The prices for young jumping talent may have sky-rocketed in recent times – see our feature on NH pinhookers (pages 52-56) and Sales Circuit (pages 68-78) – but there is still value to be had, if you know where to look.
Jedd O’Keeffe, primarily known as a Flat trainer, spent £12,000 on a three-year-old son of Black Sam Bellamy, on behalf of Paul and Caron Chapman, at Doncaster’s Spring Store Sale in 2015. Three years on and Sam Spinner, as he was named, will enter the Cheltenham Festival as one of the leading fancies for the Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle.
It is a tribute to O’Keeffe’s dedication – and his unswerving stable of owners – that his name will be alongside Sam Spinner’s in racecards. After being diagnosed with throat and neck cancer in 2011, he came close to calling it a day on the training front. In fact, he had already made the decision to walk away.
“At one point we did ring all our owners to tell them we couldn’t continue because of the financial pressures,” O’Keeffe tells Tim Richards (Talking To, pages 42-46). “But the response and support we received from our loyal patrons persuaded us to persevere, thank goodness.
“The owners were patient, tolerant and stuck with us when they could easily have moved their horses elsewhere when there was so much uncertainty about our future. Some even pledged more horses.
“We realise how lucky we are to have such a good team of owners, both longstanding and new.”
The matter of loyalty, perhaps in shorter supply than ever before in racing, also applies to the man in Sam Spinner’s saddle. Joe Colliver’s future in the sport looked bleak indeed when he was serving a prison sentence following a car crash while drunk. Yet he was given another chance by O’Keeffe and his owners and now finds himself riding one of the hottest properties in jump racing.
Danny Cook is another jockey grateful for a second chance. The Essex boy turned adopted northerner had his own misdemeanour to overcome when failing a drug test for cocaine but has bounced back to become one of the top riders in the north, with support from Brian Ellison and Sue and Harvey Smith.
In the shape of Phil and Julie Martin’s Definitly Red, a nine-year-old chaser at the peak of his powers having graduated from handicaps to Graded races, Cook has the opportunity to win the most prestigious prize in jump racing, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. One thing is certain; the combination won’t fail through a lack of belief.
“I think I’m going to win, obviously, but time will tell,” Cook explains to Tom Peacock (The Big Interview, pages 48-51). “The thing is, I do have a lot of confidence in him. I have to go out there thinking I’m going to win. If I think I’ll lose, I will lose. So a positive mindset and hopefully it will pan out.
“Definitly Red is not overly big but he’s got a very big stride for a little horse. He’s lovely to ride – very laid-back, very low – and the more you ask of him, the more he’ll give you.”
Sadly, one name missing from the Cheltenham Festival this year is that of Malcolm Jefferson, who passed away in early February.
Jefferson, a stalwart of the northern racing scene and much admired in racing circles, was always to be feared with his southern runners and enjoyed some big days at the Festival.
How fitting it was that the well-named Waiting Patiently (The Big Picture, page 16), running for daughter Ruth in the colours of Richard Collins, captured the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase just 24 hours after his former handler’s funeral.
Whether or not this exciting seven-year-old takes up his Ryanair Chase engagement, connections have much to look forward to for the rest of this season and beyond. We wish them well.