A former jockey who according to the meticulous Derek Thompson was the “first man to ride on every racecourse Flat and jumps in England, Wales and Scotland” 20 years on from his final ride during a four-year stint in Australia, is now making waves as a trainer at Exning in Newmarket, writes Tony Stafford.
I first knew Shaun Keightley ten years before that when, on one memorable – and more than a little frustrating – Oaks day in the late 1980’s, he rode one of three winners in a four-horse raid on Catterick (afternoon), Carlisle and Leicester (both evening) of a Peter Hudson-trained quartet owned by Sheikh Mohamed Al Sabah from Kuwait.
The Sheikh, a larger-than-life character who was prone to through-the-night four-hour telephone conversations with interminable pauses and ancient English idioms – “er…and so on and so forth” was perhaps the favourite – was also prone to excess in most other areas.
He had a 50-horse stable, Linkslade, in Lambourn, where Willie Muir has trained for many years now, originally under the care of Stan Mellor and then briefly Fred Ffitch, Stan’s assistant. The Sheikh was looking for a permanent replacement and soon after my friend George Hill had interviewed Hudson following his first winner on an outside reporting day for the Daily Telegraph, the appointment was made.
Hudson, previously assistant trainer to Barry Hills at Manton where he was also estate manager, had only recently gone out on his own. The old Etonian instantly got on well with George, an old Edith Cavellian – Haggerston (alma mater of Rodney Marsh) and the appointment soon ensued.
The Sheikh had some nice horses and after a quiet spell told me he was intent on landing a gamble. Money duly collected from the United Bank of Kuwait, various friends, family (well Dad anyway), Telegraph employees and Dad’s dog trainer Paul Philpott were despatched around East and South London, Kent and Hertfordshire placing multiples on the quartet, with a total of 300 establishments being targeted.
It needed the first, Absolutely Perfect at Catterick, to set the bet in motion. Carrying the deep red and white colours of Al Deera Bloodstock, the Sheikh’s ownership name, he duly obliged at 11-2 under George Duffield. Thirty minutes later a rather more significant moment in British and European racing came in the Oaks on that June 10 day when Aliysa, after passing the post first under Walter Swinburn for the Aga Khan and Michael Stoute, was disqualified in favour of Henry Cecil’s Snow Bride and Steve Cauthen.
That would prove to be a road with no turning as the Aga Khan almost immediately decided to take all his horses from England, basically his strong representation in the Stoute and Luca Cumani yards. They were moved to France and Ireland and the same status quo persists to this day. It even extends to his sales policy, using Arqana in France and Goff’s in Ireland to the exclusion of Tattersalls.
Even before those two races, it had been a red-letter day for Shaun Keightley. With most of the big riding guns down at Epsom, he was enlisted by Ben Hanbury for the mount on Weldnaas, a 20-1 shot, in the Listed John of Gaunt Stakes at Haydock. Despite putting up 1lb overweight (8st7lb, really Shaun?) he made the most of his first ride on the horse to gain his own sole Listed winner on the Flat. Weldnaas never ran again.
That was five minutes before Absolutely Perfect and half an hour before the Oaks. Then it was a two –hour gap until the first of two Leicester runners, Careful Lad, under Steve Dawson in the seller. The odds of 11-8 were not easily landed. In a 13-runner field, he got up by only a head.
Keightley by that time had completed the ride north to Carlisle up the M6 with Peter Hudson. His mount Radish’N Lemon was a 3-1 shot in the maiden, and strolled home by six lengths with never a moment’s doubt. In view of what happened to the last leg, there now is a feeling of “swings and roundabouts” for me as Radish’N Lemon later had the race taken away on technical grounds.
That left Pharaoh’s Delight, a 100-30 second-favourite on debut behind Bright Flower, an odds-on shot ridden by Frankie Dettori for Cumani – that’s right 30 years ago and Frankie was already winning! She was the one we reckoned to be the banker. Ask Dave Dineley?
But Eddery could finish no nearer than sixth after easing her when beaten and came in to tell George Hill: “Bad luck, she’ll win at Royal Ascot”. She did, by six lengths in the Windsor Castle, and followed up, first in the Princess Margaret at Ascot on King George day. Then soon after came her crowning glory in the Group 1 Heinz 57 Phoenix Stakes at now-defunct Phoenix Park while family Stafford was returning from New York on the QEII. He knew what he was talking about Mr Eddery!
Pity she was wasn’t ready first time. I recall having more than £50k in cash on my living-room floor after the boys managed finally to bring it all home, usually needing three or four goes to get the money. If the filly had won it would have been more like £250k, but had she done so, the cry of “foul” would have come from the bookies and the team would have had even more bother in getting the cash. Anyway that’s all conjecture.
So let’s fast forward at least a couple of decades. Shaun Keightley, following an initial spell between 2002 and 2006, reappeared after a gap of 12 years in his late 50’s as one of the oldest “new” boys in the game. He set up in Darryl Holland’s yard in Exning, next door to Gay Kelleway, but it was when building contractor Simon Lockyer sent him Rail Dancer to train in the spring of 2018 that the success story really began.
For many years his main mentor had been John Morrell, owner of the La Manga resort in Spain, with Shaun often taking care of his pre-training horses. Morrell’s family horses are run in the name of John’s wife Chantal Redalago-Gonzalez, best known for the 2015 Oaks winner Qualify, trained by Aidan O’Brien.
Morrell, true to character, supported Keightley’s latest training venture and in San Carlos they have a nice three-year-old who is sure to continue to pay his way. After taking some time to come right, Rail Dancer produced a quick-fire winning double within five days in May, setting in motion a memorable first full year as a trainer.
Working largely with low-grade animals, and following on from two wins in 2018, Shaun has now hit the impressive figure of 15 this year. Simon Lockyer, who is now comfortably his principal owner says: “It’s amazing. He had seven winners in August alone, four of them in the last fortnight from only nine runners.” Three of the four winners had won their previous race and defied either a penalty or a rise in their rating. “The owners are all delighted with how it’s going,” added Lockyer.
A man who partnered almost exactly 200 winners (150 jumps, 50 Flat) in his 20-year riding career might not be expected to remember everything about them all, but when I told my friend Peter Ashmore that Raymond Tooth was sending Keightley a horse, he said: “I remember him”.
Back in the late 1970’s Peter had a share in Captian <correct spelling> Cheeko, a hurdler with Philip Allingham at Lilley, near Luton. He said it had finished second in a three-horse seller with Keightley, then a 7lb claimer, riding. “Yes, he was a flashy chestnut with a white blaze and four white socks,” Keightley recalled.
Another equally impressive feat of memory was when he met another friend, Shaun Ellery, a great pal of the late David Wintle, at Chepstow when Trouble Shooter won there a couple of weeks ago. Keightley said: “Are you Shaun Ellery? I came to your night club, The Bank, in Cardiff back in the 1980’s.” Right on all counts, says the man known universally (as long as you’re old enough!) as Sonic.
As a last word I’d like to congratulate Alan Spence on the Solario Stakes win of his Positive at Sandown on Saturday. Not as clear-cut maybe as the betting had predicted but the way he battled and Adam Kirby’s glowing endorsement makes a 2000 Guineas aim realistic.