JOCKEY Darragh O’Keeffe is on the crest of a wave right now following two high profile victories aboard Chatham Street Lad and A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The latter is now a 10/1 chance for the Cheltenham Gold Cup following his last gasp victory in the feature race of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. O’Keeffe is riding with supreme confidence and looks destined for the top of our sport. With the retirements of AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty in recent seasons there is a new generation of top-class riders ready to take the torch.
The Doneraile rider has caught the eye of many shrewd judges over the last couple of seasons and is steeped in the game. He is relishing the spotlight and reflected on his recent successes.
“A Plus Tard is a brilliant horse and to get a ride like him for Henry De Bromhead and Cheveley Park Stud was fantastic. It was a brilliant opportunity to pick up and it was incredible to win such a high-profile race.
"We went a very strong gallop, so I was always going to be arriving late. Kemboy and Melon went a really strong gallop down the back straight, but I was always minding my horse as we were wondering whether he would stay the trip. But after the last fence when I got stuck into my horse, he put his head down and galloped all the way to the line. It is a long way to the finish line from the last, so we had to arrive as late as possible.
"A Plus Tard was the favourite for the Ryanair Chase back in March and disappointed on that day. But after this outstanding win he has to have a live chance in the Gold Cup now. Obviously, Henry (De Bromhead) and the owners will decide where he runs next, but he is a high-class horse who will probably go straight to Cheltenham.”
The youngster has been going about his business nice and quietly over the last couple of years, riding plenty of winners and gaining experience. But when Chatham Street Lad trained by Mick Winters won the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup in mid - December at Cheltenham the jockey was parachuted onto the big stage.
“This was another brilliant day and to ride my first winner at Cheltenham racecourse was another milestone. Mick Winters would know my family well over the years and I was very grateful to get the opportunity. He’s a brilliant trainer and always has his horses very fit.
"Chatham Street Lad is a very talented horse and will have plenty of big days ahead. Winning two big races like that certainly puts you in the shop window and getting on those good horses is what a young jockey dreams about really.”
O’Keeffe is learning his trade with Enda Bolger who has put plenty of top-class riders through his academy over the years. But making it to the top in this game takes plenty of hard graft, plenty of luck, avoiding injury and the opportunities may still not appear.
O’Keeffe possesses a steely determination and a natural talent to succeed.
“I’m in Enda Bolger’s most days and I also try to get down to Henry De Bromhead’s a couple of times a month. It’s a great place to learn at Bolger’s and I’m so grateful to the boss. Obviously, the Christmas racing is very busy so we didn’t take any time off and rode out work on Christmas morning.
"I don’t have any problems with my weight so there was no problem having a bit of dinner that day. People ask me regularly about ambitions or targets for the season, but the main thing is to stay injury-free. It’s been a phenomenal start to this jumps season for me so getting more rides in all the good races would be great.”
Chatham Street Lad will put his Cheltenham credentials on the line in the Dan Moore Memorial at Fairyhouse today. Following his brilliant win in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup trainer Michael Winters is hopeful of a good run before a trip back to the Cheltenham Festival in March.
“Chatham is in great order so we are hoping for a very good run. He did everything right the last day and young Simon Torrens takes the ride as Darragh O’Keeffe is unavailable on this occasion. Both of these young jockeys are going places right now and just need a bit of luck along the way.
"It’s a learning process and he is at a great training school working with Enda Bolger. Hopefully, he’ll go right to the top. There is a new generation of young riders coming through and we are delighted to give them opportunities.
"Maybe with the point-to-points being called off it might deny some of these up-and-coming riders opportunities. It’s certainly a blow to rural Ireland and to all the lads with a few horses in training. Hopefully, the health situation will improve in the coming weeks. It’s a very tough time for everyone but the vaccine rollout gives us all a ray of light.”