Though Alan King rightly received the plaudits for his yard’s high-profile victories at Cheltenham on Saturday, it was also terrific to see Martin Keighley take the concluding handicap hurdle.
Much has been said regarding the loss of Annacotty to King’s stable, and the continued success of that horse is sure to rub a little salt into the wounds. Nevertheless, Keighley continues to do a top-class job and with Solstice Star has extracted a stunning amount of improvement during this latest campaign.
This was the six-year-old gelding’s second success at Cheltenham and he now has an impressive five victories from a dozen hurdle starts. It’s also proving an incredible story for owners Richard East and James Gibbs, who purchased the horse back in September, just before the season began. They have now cheered him to victory five times on the trot; twice at the home of jump racing.
The horse is at his best when the mud is flying, and his trainer must have been concerned when the meeting was in danger of being lost due to the heavens opening during Friday night and into Saturday morning. Keighley was actually part of the inspection team, called upon by Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse, to give a trainer’s view of the track. He describes the scene on his website, saying: “It really was the heaviest I have ever seen it but I knew it would suit my runners and was happy it was safe.”
And so it proved with Solstice proving the star turn. Keighley’s other entrant at Prestbury Park was Johnny Og, who was hoping to follow-up a thrilling success at Ascot just a week earlier. Maybe the race came too soon, or more than likely according to his trainer, the horse was slow away and unable to lead. He is a gelding who enjoys making the running and hates being crowded in his race. When unable to get involved his jockey Andrew Tinkler rightly pulled him up.
Keighley trains from Condicote Stables in the heart of the Cotswolds, within spitting distance of Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow. It’s an area of outstanding natural beauty, and very much at the heart of the jump racing fraternity. Condicote was once the base of legendary trainer David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson, who trained hundreds of winners from the village, and became Champion trainer twice in the 90’s.
‘The Duke’ captured the Gold Cup in 1988 with Charter Party, and played a huge role in the career of Martin Keighley. Keighley started out in Nicholson’s yard, taking out his Conditional Jockeys’ Licence. He partnered the likes of Barton Bank and Viking Flagship in all of their most serious work. Such experience proved invaluable as he moved into the training ranks.
In recent times horses such as Champion Court, Any Currency and Benbane Head have proved stable flag-bearers. Replacing such stalwarts is always a difficult task, especially in such a relatively small yard. The trainer will be hopeful that stable newcomer Cottersrock can build on his runner-up performance at Doncaster over the weekend. The six-year-old ran a cracker at fanciful odds having previously been trained in Ireland. He has the look of a nice staying type and should make into a decent chaser in time.
Keighley has been in the business long enough to cope with the lows and fully appreciate to highs that come his way. Saturday was certainly the latter, and he’ll be hoping for many more in the coming months.