Tuesday 15 October 2019

Donoghue's redemption song helps Tiger Roll ease worries for Elliott team

Dunshaughlin rider who once quit the sport because of weight issues guides Gigginstown Grand National hero to his fourth win at Cheltenham

Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary and trainer Gordon Elliott celebrate. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary and trainer Gordon Elliott celebrate. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Among the starved poets of this world, Keith Donoghue now has laureate status.

These rope-thin people, so intimate with the silent tyranny of empty plates, recognise the Dunshaughlin man as a moral totem almost. So nobody was cheered more warmly back to the weigh-room yesterday than the Donoghue after that imperious stroll on Tiger Roll to a second successive Cross-Country win.

Winning Meath jockey Keith Donoghue raises his county colours following victory. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Winning Meath jockey Keith Donoghue raises his county colours following victory. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

The race is a quirky, faintly preposterous inclusion in the Festival schedule, but it has given Donoghue something he once presumed had slipped beyond his reach.

He's worked in Gordon Elliott's yard since the age of 14, an easy rapport with the most quarrelsome of highly-strung horses long establishing him as an integral part of the Trim operation. But you don't choose your physiology and at six foot plus, weight was always a shadow on Donoghue's horizon.

It finally came crashing like a wrecking ball into his world just over two years ago when he had to forsake a ride on the notoriously eccentric Labaik in the Supreme Novices Hurdle only to see the horse canter home like a confident stag under Jack Kennedy.

A week before the 2017 Festival, Donoghue made it known on Twitter that he was taking a break from the game "due to weight issues". And, in the winner's enclosure, Elliott made a point of remembering him, declaring flatly: "This should have been Keith's day!"

Last year’s leading Festival trainer had another win coming through Jamie Codd. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Last year’s leading Festival trainer had another win coming through Jamie Codd. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

It should too, given it was Donoghue who rode Labaik every morning, who brought him hunting. It was Donoghue who had an understanding of the demons in his head that few others could even begin to assimilate.


But he'd just about managed 11st 11lbs in a maiden hurdle at Naas in mid-February and knew, deep down, that the desperate ritual of wasting was beginning to take a mental toll.

He watched Labaik's win in Swan's of Skryne with Paul Carberry and a few others, making his excuses the moment the race was over. On Tuesday morning, Donoghue revisited that day for journalists, recalling how he'd got straight into his car, drove home and pulled the curtains on the outside world.

He was, he believed, finished as a jockey.

In the months that followed, his weight ballooned up close to 13 stone, his mind filling with quiet resentments. As he told 'The Irish Field': "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.

"I don't know why I felt like that. 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."

The only road back for an overweight jockey is one paved with sacrifice, but it was one Elliott now invited Donoghue down. Offered a ride on Dorans River in a May maiden hurdle, Donoghue accepted and duly won.

Elliott's way was to remove any sense of compulsion from the relationship. If Keith had the will to fast and ride, there would always be silks available. If not, nobody was judging him.

So, to get where he stands today, Donoghue had to change. He knew that. Asked after Tiger Roll's win what he'd eaten so far this week, he smiled thinly, shrugging, "I've ate enough, that's in the past!"

But it isn't, of course. It never can be. Anecdotally, all he'd consumed by race-time yesterday was a single slice of white pudding, Donoghue making 11st 1lb for the ride on a horse that only the peerless Altior now outstrips at this Festival in prize-money won. In doing so, he committed himself to the care of Elliott's nerves over what can sometimes be three miles and almost seven furlongs of carnage.

To see the trainer's teary embrace with 'Mouse' O'Ryan in the enclosure after was to get a glimpse of the wretched stresses bearing down on Elliott, still winless 11 races into the Festival.

Even owner Michael O'Leary seemed to have caught something in the eye, admitting he'd been so nervous and "depressed" by Gigginstown's struggles, with four favourites beaten, "all running s***e", that he'd run out of lucky places to stand.

"He got us out of trouble!" Elliott said, still almost ashen with residual tension. "I won't forget him anyway because it's been tough".

As it happened, last year's leading Festival trainer had another win coming through Jamie Codd and Envoi Allen in the Champion Bumper, but Elliott would have been appreciative of Donoghue's light, calm control of a stable star which went to the tape favourite at 5/4.

The two men have a bond now that, palpably, transcends business.

Because without Elliott's humanity, the job of steering Tiger Roll last year simply wouldn't have fallen Donoghue's way. He was asked to ride Tiger Roll around the Cross-Country puzzle in Cheltenham's December meeting of 2017, finishing fifth behind another Elliott horse, Bless The Wings, under Davy Russell.

One month later, Donoghue was back in the old valley with Tiger Roll for a schooling session, their union instantly catching the eye.

So Donoghue got the ride and, accordingly, his first win at last year's Festival and has, since, carried that momentum into his daily life.

Back in demand, he had his first Grade One winner in Limerick last Christmas only to suffer a crashing fall one day later that left him with a cheekbone broken in four places, a broken eye socket and nose. But, for someone who'd followed his path, a man who's suffered a small multiple of snapped collarbones and a broken leg in his time, this setback was never going to beat Donoghue.

"I remember the day I broke my cheekbone," he told us with a grin. "I said I don't care once I'm back for Tiger Roll today!"

And so he did, taking the little marvel around, the rest of the 16-strong field under the wild misapprehension that they were actually involved in a race here.

As Donoghue saw it: "He just tanked around and the further I was going, the better he was getting. I never had a moment's doubt. Easy nearly.

"I wasn't too sure coming back onto the main course how far I was clear. But, when I jumped the second last, I gave him a bit of a squeeze and he just came alive. I could see the big screen and I could see I was about ten clear, so I said I just need to get him over the last."

Once he succeeded, the weight ghosting down on Elliott's shoulders was finally released, Tiger Roll coming up the hill as if jet-propelled.

And, for Donoghue personally, there was almost the sense of parable now, of a man having faced his demons and found within them mysterious strength.

The day he decided to stop riding, he admits, his head was "fried". As Donoghue puts it: "The more you think about it (wasting), 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 relieved."


Not many of those yelling Tiger Roll home yesterday will read too deeply into those words but, truth to tell, they should. Because the assumptions made about the men and women of the weigh-room all but fly in the face of reason.

The Meath man's face still bears the mark of that fractured cheekbone and Heaven alone knows how all those bone-breaks will impact when his body eventually turns - as it inevitably will - arthritic.

But, for now, he finds himself in the only world that means something to him.

"I'm just lucky to have a trainer like Gordon supporting me," he told us. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be in this situation. He's a serious man. Not just a class trainer, you know he's good with people as well."

The proof was there for all to hear. In a redemption rhyme that soared.

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