Rapidly rising star with his feet firmly on the ground

Rapidly rising star with his feet firmly on the ground
Darragh O’Keeffe has a post-race discussion with trainer Oliver McKiernan after Cappuccino Man won at Downpatrick last month. Picture: Healy Racing

Darragh O’Keeffe may not yet be a familiar face to National Hunt fans but the teenager from Mallow is a rapidly rising star in the sport, and potentially on his way to setting records in what is just his second season riding over jumps.

With 37 winners to his name this season, he sits in second place behind Paul Townend in the jockeys’ championship, just two behind the reigning champ. Sure, life will get tougher and nobody believes a conditional jockey can maintain a challenge all the way to the end of the season, in May, but that is incidental to the grounded O’Keeffe, who dares not look too far beyond the end of his time as a claimer.

“I rode 15 winners last season, so I said to myself if I could ride 20 or so (I’d be happy) because you don’t know in horse racing the way things are going to go,” said the 19-year-old. “The amount I’m on now is unbelievable, and all I can do is thank the people I’m around.

“I’m getting chances, but it’s going to get tougher as my claim drops. But you just have to put in more work. When your claim goes, you soon find out where you are with the top lads.”

O’Keeffe’s association with owner JP McManus and trainer Enda Bolger has been a factor in his success, giving him the chance to prove his worth, and it has been particularly lucrative of late.

“It’s unreal,” said O’Keeffe. “I’m in Enda’s every day, and I’m getting plenty of chances. Like riding Ballyoisin, a 162-rated chaser, in Killarney - as a 5lb claimer that’s a golden opportunity.

“The minute I decided to switch from flat to jumps there was only one place I wanted to go. You go into any trainer and you could learn loads, but Enda’s routine is different to everyone else’s because you don’t know what you’re going to do every day – and I like that.

The schooling is brilliant, with the banks and the facilities he has there to give everyone a chance. It’s not just me. Lots of people go in there to school, and it’s great, even now, to see other lads coming in there to get the experience. And they love it.

“The last winner I rode for Enda (before the last Killarney meeting) was Ballyoisin in the big handicap hurdle in Listowel (2018), and then I was out injured for a long time.

“Enda doesn’t have runners every evening or anything but when the chances are there, he’s not afraid to put your name forward. You saw that with Ballyoisin - it was unbelievable.”

True to say that some pieces have fallen into place, for want of a better phrase. Mark Walsh and Barry Geraghty have had time on the side-lines; Ruby Walsh has since departed the scene, and other opportunities have certainly opened up for the new kids on the block. Those places must be filled, but only those with the talent get that chance, and O’Keeffe has impressed in taking his.

“Any jockey that is riding winners is going to be confident but it’s not like I’m going out every race being cocky because I know very well how things can backfire straight away,” he insisted. “I fractured my wrist last year and I was out for four months, so I take nothing for granted.

“Yes, some of the big lads, like Ruby, went, but they’re not really replaceable. I’ll just keep going and see how far I can go.

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“I wake up every day and I wouldn’t be much more than nine stone, and that’s been a big thing as well. A recent winner I rode for Karl Thornton had just 9-11 and I was taking five pounds off it, so it’s great to be able to do it – and to do it comfortably as well. It’s a big thing.

“It’s a lot easier to go out and ride the light weights when you’re fully hydrated, whereas if I was wasting, it would make life harder. I’m very lucky in that aspect, that my weight’s good, and hopefully I’ll keep kicking on.”

Of his position in the conditional jockeys’ championship, which he leads by 19 winners, he commented: “It’s a long way to go yet, and there are loads of good riders in the weigh-room coming up, and there are plenty of conditionals riding winners, so whoever stays injury-free…

“That’s the main thing. And to improve my riding, and if I’m still there towards the end of it, in the thick of things, I’ll be very happy.”

To put his current success in context, his tally of 37 winners has been surpassed by only two champions since 2000: Jack Kennedy’s 45 in 2016 and Johnny Burke’s 42 in 2015.

It is already 16 more than Donie McInerney notched up when winning his second consecutive title, in 2019, and one more than the figure accrued by Bryan Cooper when winning the title in 2011. It’s two more than 2013 champ Mark Enright and nine more than Robbie Power secured in winning his title in 2004. And we’re only in September.

O’Keeffe may not be willing to accept that he is a long way toward the championship and, yes, the impending end of his claim may signal a bump on the horizon but, with eight winners in the last fortnight alone, the long road to success is being paved rather quickly.

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