IT has now been one whole month, since a race meeting was held in Ireland.
However, for Darragh O’Keeffe, the role of exercising horses, at the yard of trainer, Enda Bolger, is as much a part of his daily life as it was prior to the shutdown.
The champion conditional rider considers himself very fortunate, to be in the positon of having some sort of routine to his days. After all, many yards have been forced to turn out horses on an early ‘summer’ break, therefore temporarily bringing their racing operations to a close.
Like all industry professionals, Doneraile’s O’Keeffe is eagerly awaiting the return of the sport. But, being a part of the daily training schedule at Bolger’s Limerick stables is keeping the jockey ticking over for now.
‘‘I’m lucky enough, in that I’m still in Enda’s yard full-time. We have plenty of horses here that are being exercised. We try and keep the routine the same as we can.
"We’ve young horses being schooled and there are a few summer horses in-training then.
"They will, hopefully, get the chance to run, whenever the racing gets back. It’s good fun. I’d be lost without it. It passes the day and I enjoy every minute of it.
"I’m still keeping fit, with running and walking as well. Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer until we get back racing. We are all ready to get back,’’ O’Keeffe said.
The 20 year old rider was crowned champion conditional last season, at the end of a stellar campaign which yielded plenty of success. There was a hat-trick of Galway festival wins, victory in the Cork National and a top-five finish in the jockeys’ standings, to go alongside his conditionals’ title.
"(Becoming champion conditional) was brilliant, it was a great feeling. The main thing for me last season was just getting experience. This time last year, I still had my seven pound claim.
Throughout the summer, I was focusing on getting rides. I’ve a really good agent in Garry Cribbin, who was able to do that for me. Obviously, I had the support of Mr (JP) McManus, (racing manager) Frank Berry, and Enda to finish it off. The more racing you’re doing and the more rides you get; you can get better as you go along.
"Things just snowballed for me. I was very lucky and I just had the right people behind me,’’ he said.
After winning the Cork feature at his local track, aboard the Michael Hourigan-trained The Gatechecker, – which was career win number 60 – O’Keeffe had officially ridden out his claim.
It marked a significant transition in the HRI Emerging Talent Award winner’s budding career.
How challenging has making the step-up been, racing against senior professionals, without the aid of a weight allowance in the saddle?
"When I lost my claim, it was the peak of the National Hunt season, when the summer was over, and all the good horses, the Cheltenham horses, were running. It’s very difficult to get winners when all the good National Hunt horses come in.
"The winners didn’t flow like they did (prior to that), but I was still happy enough. Every race meeting in Ireland, I was still riding there, for the same people. That was a big plus."
Having set a record when booting home 45 winners to win the conditional jockeys’ title, for the 2019-20 season, O’Keeffe is still striving for further improvement.
Continuing his rise through the ranks, riding big-race winners and thriving in his role at Bolger’s yard are the main factors that motivate him. Last season was brilliant; but O’Keeffe may just be getting started.
"What really motivates me is being the best I can be. Even starting off as a conditional, you just hope that you’ll end up competing at the highest level, seeing how far you can go with it as a career.
"Definitely, coming in to Enda’s yard is what motivates me at the minute. You are riding lovely horses every day and you have a good routine. You’re hoping that there’s a chance you’ll get to ride big winners. But every winner, in general, I get a kick out of."