KEITH Donoghue sat down in Paul Carberry’s house to watch the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival last year. He had an uneasy feeling.
He had been telling anyone willing to listen to him that Labaik would win the Supreme Novice Hurdle, that the grey was a seriously talented horse. A lot of people laughed at him. By now Labaik was well known to the racing public as a bit of a rogue. He refused to race three times already in the season and most bookmakers would have had him odds on to the same at Cheltenham.
Donoghue had done most of the work with Labaik in the lead up. He rode him most mornings, he brought him hunting, he used all the tricks he’d learned from Carberry, his very good friend, to keep him sweet. Labaik was his ride at Cheltenham.
However while Donoghue was helping Labaik’s state of mind, he was going through a struggle of his own. The Dunshaughlin jockey stands at over 6ft and so the battle with the scales can get very rough. On this occasion it got too rough. He did 11st 11lb to ride Cracking Smart in a maiden hurdle at Naas in mid-February but not long after that he decided he had to take a break. The day-to-day physical struggle had become a mental struggle. It was unsustainable.
Labaik jumped off fine. The biggest challenge overcome. He still went largely unnoticed by the crowds and the commentator. Donoghue watched him all the way though. He watched him make ground on the outside for Jack Kennedy down the hill. Watched him cruise to the front on the turn in. And he watched him power away from Melon on the run in.
“The horse who doesn’t want to start, certainly wants to finish,” so said commentator Richard Hoiles on ITV.
Donoghue got into his car and drove home. He turned off his phone, pulled the curtains and went to bed.
It was in December that Keith Donoghue knew he’d be riding Tiger Roll in the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham in March. The eight-year-old, along with Bless The Wings, was entered in the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham’s December meeting by Gordon Elliott.
Elliott quietly fancied Bless The Wings but he told Donoghue to ride Tiger Roll, who would be making his debut on the uniquely set up course. Elliott felt that the Gigginstown-owned horse would be a better ride to have come the Festival and that if Donoghue wanted it, he was his ride come March.
Bless The Wings ended up winning well, under the guidance of Davy Russell. Tiger Roll finished fifth, after struggling to get to grips with the course. He was a bit sticky at some of the hedges and slow over some of the banks. He stayed on nicely when Donoghue could get him into a rhythm but he was well beaten, all of 42 lengths in the end.
When Tiger Roll and Donoghue returned for a schooling session around Cheltenham a month before the Festival, it was a different story.
Come the day, all the talk was about Tiger Roll’s stablemate Cause Of Causes, going back to defend his title with Jamie Codd on his back again. But Elliott felt Tiger Roll had a similar chance and so did Donoghue.
The race could hardly have gone better. Tiger Roll tanked his away around the three-mile-and-six furlong course.
As they swung around the outside of the Aintree fence, the eight-year-old stuck his head in front and although there were horses going well around him Donoghue never panicked. The son of the Derby winner Authorized, picked up to pull clear before the straight, and when they reached the hill, they were never going to be passed.
A third Cheltenham Festival win for Tiger Roll. A first for Donoghue. Elation.
Keith Donoghue is sitting in the corner of the An Sibín pub in Dunshaughlin on Monday afternoon, reflecting back on the last 12 to 13 months.
“This time last year, I’d have been afraid to come in here,” he says.
“I’d felt like I let myself down and I’d let other people down. I just didn’t want to see anyone, or talk to anyone, because I knew they were going to bring it up.”
In a way, you wouldn’t blame an outsider for approaching Donoghue at the time with the subject of Labaik. After the race, the first person Gordon Elliott praised was Donoghue. If you’d just listened to that, you’d have been congratulating the jockey on a wonderful job. But there was much more to it. Donoghue was full of regret, and perhaps unusually, some form of shame.
“I don’t know why I did feel like that (ashamed). It’s just one of those things I guess. You feel like when you’re riding winners and doing well, everyone is with you but when you’re not going well, everyone is against you.
“I tried to block it all out but it was unfortunate because the people I was talking to, the people I was closest to, I ended up taking the head off them,” Donoghue explains.
The 24-year-old doesn’t want to used the word depressed, but he admits he was in a low place. All his life has been horses. Since his grandad Brendan Lynch, a groundsman at Fairyhouse, took him to work on racedays, and they went down to the last fence to watch the Paul Carberrys and Ross Geraghtys in action. Since his mother’s uncle Andy Lynch put him on a racehorse for the first time and let him ride out on weekends. Since he took Tuesdays and Fridays off school to go hunting with the Ward Union. Since he joined up with Gordon when he was 14.
He continues: “I was riding in races only a few weeks before Cheltenham but my head was fried. The more you think about it, the harder it gets. I had to stop and get back to some sort of normality. I just wanted to go and eat somewhat properly. When I did, I actually felt a bit relieved.
“Obviously when Labaik won, I was delighted for Jack and Gordon, and all the team, and the horse as well of course. But there was that part of me that felt down about the whole thing.
“I turned my phone off – otherwise I’d have been looking at tweets, snapchats, Facebook pictures… I just didn’t want to see any of it. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.”
BACK IN THE TEAM
When things died down after Cheltenham and Punchestown, and the evenings got longer into the summer, Elliott suggested to Donoghue to come back and ride out. He did and he was happy enough. His weight was fine and he was back in with the team.
Then Elliott asked him if he wanted to ride a horse called Dorans River in a maiden hurdle up at Downpatrick in May. No pressure on him, if he could do the weight, he can have the ride. Donoghue thought long and hard. He felt that going back into the weigh room was somewhat daunting. But he missed race-riding and riding winners. So he went back. Dorans River won and a stream of well wishes came in. That thing about when you’re going well, everyone is with you. Or, maybe they were with you all the time. Sometimes it’s hard to see that when you’re in a bad place.
“You don’t realise the amount of support you have,” Donoghue explains. “When Tiger Roll won I couldn’t get over the amount of well done messages I was getting and even walking around the village – random people coming up and congratulating me. It was unreal the amount of support I was getting.”
At Downpatrick Donoghue told a couple of racing journalists that Gordon would have plenty of opportunities in beginners’ chases and maiden hurdles in which he could do higher weights. And that brings us to this season.
“Gordon has been so good to me,” says Donoghue. “I don’t know another trainer in Ireland who would do the same with my situation. If I came in and told him I can’t do 11st 10lb he’d say ‘no bother’ and then if I came back four or five days later and said I could do 11st 4lb he’d say ‘grand’. He just understands my situation. Without Gordon I wouldn’t be riding as a jockey,” Donoghue says.
“I have been with Gordon since I was 14 and nothing has changed from when I first started in the old yard. Everything is the same, the routine is the same, the same main lads are there; the place has just got bigger and there are more horses and staff.
“See the likes of Simon McGonagle, Shane McCann, Bobby McNally, Joey Elliott – if another yard had one of those lads they’d make such a difference. And then you have the girls like Camilla Sharples and Mary Nugent, who do all the work behind the scenes bringing the horses racing. That is such a hard job and one that you never really see. It’s just a very good team. It’s a great atmosphere to work in.”
Things have gone well for Donoghue since Cheltenham. He rode three winners at Cork over the Easter period and today he gets a chance in the biggest race of them all, with a chance ride on Valseur Lido in the Grand National.
“It’s an absolute dream come true. It’s brilliant to get the opportunity and I owe huge thanks to Gigginstown for giving it to me,” he proclaims.
The weight issue is always there. But when you take away the pressure, it makes a big difference. Donoghue drifted up to 12st 10lb when he stopped riding, and had to work hard to get back to 11st 7lb, which renders him able when an opportunity presents itself.
It’s still serious work to keep the weight off.
“I run a lot,” he asserts. “I’d say if I didn’t run, I could be 13st. I enjoy it. I can run 5k in 17:20 and 10k in 37:10.
“I do a bit of training with Ciarán Kilkenny. I’m good friends with Paddy O’Rourke (former Meath goalkeeper) and I know him through him. Ciarán comes down here or I go up to Castleknock sometimes and he has me doing these mad sprinting circuits. It’s absolute sickness but it’s a great help. I play football with Skryne and that’s two or three nights a week as well.
Donoghue’s experiences with his own weight have long been felt by a section of jockeys in the past and will continue to be an issue for many going forward. There is a cruel aspect to racing in that it can suck you in early. You get a taste of it when you’re younger, smaller, lighter and then, all of sudden, it can helplessly drift away from you.
“I think if I could do things again, I’d have looked after my weight a little more but like, you know no different. I was eating breakfast rolls and then going off to the races to claim 7lbs off 9st 10lb!” he says laughing.
“Then I just shot up and that is just something you obviously can’t control. I got injured a lot as well. I broke my collarbone six or seven times and I was out for eight months when I broke my leg. It’s very hard to keep the weight off when you’re not riding or exercising.
“Look obviously I am always going to be very limited and I can’t really set many aims,” Donoghue explains. I’m just thinking I am in the right position that hopefully I can get on a second or third string horse in a Grade 1 or a big race like today.”
Donoghue’s defiance has got him this far, and with that, you wouldn’t bet against him landing a dream win today or sometime in the future. Tiger Roll is a case and point.
Paul Carberry: I always looked up to him when I was growing up and I learned a lot from him when breaking horses at his place. That has probably stood to me with dealing with horses like Labaik and Pallasator. Paul is one of my best friends and he’s had a big influence on the type of jockey I am.
Tiger Roll: The feeling going by the line in front with him at Cheltenham - I’d love to live that moment again. He was brilliant. He has to have a serious chance today. Hopefully the ground isn’t too bad for him.
Labaik and Pallasator: Labaik is doing well and he should be back for next year. Pallasator won well at Fairyhouse and we’ll need him for Punchestown with the championship in mind. It took us a while to get inside his head and he has had a few niggly problems as well but he seems to be on track now and I’d say there is more improvement in him as well.