Donn's Articles » Darragh O’Keeffe

Darragh O’Keeffe

Last Saturday morning, Darragh O’Keeffe scrolled through the declarations for Monday’s racing at Leopardstown. He got to the feature race on the day, the Savills Chase, and saw his name down beside A Plus Tard’s. Black and white. 

“I had no inkling that I would be riding A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase,” says the rider. “Really. None at all. The first I knew of it was when I saw my name down beside him on Saturday morning.”

He hadn’t been riding out for A Plus Tard’s trainer Henry de Bromhead for too long. His agent Garry Cribbin had made the introduction just a couple of weeks earlier, and he had only been in six or seven times. He was in to ride out on Christmas Eve, and he didn’t even sit on A Plus Tard. That’s what he means when he says no inkling.

It was all new. Darragh O’Keeffe had never ridden a Grade One winner before, he had never ridden in a Grade One race before. He had had a couple of rides for Henry de Bromhead, but he had never ridden a winner for the trainer.

He realised the enormity of it though, the significance of the opportunity with which he had been presented. Ask any rider, even the top riders, and they will tell you that the race-riding part is not the difficult part. The difficult part is getting on the right horse. There was a chance that A Plus Tard was the right horse, and O’Keeffe was always going to make certain that he would do everything that he could to make the most of the opportunity.

“He wasn’t a horse that was in the race just to make up the numbers. He was a great ride to get.”

He watched all the recordings of A Plus Tard’s previous races. He spoke to Rachael Blackmore, A Plus Tard’s regular rider, who was set to ride the favourite Minella Indo in Monday’s race. He’ll give you a great spin, she told him. Just follow them away.

“I didn’t really discuss tactics with Henry beforehand,” says O’Keeffe.  “Not in any great detail.  In the parade ring before the race, he just said to me, ride him to get home.”

Those words rang in his ears as he set off on A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase, along the inside, towards the rear. He got his horse into his rhythm early on, switched off, travelling and just popping away.  

“I thought that we were going very fast, and I was thinking, is this the pace that they go in a Grade One race?!”

Melon and Kemboy moved on as they raced to the end of the back straight, but O’Keeffe sat. He was about 10 lengths behind Melon as they landed over the third last fence, but still he sat  It wasn’t until they landed over the second last fence that he asked his horse for his effort. It was a brave thing to do, to exercise such patience. In delaying his move, in such a big race, on such a big stage, the 20-year-old rider showed a confidence that belied his inexperience at the highest level.

“I thought, there was no point in racing from the third last and then not finishing out the race. Ride him to finish off his race. I was looking for a big jump at the last, but it wasn’t there, so I just let him go in and pop it.”

He still had four lengths to make up on Kemboy when they landed over the last. A big jump would have taken him closer, but if you go for a big jump and it isn’t there, you can end up on the floor, and that’s no good to anybody.

Half way up the run-in, it looked like Kemboy had an unassailable lead. The leader wasn’t stopping, but A Plus Tard wasn’t finished. Still two lengths down with 75 yards to run, the Cheveley Park Stud’s horse dug deep, drew level with Kemboy two strides from the line, and surged past to win by a half a length.

“It was amazing,” says O’Keeffe. “Unreal. I’ve been watching that race since I was a kid. To have a ride in it was brilliant. To win it was just incredible. I’m so grateful to Henry, and to Cheveley Park Stud, for giving me the opportunity, and I was delighted that I was able to repay them.”

December was a whirlwind month for the young rider. Two weeks before the Savills Chase, he went to Cheltenham to ride Chatham Street Lad in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup for Mick Winters, and he rode him to a 15-length victory.

“I’ve known Mick since I was going to point-to-points. It was great to get the opportunity for him. To ride a winner for him at Cheltenham. Mick would know my family very well. He’s only 15 or 20 minutes from home.”

Home is Doneraile in County Cork, home too of steeplechasing. St Mary’s Church in Doneraile was the winning line for the first ever steeplechase, from Buttevant to Doneraile, in 1752. Prolific on the pony racing circuit as a youngster and an accomplished show jumper, and from a family of jockeys, Darragh O’Keeffe burst onto the scene as a conditional jockey last season. Based with Enda Bolger, he rode 45 winners and landed the conditional jockeys’ title.

It can be difficult for a conditional rider when he loses his claim, and O’Keeffe was no different to others in that regard, but he is patiently building his career, building his contacts, working hard, riding well.

A Grade One-winning rider now, getting the opportunities and making the most of them.

© The Sunday Times, 3rd January 2021