Only Paisley Park, a fairytale winner for owner Andrew Gemmell who has been blind since birth, was too good for Joe Colliver’s mount who produced the run of his life in the colours of Paul and Caron Chapman.
Fifth last year, Sam Spinner had failed to complete on his first two starts of the season, much to the consternation of the horse’s many supporters, before returning to form by finishing third to Paisley Park in Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hurdle at the end of January.
And while O’Keeffe, who trains at Leyburn with his wife Andrea, told The Yorkshire Post that his 33-1 outsider had a mountain to climb, the hurdler did find plenty of improvement and was still in contention at the final flight where the winner survived a significant mistake.
Unlike last year, there was a strong early pace – Sam Spinner and Phil Kirby’s Nautical Nitwit were at the head of affairs – before Colliver kicked on in the second half of the race.
By this stage, Paisley Park had come off the bridle, and was not travelling sweetly, before the favourite charged up the home straight to provide jockey Aidan Coleman with the biggest win of his career and deny Colliver.
“Things have not gone right for one reason or another and it was great to see him back to his best. That was probably just about his best,” said O’Keeffe.
“He was beaten by a very good horse that has been very well trained. We did it the hard way and he was brave, so I am just thrilled.
“We would be thinking of Liverpool, hopefully conditions will come up our way, but I expect Paisley Park will be going there as well.”
In stirring scenes, Coleman rode Paisley Park back into the winner’s enclosure, and then brought the champion to a halt, so Gemmell could help lead his hero into the hallowed space reserved for the victor.
Gemmell, a lifelong sports fan who listened to the commentary of the race in the Cheltenham paddock surrounded by friends and wellwishers, said: “It’s wonderful – fantastic. I can’t believe it’s happening.”
Trainer Emma Lavelle, who nursed Paisley Park to health from life-threatening colic two years ago, added: “He’s delivered for us the whole season and he’s done it again. I’m thrilled. He was a bit further back than I expected but the man in charge (Coleman) knew what he was doing. There are so many people behind this horse and I think they just blew him up the hill.”
And she added for good measure: “We’re going to enjoy the moment. I can’t say quite how bad our hangover is going to be in the morning!”
Earlier Bryony Frost became the first woman to ride a Grade One winner over jumps at the Cheltenham Festival after Frodon produced a tremendous front-running performance in the Ryanair Chase.
Already a four-time winner at the course, the win vindicated the decision of trainer Paul Nicholls to opt for this race over the Gold Cup.
Frost said: “My god, he jumps and just at that minute when he got overtaken, most horses would quit, but he grabbed me by the hands and said, ‘don’t you dare give up, don’t you dare not send me into the last – I want this more than you, now come on, where are you’.”