Wexford People

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Young gun aiming for the top



Seán O’Keeffe on home ground in the Wexford winners’ enclosure

Seán O’Keeffe on home ground in the Wexford winners’ enclosure

Seán O’Keeffe on home ground in the Wexford winners’ enclosure

It was always on the cards that the life of young Seán O'Keeffe from Harveystown, Taghmon, would revolve around horses, and so it is coming to pass.

The season that ended prematurely in March saw the 21-year old making the breakthrough into the mainstream with 27 winners putting him in 15th place in the jockeys' championship table, and he also made an impressive debut at the Cheltenham Festival.

The O'Keeffe family from Harveystown has been synonymous with horse racing for several generations, with Seán's grandfather, Jimmy, and his dad, Jim, both breeding, owning and training racehorses.

Horses have always been in the family and probably the biggest claim to fame by the late James Senior, who died in 2013, was that he bred Finian's Rainbow out of his mare, Trinity Gale. The bay gelding went on to achieve remarkable success, winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham and the Melling Chase at Aintree.

Seán is son of Jim and Audrey and he has two brothers, Conor (who also holds a rider's licence) and Roan. He went to the local school at Taghmon and then to St. Peter's College

Seán was always around horses at home and he was riding from a young age with the Killinick pony club. Once he was old enough, he began riding out at home and also worked for Jim Bolger and Liz Doyle during the summer holidays while he was still in school.

He started out in point-to-pointing in the autumn of 2017 and he rode his first winner at Thomastown in Kilkenny at just his third attempt, aboard Tinnacurra, bred, owned and trained by his father, Jim.

He overcame a mistake at the second last to challenge the leader at the last fence, and then cleared away with great assurance to win by four lengths.

In 2018 he had eleven point-to-point winners and shared the national Novice riders' title with Shane Fitzgerald, stable jockey for Michael Goff. O'Keeffe led by two going into the final weekend but was overhauled on the last day.

He quickly followed up with his first track success. He began his career in the amateur ranks and his second ride produced his first winner, Cordovan Brown in a Punchestown bumper for Liz Doyle in October, 2017.

He rode three winners as an amateur, and his career really took off when he turned professional in August of the following year.

He has certainly advertised his wares in a big way in the 2019-2020 season, and some of his figures are remarkable. He was one of the busiest riders on the circuit with 390 rides, and remarkably his services were used by almost 70 trainers from all over Ireland.

His 27 winners were shared out between 18 different yards, including locals Paul Nolan, Liz Doyle, Barry T. Murphy and Denis Hickey.

He has been used by shrewd judges like Jimmy Mangan, Tom Taaffe and Tom Mullins, and he had 20 rides for Jessica Harrington, a real endorsement. In fact, his first big win came for Jessica at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival in 2018 when still only 19 years old.

He won the Paddy Power Handicap Hurdle on Jetez (11/1), and it was quite a thrill to have Ruby Walsh and Davy Russell following him home. He still has the connection with the Harrington yard and rides out there regularly.

He rates the best winner of his career so far as being on Gordon Elliott's Éclair De Beaufeu for Gigginstown in the €100k plus Matheson Handicap Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown when he took it up at the last to win by two and half lengths from Davy Russell on Henry De Bromhead's Paloma Blue.

Elliott showed great faith in the Taghmon man when retaining him for the competitive 18-runner £110,000 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase on the closing day of the Cheltenham Festival.

Coming to the last, he had moved into second and was mounting a challenge to his stablemate and well-backed favourite, Chosen Mate (7/2 from 15/2), and it looked like he might beat Russell again. However, though Russell's mount was not fluent, he had enough in hand to repel the Taghmon man up the hill by less than two lengths.

Elliott also gave him a couple of other Cheltenham rides, and Seán advertised his ability when finishing fifth of 23 in the concluding Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' handicap hurdle on The Bosses Oscar (11/1), less than four lengths behind the winner, Indefatigable. He was also on Gealach (33/1) in the £80,000 Boodles Juvenile Handicap hurdle.

This was all invaluable experience and will definitely stand to O'Keeffe in the future, and his performance will have been noted by keen observers.

He was back on home soil just a few days after Cheltenham when riding in the behind-closed-doors meeting at Bettyville on St. Patrick's Day when he had two seconds and a winner for Paul Nolan.

The win came in one of the most valuable races of the year at his local track, the €40,000 Arctic Tack Veterans' Handicap Chase when he managed to complete a substantial gamble on Fine Theatre, backed from 20/1 into 9/2, making nearly all the running in a well-judged ride off a feather weight.

The eerie quiet of the near deserted winners' enclosure was in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle at Cheltenham, but the Taghmon man took it all in his stride.

AP McCoy has long been a hero for Seán - he describes him as 'the ultimate professional in everything he does'.

He has quite a way to go still to emulate him, but he has made a very decent start towards fulfilling another ambition, to be champion jockey.

Seán O'Keeffe certainly has the pedigree and the ability to make a bold bid for it in the years ahead.

Wexford People