Donn's Articles » Sean O’Keeffe

Sean O’Keeffe

Cheltenham was full-on for Sean O’Keeffe.  Ride out in the morning, back to the house, shower, change, get to the racecourse, ride in one or two or three or four races, gather your thoughts, repeat.

He was there for the week this year.  Unlike last year, when he was there for one day, in and out, one ride, one horse: Galopin Des Champs in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.  Back then, of course, Galopin Des Champs was not one of the most promising young steeplechasers in training.  He wasn’t favourite for the Martin Pipe Hurdle, he wasn’t even the shorter-priced of the two Willie Mullins-trained horses in the race.

“I had had one ride for Willie Mullins before last year,” says the young rider.  “Castlebawn West in a handicap chase at Punchestown the previous November.  So I was delighted to get the call-up from him to ride in the Martin Pipe Hurdle.  It was great to get that opportunity.”

He grabbed the opportunity and ran with it, had his horse prominent from early, allowed him move to the front on the run to the final flight, sat patiently and coolly until they got over the last, then kicked him out up the hill.

It was the last race on the last day of last year’s Cheltenham Festival.  No crowds, an echoing winner’s enclosure, and it almost didn’t seem real.  But it was real all right, a first Cheltenham Festival winner for Sean O’Keeffe.  As importantly, that victory secured for him a place in Willie Mullins’ psyche.  More opportunities for the champion trainer followed, and the young rider’s ambition and talent kicked him on.  He rode Purple Mountain to win the Joe Mac Hurdle at Tipperary in early October, and he rode Ontheropes to win the Munster National at Limerick the following week. 

Then, on 5th December, with Paul Townend not yet returned from injury and a small band of the Willie Mullins riders required at Punchestown on John Durkan Chase day, it was Sean O’Keeffe who was entrusted with the high-profile Cork ticket, to ride Dysart Dynamo in his maiden hurdle and Concertista in the Grade 2 mares’ chase and Energumene in the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase. 

He won on all three.

“That was a really good day,” says the rider.  “Again, to be given the opportunity to ride those horses.  Of course there is pressure, but you want that sort of pressure, and it was brilliant to ride a treble for Willie Mullins.”

Not much was set in stone the week before Cheltenham.  He just knew that he was riding Exit Poll for Jessica Harrington in the Grand Annual on Wednesday, and that, outside of that, he would hopefully have a few rides for Willie Mullins.

Cheltenham week evolved as it progressed.  He learned on Sunday morning that he was down to ride Saint Sam and Burning Victory on Tuesday.  Declarations on Monday revealed three rides for Willie Mullins on Wednesday, including James’s Gate in the Champion Bumper.  He didn’t know until Wednesday morning that he was going to be riding The Nice Guy in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle on Friday. 

“I hadn’t sat on The Nice Guy much at home,” he says, “but he’s a lovely horse.  He wouldn’t be flashy at home at all, he’s very laid back, but he was good in winning his maiden hurdle at Naas, and he was unexposed.  There was always a chance too that he would improve for stepping up in trip.”

Sure enough, the further they went in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, the stronger The Nice Guy looked. 

“I was a little bit further back in the field than I wanted to be,” says the rider.  “But I was happy that they were going fast enough up front.  He started to come back on the bridle at the top of the hill and I knew that, going to the last, I had plenty of horse.  He jumped the last well, and he kept picking up until we hit the line.  It was some feeling when we did.”

Same as last year, but different.  There were people there this year, and that was different.  People in the grandstand to applaud as you made your way back down the track, people in the winner’s enclosure to cheer when you came back in.  And a first Grade 1 win to go with it.  It was real all right.

Sean O’Keeffe’s rise to Grade 1-winning rider has been steep.  He only rode his first winner on the racecourse in October 2017, Cordovan Brown in a mares’ bumper at Punchestown for Liz Doyle, just his second ride.  He was still an amateur then, he started off riding in point-to-points for his dad Jim, and he rode out for Liz Doyle and Paul Nolan and Gordon Elliott and Jessica Harrington, having spent two summers too with Jim Bolger, but it was always his intention to turn professional.

“I was always fairly light, and I thought that I could give it a go.  I was riding for good people, I was lucky to be given the opportunities, and Ken Whelan has been my agent from the start.  He does a great job for me.”

It was apparent from early that, as well as the opportunities, he also had the talent.  One usually begets the other.  He rode Cloudy Morning for Declan Queally to win a good handicap chase at the 2019 Punchestown Festival, and he rode Éclair De Beaufeu for Gordon Elliott to win the Matheson Handicap Chase at the 2020 Dublin Racing Festival.  And when he rode Dromore Lad for John Ryan to spring a 40/1 shock in the Cork Grand National in November 2020, it brought to an end his right to claim.  That was his 60th winner, he had to make his way in open waters after that, without the buoyancy aid that is a young rider’s claim.  And he swam.

“I’m very lucky to be in the position that I am in,” he says.  “Riding for good people, riding good horses.  I just want to keep doing as well as I can do, keep improving as a rider, keep working hard.”

Ambition: kick on.

© The Sunday Times, 27th March 2022