Keith Donoghue ready to suit up for the fights he can win

Jockey happy to be back riding again after the frustrating battles with his weight

Keith Donoghue celebrates winning the  Glenfarclas Chase at Cheltenham on Tiger Roll. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Keith Donoghue celebrates winning the Glenfarclas Chase at Cheltenham on Tiger Roll. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

There was a moment last Saturday, just as they took the Canal Turn for the second time, when Keith Donoghue had the same thought as the other half a dozen jockeys in and around his airspace.

At Aintree, the second time over the Canal Turn is like hitting the back nine on Sunday at Augusta – you’re guaranteed nothing by being there but you have no chance if you’re anywhere else. Donoghue was on board Valseur Lido and he was jumping it in third place. Bang there with every chance.

No horse still standing had taken less mileage for the 24 fences they’d cleared up to that point. Donoghue had jumped to the inside rail as early as the third fence, only budging from it when the field was waved out and around Becher’s Brook. By the time they cut the corner at the Canal Turn, his was the tightest slice taken.

Donoghue had guided his 66-1 shot to the business end of the race taking the most nerveless route possible. Whatever happened from here, he had done his job. That’s the point at which you are allowed to consider possibilities. He was thinking it, David Mullins was thinking it, Jack Kennedy, Daryl Jacob, Brian Hughes, Jonathan Burke and Bryony Frost were thinking it. Jumping in seventh spot, Davy Russell was thinking it too. Whoever has the horse now, has the horse.

“I got a brilliant spin,” says Donoghue. “Did everything I asked of him, jumped brilliant and it was a great thrill to get around. There definitely was a part of me thinking we were going very well. After we jumped the Canal Turn and came down to the last four fences, I knew I had a good position and I thought I was going okay.

“And then, at the third last, Jack jumped past me on Bless The Wings and Davy jumped on my outside on Tiger Roll and I knew straight away that actually I wasn’t going that great. Or that they were going better than me, put it that way. So I knew that was it after that.”

Everyone’s story is their own. Valseur Lido finished eighth, crying enough three from home and picked up by the pluggers late on. Up ahead, the line came just in time for Russell aboard Tiger Roll, the horse Donoghue had ridden to win the cross-country race at Cheltenham a month earlier. The next time Tiger Roll sees a racecourse, Donoghue will be on his back. But for this day, in this race, it wasn’t possible.

“It’s a shame for Keith Donoghue because he was Keith’s ride,” said Gordon Elliott in the aftermath. “He just couldn’t do the weight. He did a lot of work on the horse but he’s going to have plenty more days on him. He’ll be back on him in the cross-country race next year.”

Couldn’t do the weight. Not didn’t. Not wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Tiger Roll went off with 10 stone, 13 pounds on his back. Donoghue’s limit is 11-4. For that, he has to take aim a week out, shave pounds here and there as the day approaches and go without food for anything up to 30 hours before the tapes go up. That’s to do 11-4. There’s no possibility of doing 10-13.

Nature’s curse

“I was never going to keep the ride,” says Donoghue. “If he had been given 11-4 or anything over that, I would have kept the ride. But he was given 10-13 so there was never a moment where I thought I might be riding him.”

And so all the good and all the bad of Keith Donoghue’s racing life was in there last Saturday. His riding talent coaxed a rank outsider into contention and gave it every chance at glory, if glory had been within its reach. Meanwhile, nature’s curse had deprived him of a ride that comes around once in a lucky jockey’s career and never in most.

So be it. All in all, he’s happy just to be riding again. Unless you’re a jumps aficionado, Keith Donoghue’s name won’t mean very much to you. Heading into Punchestown, he lies 34th in the Irish jockeys’ championship with just a dozen winners in Ireland for the season. Yet it’s no stretch to call it the best season of his life.

Keith Donoghue: “You’re working hard on it. You’re starving yourself for rides. That’s very hard mentally.” Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Keith Donoghue: “You’re working hard on it. You’re starving yourself for rides. That’s very hard mentally.” Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

This time last year, he was miserable. At just 23 years of age, he had stopped riding altogether. To the outside world, he said he was stepping away for a while. It was open-ended, indefinite. But when he sat alone in quiet rooms and thought about what might come next, he was pretty certain it couldn’t be in a jockey’s silks. He was effectively retired.

“I had no choice, really. My body had just given up. It was more a physical thing than anything else. I wanted to keep going but I couldn’t get control of my weight. I was going up to 12 stone and then to 12-5 and I couldn’t get on top of it at all.

“It was just gone on me. My body was run down. I had no energy or no will to do anything. I was just gone, really. It meant I had no choice. My body wasn’t healthy any more.

“I said to people that I was taking a break. But to myself, I probably thought that was it. I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do. I left school when I was 15. All I ever wanted to be was a jockey. It’s not even a job, really. It’s just your life. So I hadn’t a clue what else I could do.”

Donoghue stands at six feet in his socks but it’s his build that causes the problem. If you’re going to be a tall jockey, you best be a thin one – Donoghue has broad shoulders and a strong frame and even with just a little of it filled out, there’s basically too much of him to go around. If he was an ordinary member of the public with a regular life, he’d most likely be pushing up towards 14 stone.

It’s not as if he hasn’t tried. When he gave up in early March 2017, he had run 60km the previous week in an effort to keep the pounds off. He ran an hour a day every day over the winter. He had worked with nutritionists, starved himself, sweated until he was wrung out. Eventually, the toll had become too heavy.

Worst day

“It’s constantly in your mind. It’s hard not to think about it, even when you’re not hungry. It’s in your head that you have to lose a certain amount of weight for a certain race in maybe four or five days. So every time you eat, you’re thinking about it. I don’t even think it’s a hunger thing. It’s just that thing of knowing you have to lose weight so there’s nearly something in your head telling you that you want to eat, even if you don’t.

“You’re working hard on it. You’re starving yourself for rides. That’s very hard mentally. And then when things aren’t going for you, when the weight isn’t coming off consistently, it’s tougher and tougher again. You’re losing six or seven pounds every day to go racing. It gets you down.”

So he walked. He’d been working for Elliott in the yard at Cullentra, Co Meath since he was 14 but he told the trainer he couldn’t do it anymore. Not for a while, anyway. Elliott understood and left him in peace, telling him to come back in whenever he felt like it.

Keith Donoghue riding Tiger Roll clear over the last to win The Glenfarclas Steeple Chase at Cheltenham in March. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Keith Donoghue riding Tiger Roll clear over the last to win The Glenfarclas Steeple Chase at Cheltenham in March. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Cheltenham was coming and Donoghue was in line for a ride in the Supreme. Elliott had Labaik for it, a horse that regularly drew sniggers from the racing public for its rotten habit of refusing to start. But Donoghue knew – and told everyone he met – that if the horse ever got into a race, it had huge potential.

Which, of course, it realised on the only day that mattered. First day, first race, away and gone up the Cheltenham hill with Jack Kennedy on his back. Donoghue watched it in Paul Carberry’s house. When it was over, he got in his car and drove home, turned off his phone and went to bed.

“That was probably the worst day of my life. To this day, it’s still really difficult. I suppose getting the winner at Cheltenham this year made up for it a bit but if I hadn’t had that, it would still be at me. You need that if you’re going to get over it. You need something good to happen like that.

“It’s good for everyone else going well and I was happy for Jack and Gordon and everybody, obviously. But I still had to live with it. I still had to struggle on after it happened.

“For a few weeks, I just went away from it all. I didn’t ride any work for a few weeks. I’d say I would probably have been too heavy to do it even if I had felt like it. I started eating way more and started putting on more weight and that was annoying me too. I started thinking, ‘Jesus, I actually have no choices here. I’m finished.’

Road back

“When you go a few weeks or months of eating what you want, you feel you are pigging out a bit. And I got sick of doing that then. I was eating breakfast rolls and whatever else I wanted. For a while, that was good for my head, just to have that freedom. But it didn’t take long before I just felt horrible and heavy and not fit. I was always good and fit but now I was after putting on a stone and a half. That just made me feel worse.”

The road back started in the only place he knew. Back at Elliott’s yard, riding out pieces of work. After a few weeks, there was a spare ride going on a horse in Downpatrick. Kennedy had taken a fall and Russell wasn’t available. Elliott wondered did he fancy it – no worries if not.

Keith Donoghue getting in a run during the Cheltenham Festival earlier this year. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Keith Donoghue getting in a run during the Cheltenham Festival earlier this year. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“To be honest when he said it to me, I didn’t even know if I wanted to go back. I was probably a bit over 12 stone at the time. But I said I would do it and I went about losing whatever it was – six or seven pounds to ride the race. And then the horse won.

“So after that, Gordon said: ‘Sure just come back and do 11-12, 11-10 or whatever you’re comfortable with.’ I did a few weeks riding top weight and after a while, because I was getting fitter through race riding more consistently, I started being able to do 11-8 or even 11-7 sometimes. And before I knew it, I was back riding normally. I drew a line and I said I would do 11-4 as my lightest but not on a daily basis. Whereas before, I was trying to do 10-12 or 11 stone on a daily basis and that was killing me.”

So here he is. Back in the weigh room, back in the only place that makes sense. He got his Cheltenham redemption last month when Tiger Roll won the cross-country, the best day of his life torching the regrets from the worst.

Over time, he’s made his peace with the hand he’s been dealt, to the point where he could enjoy last weekend’s victory for the yard with the same gusto as everyone else at Cullentra without nursing a grievance what might have been.

And next week in Punchestown, as Elliott makes his final push for the trainer’s title, Donoghue will do his bit for the yard, riding third-string outsiders at big weights and relishing the week-long battle with Willie Mullins.

Happy to suit up for the fights he can win, rather than grinding himself into dust for the one he can’t.

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