Keith Donoghue

The Phoenix

Dark times brought by battle with the scales are a distant memory for high-flying Keith Donoghue

Words: Michael Verney • Photos: Caroline Norris

Keith Donoghue had been a right-hand man to Gordon Elliott for half of his life having started there as a 14-year-old but the time came for a change, and he hasn’t even glanced in the rear-view mirror since then.

Donoghue had been a vital cog in the Cullentra wheel as Elliott built his racing empire but the Meath jockey felt the need to “try something different” and veer his riding career in another direction by going freelance.

“I’d been there 14 years and you can just get stuck in a rut, I probably was and I just wanted to try do what I’m doing now,” Donoghue says before outlining how he still visits Elliott’s to ride work one morning a week.

When he got the sniff that the ride aboard Delta Work might be up for grabs at the 2023 Cheltenham Festival, he made sure to keep his foot firmly in the door before bagging his fourth winner at the Cotswolds, all in the same race.

“I had a little inclination that I might ride him in the Cross Country so I got myself back into Gordon’s a couple of mornings,” he chuckles. “But even when I left Gordon’s, I’d still be riding work for him in Skryne. I never completely stopped doing anything for him. I knew (Delta Work would) be coming spare when Jack (Kennedy) got hurt so it was a brilliant ride to get. I absolutely love the Cross Country race and Tiger Roll helped to put me on the map in it.”

Victory for Delta Work was the icing on the cake of a career-best season in the saddle where he notched 48 winners to bag fifth in the Irish jumps jockeys’ championship with a string of high-profile successes. That Cross Country triumph put him alongside Nina Carberry as the two most successful riders of that unique contest, having won it three times before on Tiger Roll.

Elsewhere, The Big Dog - sadly no longer with us - plundered the Munster National as well as the Troytown Chase before Final Orders scored at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival and doubled up at the Dublin Racing Festival.

“They are up there with five of the biggest winners I’ve rode and I had them all in one season so when you get them, you want more. I’ve had enough of the bad years that I want to strike while the iron is hot.”

“They are up there with five of the biggest winners I’ve rode and I had them all in one season so when you get them, you want more. I’ve had enough of the bad years that I want to strike while the iron is hot”

His association with Gavin Cromwell, who he knew well from his hunting days in the Ward Union, has been a fruitful one for all involved and he continues to put his race planning nous into practice.

“I’m not officially first jockey but I definitely ride the majority of them. With my weight, I can’t be first jockey but obviously Gavin understands and he’s very good to me. We got on very well together. I’m in Gavin’s three days a week and I’ve a good relationship with him. I’m in a lot of WhatsApp groups for race planning and stuff like that so I’d still be doing the same type of thing as in Gordon’s, just not as much.

“In Gordon’s, I was nearly stuck just doing that and was more recognised for that. I still like that side of things, I like riding horses’ work, I love schooling horses and doing all that side of it and trying to find the good ones. When you find a good one and know they’re running in a few weeks, that’s a good buzz that you know this one is coming up so I’ve a good interest in that side of it still with Gavin. It kind of comes very easy to me.”

The Skryne native, a decent footballer in his younger days who lined out at junior level for the famous Royal club, was only nine off last year’s tally by mid-November and he never doubted his talent.

“To be honest, I probably can believe it. You don’t want to come across sounding cocky but I’ve never doubted my ability and it’s just about getting the chances and getting on the right horses. I’m tight with the rides I can get but I’ve had over 200 rides already this season and I definitely put in the work to get the winners. It’s been a brilliant year and I suppose when you get going like this, you want to keep it up.”

The bad days make the good times that much sweeter and Donoghue has had his fair share of the former. Standing six feet tall with a strong frame, he is not your typical jumps jockey. That caused him plenty of heartache, most famously missing out on a Cheltenham Festival winner in 2017 as his weight ran out of control and threatened to derail his career while still in its infancy.

While victory on the quirky Labaik in the 2017 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle propelled Kennedy into the big time, Donoghue watched that race at home in what he regards as one of the worst days of his life. He always had faith in the enigmatic grey to deliver but he had lost his battle with 

Donoghue steered The Big Dog to victory in both the Munster National and the Troytown Chase, giving brothers Damian and Colin Kelly the thrill of a lifetime before the progressive chaser sadly lost his life to colic.

Winning on Delta Work gave Donoghue a fourth triumph in the Cross County Chase after his treble on Tiger Roll, putting him alongside Nina Carberry, sister of his hero Paul, as the two most successful jockeys in the history of the race

“I could have put on a stone in a day, I could sweat down to do 11-4 and I could be 12-4 the next morning. I was all over the place. You’re riding bad horses and you’re in bad form,” he says of that bleak period. “I probably wasn’t happy and you’re pigging out and doing everything wrong. Then, it’s all a vicious cycle and you’re in worse form than you were at the start. You’re down in yourself.” Thankfully, everything in his life now smacks of balance and consistency and the weeks running over 60km to shed weight are a distant memory.

“I’d walk around at 11-7 or 11-8. I’ve enough experience at it now and I seem to have a good hold of it. Some weeks you’ll have good weeks and other weeks it’ll be shite, for no reason. Sleep is a lot to do with it and then mood that you’re in. I do think since I’ve got going now and I’m happier that I’m doing well, my weight has definitely got better. It’s a lot easier to lose four or five pounds when you have good rides compared to doing it for a 200/1 shot. 

“If I could do 11 stone, it would give me a lot more opportunities, there’s a big gap in that four pounds to 11-4. But I have to be realistic too. I tried doing 11 stone a few years ago and won a few three-year-old hurdles and it just killed me. My body just crashed so you have to maintain it. It’s like training a horse, you can’t gallop every day.

“I know there’s days there where I wouldn’t be able to do 11-4 and I’ll just say no and my body will come back right again. It’s all just about maintaining it. You have to eat and drink. Before, when you were starting off, you’d starve and sweat and do it the complete wrong way whereas now I can actually eat more because it’s balanced.”

The absence of saunas from racecourses is problematic for many, but Donoghue has a tailormade set-up at his base in Dunshaughlin that works a treat for getting him race-ready.“I have a sauna at home and a hot tub, I have a treadmill under a heater in the shed too. I use the hot tub mainly, I have it outside and my dad put a roof on it so we’re well set up.

“I lose four or five pounds every day. I like going racing 11-4 or 11-5, even if I have a heavy weight, I like to go that weight. I feel fit and sharp at that weight, sweating makes me feel better.” Nutritionist Paula Geraghty, wife of legendary jockey Barry, has been an “immense help” as he soars high in an occupation that he has always chased from childhood.

“I never done anything else. I left school when I was 15, I don’t know anything else. I failed the Junior Cert, I went to Scotland pony racing during my Junior Cert so I missed Irish and Geography. From the earliest I can remember, I just wanted to be Paul Carberry. I looked up to him, he was like God to me and still is. I’ve no regrets about leaving school but if I could go back in time, I’d definitely have watched my weight a lot better from a younger age.

“All the information is there now for people whereas back when I was starting, I didn’t know any different. A few people would help you but you’re young and you know it all.” Donoghue, who is a tasty runner and has the ambition of completing 5km in under 17 minutes, is one of the most popular jockeys in the weigh room and it’s easy to see why.

When we speak, he’s had a good day at Punchestown, bagging a winner - it could have been even better with two close seconds – but we get another insight into the unique life of a jockey. Jockeys compete tooth and nail for every inch on the track with winners the only currency that they know but there is a unique bond among everyone that saddles up as they know the dangers involved. Right now, Donoghue is far more worried about the well-being of fellow rider Kieren Buckley than anything else , so he makes sure his belongings are looked after with a trip to the hospital on the horizon after a nasty fall.

“Kieren was in my house sweating there this morning and I actually kicked him, his horse fell in front of me. It’s a mad game. Everyone else goes home so someone has to look after them, it’s mad all right,” he says.

Keith is not the only one in his family to have enjoyed a breakthrough period with his older brother Ian, a well-regarded pre-trainer based in Clonalvy, also notching his first winners since taking out his trainer’s licence. At 30, it feels like Donoghue has been around forever but what’s next for him?

“I just want to keep riding winners,” he replies instantly. “Obviously, I know that I’m never going to be champion jockey with my weight but just keep riding as many winners as I can and try to ride more big winners. I’d love more Grade 1 winners and more big winners.”

The Storyteller (Down Royal) and Hardline (Limerick) are his sole triumphs at the highest level to date and with horses like Antrim Coast and Redstone to look forward to this season and beyond, he could yet add to that tally.

“It’s all about finding the right horses and you never know on any day when you might come across the right one. You need to get in with different trainers and you never know what might come from that.” The dark times are a distant memory for Donoghue. Now it’s all about making hay while the sun shines.