family members, so there were a fair few people there.  And it hits you afterwards, that evening, the following day on the way home.  All the calls and all the messages.  I’m so grateful to Mr Weld and to His Highness the Aga Khan for giving me the opportunity.  A big race like that.  A Breeders’ Cup.”

It was a season of big races and it started early, Irish 2000 Guineas day and Siskin, four days after racing in Ireland resumed after lockdown.

“That was the biggest relief I’d say.  When we managed to win on Siskin.  There was such a build up to the race, on me and on my boss (Ger Lyons).  An unbeaten two-year-old, going into a Classic, for a great owner, and important owner (Khalid Abdullah).  We weren’t sure that Siskin would stay, but we thought that he would, and we knew that he had pace, so we rode him like we rode him.  We thought the race might unfold like it did.  Thankfully it all worked out.”

He underplays the role that he played in Siskin’s Irish Guineas win, but it was massive.  To wait as he did, as patiently as he did, as his rivals assembled around him.  He says that he had no real option, that that was how the race panned out, but there was far more to it than that.  There are always options.

He could have panicked, he could have tried to use his horse’s energy to engineer racing room for himself as the two-furlong post flashed past and time started to run out, but he didn’t.  Watching the race live at the time, it was difficult to see from where the opening was going to develop.  To have the confidence to wait as he did, confidence in himself, confidence in his horse.

Remember, he is only 26, and he had ridden just two Group 1 winners before the Irish Guineas, and no Classic winners.  It was all of this that Ger Lyons saw when he appointed the then-still-teenager as his stable jockey in 2014.

It was for Siskin that Keane was happy to trade this year’s jockeys’ championship.  If he was going to go to Goodwood in July to ride the Ger Lyons-trained colt in the Sussex Stakes, he was going to have to quarantine for two weeks on his return and, given the consistency with which Shane Foley was kicking in winners, the championship would probably be out of reach by the time he got back into an Irish weigh room.

“The way we looked at it,” he says thoughtfully, “hopefully there would be other championships, there would be other chances, but horses like Siskin don’t come around very often.  He is a star, he was so easy to deal with as well.  Everything about him.  We’ll miss him now next year.”

He got back in mid-August and he set about riding winners: 12 out of 70 rides for the rest of August.  26 out of 138 rides in September.  Suddenly the championship was back on.  He and Shane Foley propelled each other forward, each of them pushing his friend/rival to be as good as he could be.

By the end of the Listowel Festival, Foley was still six ahead.  By the start of October, it was level.  Keane went two clear with two winners at Dundalk, Foley drew level with three at Navan to Keane’s one.  Foley went one ahead at Thurles on Thursday, Keane drew level with a winner at Dundalk on Friday.  That’s the way it went.  Nip and tuck.  Heads bobbing.

“We definitely spurred each other on.  I’d ride a winner, then he’d ride a winner.  I had two winners one day at The Curragh, and he had three.  Shane was great, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he is champion.  I was riding for great people and my agent Ruaidhri Tierney did some job, but I didn’t really think about winning the championship until the last couple of days.”

Not only did he win the championship, he also got to 100 winners.  On his last ride, on the last day before he was heading off to America, in the last race at The Curragh, he drove the Sarah Dawson-trained Pretty Boy Floyd through the final 150 yards in the five-furlong handicap to get home by a neck.  That was his 100th and last winner of the 2020 season.

“I’m so grateful to everyone I rode for.  And to the boss.  It has been some season.”

With Seamie Heffernan suspended and Wayne Lordan out with a shoulder injury, Keane got the call-up to ride for Aidan O’Brien in October.  Three winners later, and the rumour mill went into overdrive, but Colin Keane is not going anywhere.  His relationship with Ger Lyons has deep roots.

Last season was about the numbers, but it was also about the big days, the big races, the Group winners.  Art Power and A’Ali and Safe Voyage, all for British-based trainers.  Steel Bull for Michael O’Callaghan in the Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood, Lemista for his boss Ger Lyons, Bowerman for Ado McGuinness, Helvic Dream for Noel Meade.

And more Group 1s, more Classics.  Even So for Ger Lyons in the Irish Oaks, Champers Elysees for Johnny Murtagh in the Matron Stakes.  Before this season, he had ridden just two Group/Grade 1 winners in his life.  He rode four in 2020.

“If you had told me back in the spring that I would have half the season I had, I wouldn’t have believed you.  We’re just back from a nice break there, so we’ll just tip around during the winter, keep busy, work with the young horses, ride a bit at Dundalk.”

And next year?

“I’d love to be champion again.  Ride good horses, ride in good races, ride Group 1 winners.”

Same as this year then.