AFTER a turbulent week or so for National Hunt racing, all eyes turn to the blue-ribband event of the sport’s annual calendar as Cheltenham storms onto our screens.
Lovers of the Sport of Kings on either side of the Irish Sea will have eyes trained on Prestbury Park this week and nowhere will that be more the case than in the north Cork town of Doneraile as one of their own takes on the best in the business.
Darragh O’Keeffe has been making quite the name for himself as a quality jockey over the last 12 months and comes into the 2021 Festival with an impressive array of winners to his name.
O’Keeffe’s big break came in Leopardstown late last year when he claimed Grade 1 success on the Henry De Bromhead-trained A Plus Tard and now Cheltenham beckons for one of the hottest young properties in the riding game.
“We had a good run of things over Christmas,” said O’Keeffe. “It was great to get that Grade 1 winner. We also had a nice winner in Cheltenham as well and a graded winner in Cork.”
The Avondhu man has been steeped in racing all his life and is now living the dreams of his youth with a trip to the 28-race festival this week firmly in his sights.
“For me, National Hunt has always been the place that I love. I love the jumping and I get a real buzz out of that.
“I started out with Enda Bolger. That’s really where I have learned everything so far. He has been a great mentor and he is the one that got me going. I would not be where I am today without him.”
Racing, like many elite sports, has been spared total lockdown in recent months, which has meant that the industry and its employees have been able to continue to work, something that has benefitted O’Keeffe in his quest to improve.
“Covid had some serious impacts early on, taking away parts of last season, but when racing resumed it really was a bit of normality back on the track. When Covid did affect things on the track it really didn’t change the fact that behind the scenes we need to keep the horses going, making sure they are looked after and make sure they are fit so work didn’t really change for us in that way.
“The lack of crowds really is the major impact on the sport. At the tracks, we all adhere to social distancing and all the guidelines set down. All the jockeys are aware of their responsibilities and we all do everything we can to make sure that our industry can continue in these challenging times.”
As with other sporting professions, being a successful jockey takes years of dedication and for someone like O’Keeffe, who is progressing well in his chosen field, getting the chance to ride a number of quality horses at Cheltenham this week provides him with a great opportunity to show his wares to the world.
“Most of the horses that are here have been lining up for Cheltenham since the start of the season.
The best of the best taking on each other so it is great to get the opportunity to ride at this level.
“All you can do is your best and the rest will take care of itself. You work hard to get the chance and train hard all year for this shot, but when you are here you still need that bit of luck on your side — without the luck, you just won’t get the opportunity.
“When you start every season, you hope that you can get to ride a horse that makes it to Cheltenham so for me now it is great be here in March, never mind getting a ride or two every day, that will be just brilliant.
“When you are here you have a chance. For every jockey, it is the dream to ride a winner at Cheltenham and hopefully with a bit of luck on our side, you never know.”
O’Keeffe may well be competing at this season’s festival, but that doesn’t stop this young rider from being a racing fan and the thoughts of seeing the best of the best compete gets his juices flowing.
“Who wouldn’t get excited when they think of events like The Champion Hurdle, The Champion Chase or The Gold Cup? These races have iconic status inside and outside of the racing world. Even people without any interest in racing could tell you about the Gold Cup.”