Weekend Interview: Festival triumph can underline Jedd O'Keeffe's great comeback after battle for life

JEDD O'KEEFFE is used to pressure. He was being treated for throat and neck cancer when VAT inspectors tried to call time on his fledgling training career.

Ready for Cheltenham: Trainer Jedd O'Keeffe, Sam Spinner and jockey Joe Colliver. Picture: Grossick Racing Photography
Ready for Cheltenham: Trainer Jedd O'Keeffe, Sam Spinner and jockey Joe Colliver. Picture: Grossick Racing Photography

Now he carries the hopes of Yorkshire racing as stable star Sam Spinner lines up in the Grade One Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Not only has he never had a runner before at the National Hunt Festival but his horse-of-a-lifetime is vying for favouritism for Thursday’s three-mile test.

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Jedd O'Keeffe's Sam Spinner may face 18 in Cheltenham's Stayers' Hurdle
Sam Spinner and Joe Colliver, right, win Ascot's Long Walk Hurdle.

“Daunting, exciting, nerve-wracking. All of those things in equal measure,” he tells The Yorkshire Post when asked to describe the weight of expectation. “It’s brilliant. The attention is something we’re not used to. The hardest thing is trying to do our normal job training our horses.”

However, while this is new territory for Wetherby-born O’Keeffe, whose first Festival runner is due to be hurdler American Craftsman on Wednesday, he is in this enviable position due to his handling of Sam Spinner, the equine discovery of the season. Narrowly beaten at Chepstow, the horse was a wide-margin winner at Haydock before confirming this form with victory in Ascot’s Grade One Long Walk Hurdle last December.

While victory for the unsung O’Keeffe would rank as one of racing’s great comebacks, it would be one of redemption for Sheffield-born Joe Colliver, Sam Spinner’s faithful rider. He, too, is on the comeback trail after serving one third of a 10-month jail term handed out in August, 2016 for lying about the circumstances of a drunken car crash.

Sam Spinner and Joe Colliver, right, win Ascot's Long Walk Hurdle.

Yet, just as O’Keeffe never lost faith in the Northern Racing College graduate, it was others who had confidence in his abilities when his misfortunes took their toll. After a varied career – he actually graduated Russian language and Soviet studies – he served a long apprenticeship as travelling head lad with Middleham trainer Micky Hammond before going it alone at the turn of the century, having concluded that this was a better bet than life as a diplomat.

However, as O’Keeffe, 49, and his wife Andrea built their business at Coverham near Leyburn, their lives were torn apart by a devastating diagnosis in the last week of 2010 when he finally sought assistance for a long-standing lethargy.

“The day I went to see my GP about possible diabetes was when I got her to feel a lump on my neck,” recalls O’Keeffe, whose father Eddie was a jockey. “Prior to that, I hadn’t been to the doctor for 15 years. No health issues.

“I had a primary tumour of the left tonsil, and a secondary tumour in the saliva gland on the left side of my neck. Throat and neck cancer. They said at the time it was ‘Grade Three’ but they hoped to cure it, which was fantastic news. They warned me the treatment would be horrendous and it was. I didn’t take it very well. Although I tried my best to be stoic, little old ladies came in and out of the ward and I was pushed in out in a wheelchair.”

When he dared to ask his cancer consultant at James Cook Hospital, Middlesbrough, how long he would be off work, the answer added to his worst fears: “He said: ‘Mr O’Keeffe, I’d forget about work, it will be six months to a year’.”

Not only did he lose his voice as medical treatment took its toll, but his wife was driving O’Keeffe to and from hospital while trying to supervise their string of horses, raise three young children and run a business that was no longer making money.

As the VAT inspector arrived to value items of machinery in the stables that the couple rented from Sally Hall, and still do, O’Keeffe began to tell his owners in August, 2011 that he was closing down.

What he did not expect, however, was a career-changing conversation with semi-retired businessman Paul Chapman, from Darley near Harrogate, and his wife Caron. “When we were running round and saying we were packing in, Paul had one or two horses with us,” said the trainer, who confesses to never utilising his degree in Russian or finding any practical business use for it. “When I told him, he said it was a shame because he was selling his business and wanted to half fill the yard with horses. By doing so, he gave us the encouragement to persevere.”

Yet, while O’Keeffe was winning his fight for life, his horses were returning to form. A dual purpose trainer who is equally adept with National Hunt and Flat horses, it was the inspired acquisition of Sam Spinner at the Doncaster Sales in 2015 that was the real turning point.

Chapman was keen to purchase a couple of unbroken ‘store’ horses – animals given time to mature before going into training – and Sam Spinner cost just £12,000.

Nurtured by retired rider Brian Harding, the horse has gone from strength to strength on the racetrack. From nine starts, the gelding has won six races and been runner-up on the other three occasions. He has already amassed over £140,000 in prize money – and an ever- growing fan club as racing takes the horse, trainer and jockey to their hearts.

Part of this stems from O’Keeffe’s long-standing loyalty to Colliver that survived the jockey’s monumental misjudgment on Boxing Day, 2015 when the police discovered that he had asked an acquaintance to take responsibility for crashing a vehicle. “We were disappointed the incident happened, particularly for Joe,” he said. “I’m not condoning what he did, but he’s a better and more responsible person for it now.”

This is reflected by the fact that O’Keeffe will not substitute the reformed Colliver for a more experienced rider for the Sun Bet Stayers’ Hurdle which features, amongst others, Irish Champion Hurdle hero Supasundae. Even the legendary Ruby Walsh, the Cheltenham Festival’s winning-most jockey, says the pace-setting Sam Spinner is the horse that he would like to ride most of all next week because of the manner of his coming of age win at Ascot.

“When he turned into the home straight in front, I was already incredibly proud,” said O’Keeffe. “When he came down to the last, I thought: ‘blimey, we’ll be caught here by L’Ami Serge’. When he passed the post in first, immense pride, a small amount of emotion, a lump in my throat. A sense that I couldn’t quite believe it had happened to us.”

Since then, O’Keeffe says preparations for Cheltenham have gone “according to plan” and involved four weeks of complete rest before eight weeks building his fitness.

“This is my favourite style of training – picking a target and training a horse for it,” he says before praising his 14 full-time and three part-time staff who look after 45 horses. “Racing is the ultimate team sport. It might be my name on the licence, but I am just the front man.”

Yet O’Keeffe is fortified by his own cancer struggle as Sam Spinner prepares for the race of his life. “It makes you put things into perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am still very, very competitive and badly want to win and I am gutted if we don’t win. But you do realise what are the most important things in your life. Your happiness and your family.” And horses.

The Jedd O’Keeffe story ...

JEDD O’KEEFFE was born in Wetherby – his father Eddie was a jockey and his mother Ena was a dentist.

As a linguist who studied French and Latin at A-level, he then chose Russian for his degree course.

Yet, given he spent most of his time at the University of Portsmouth racing or riding out, a training career became inevitable.

After eight years as a pupil assistant, travelling head lad and assistant trainer to Middleham’s Micky Hammond, O’Keeffe applied for a dual purpose training licence and started up on his own.