MARTIN Keighley is one of the more unlikely racehorse trainers. His father Trevor was a fireman in Dewsbury and Wakefield while his mother Susan was a hairdresser.
Born in Dewsbury, this corner of West Yorkshire is not renowned for its racing heritage, although the Classic-winning Flat jockey George Duffield did hail from Stanley.
Yet Keighley’s lifelong love affair with horses started during his formative years at Ossett School – he would spend his spare time riding with his cousins. He also rode out for Steve Norton near Barnsley whose Full Extent had won the 1981 Gimcrack at York under John Lowe.
However, the Yorkshireman’s drive and ambition, two traits that remain to this day as he seeks an elusive first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, was such that he wrote a letter to the iconic trainer David Nicholson – affectionately known as ‘The Duke’ – asking for a week’s work experience.
A giant of the Turf with a fearsome reputation, that letter proved to be a life-changing experience – Keighley now actually trains his horses on the same Cotswolds gallops at Condicote where Nicholson trained horses like Charter Party to win the 1988 Gold Cup under Richard Dunwoody.
“He was very strict. You knew where you stood. He wanted the job done properly,” said Keighley. “He was very thorough.”
To Nicholson’s credit, he did help his rookie rider to take out his conditional jockeys’ licence and provided him with his first ride and first winners. He was also entrusted with partnering the top-class chasers Barton Bank and Viking Flagship in their fast work on the gallops.
Yet Keighley was never going to trouble riders like Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire. A stint at Cheltenham Racecourse taught him about fence-building, and husbandry of the turf, before he trained his first winner just over a decade ago. Since then Keighley, and his wife Belinda, have gradually accumulated the winners. They’ve been close at the Festival – Champion Court was second to top Irish chaser Sir Des Champs in the 2012 Jewson – while the yard’s finest hour came on Boxing Day when Annacotty, and his jockey Ian Popham, won the Grade One Kauto Star Novices Chase.
It was a special win, one that would have been approved by ‘The Duke’. A coming of age for Keighley, it was also vindicated his faith in Popham, who spent the best part of two years out after twice breaking his pelvis.
His second fall was so serious that it actually bent, by 10 degrees, one of the pins that had been inserted by surgeons after his first break in October 2011 when a horse reared up after a schooling session at Caroline Keevil’s Westcountry yard and fell on him.
“Ian’s great and an important member of the team,” said Keighley, who turns 40 this summer. “It’s the first time he has been injury-free for ages. We always thought Annacotty was a good horse. He’s a relentless galloper. He got them at it one by one at Kempton. Annacotty will probably go for the RSA – I’d rather keep him against the novices if I can.
“Merlin’s Wish is an out and out galloper. He won the Lincolnshire National at Market Rasen on Boxing Day and was second to Sun Cloud in the North Yorkshire National at Catterick. He’s still improving and would have an each-way chance in the Terry Biddlecombe race – the four-miler for amateur riders.
“Champion Court, he’s been a great servant, and is in the Ryanair Chase or the Byrne Plate on Thursday. We’ll just need to keep an eye on the entries – it is changing all the time, especially this year, with the Champion Chase and Gold Cup wide open. Creepy will go for the Coral Cup – he actually beat the Twiston-Davies horse Splash Of Ginge, at Chepstow in October and that form is now looking very good.
“My best chance of the lot would be Any Currency in the cross-country race on Wednesday. I think he has a great chance. He has run twice over the course this season, finishing second and third, and that experience is a plus.”
There’s a pause when Martin Keighley is asked what a Festival win would mean.
“It’s just something I dream about,” he said. There’s another brief moment of hesitation before he adds: “It’s something I am desperate to do. Desperate.”
He’s never had a better chance.