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CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: Keaveney toasts Cheltenham Festival of dreams after stunning Vanillier victory

Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Vanilier Cheltenham

The 77-year-old was a bag of nerves ahead of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on the final day of racing in the Cotswolds, as he watched his prized possession Vanillier storm to an 11-length victory under Mark Walsh.

Having been involved with a number of flat racing horses in his 30-year association with the sport, Keaveney wanted something to carry on that racing buzz through the long winters, and turned his attention to the jumps in 2017.

It was a sticky start for the Rolestown native, who pinned his hopes on Peggy’s Acre to begin with, although the gelding by Yeats failed to make the grade, competing in 12 races without ever getting a win.

But along with trainer Gavin Cromwell, Keaveney and wife Helen turned their attentions to Vanillier at the end of 2019, after catching the eye with point-to-point victory in Dromahane.



“It was never our intention to get into jump racing, but the winters are long and I just love watching it, particularly the Irish racing at Punchestown and Leopardstown and places like that,” Keaveney said.

“Gavin [Cromwell] went to a number of sales and a number of point-to-points and was very patient, and he recommended one or two horses but the money was crazy - well out of my budget.

“In Dromahane he led most of the way and with two or three jumps to go they looked like they were going to swamp him - and jumping the last he may have even been behind - but he put his head down and I was very impressed.

“Gavin absolutely loved him, loved everything about him, so I was on the end of the phone, and Gavin went along to the auction and bought him.

“I paid more than I would have liked to, but it looks like a bargain now.”

From that fateful day where the decision was made, Keaveney, Cromwell and Vanillier have gone from strength to strength - with a Maiden Hurdle victory in Naas in November one that caught the eye, as the colt stormed ahead of a 20-strong field to take the success.

Second-placed finishes at Limerick and Punchestown continued to add to the hype around the turn of last year, although a tenth-placed finish in a Novices’ Hurdle in Leopardstown may have somewhat dampened expectations heading to Prestbury Park.

READ: No contest: Irish take over at record-breaking Cheltenham Festival

But whatever the thoughts heading into the jump season’s pinnacle event, Vanillier surpassed all predictions in his Cheltenham outing, with the rest of the field nowhere to be seen as he eased to the line.

And even after more than 30 years in the game, the nerves of following a runner never desert Keaveney, with the semi-retired hairdresser barely able to stand still throughout the race.

“I certainly was very nervous, excited but nervous, it’s impossible to describe how we felt before the race, during the race, or after the race,” he said.

After the race it was relief first of all, and disbelief, we couldn’t believe it, particularly the manner in which he did it - it was wonderful.

“Let’s be honest, we couldn’t be confident that he was going to win a race like that, but we could be confident that he would run a very good race.

“We were excited, and we were hoping for a good run. There was no expectation and we could probably have done without him being at the forefront for the whole race, but it was amazing.

“How he finished the race was spectacular, it’s what dreams are made of, whether we’ll see the likes of it again I don’t know.”

 Even after three decades of watching and deliberating over his fair share of fillies and colts, the joy of watching one of his own streak ahead to the post never gets old for the 77-year-old.

And after recording his first Festival victory, Keaveney has high hopes for Vanillier, who is already 10-1 favourite to grab glory in the 2022 Brown Advisory Novices' Chase.

“When you’ve been involved in horses all your life, the only reason you’re in it is because you love to have a winner, and that feeling you get - so to get it in Cheltenham was magical,” Keaveney said.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that having an interest in something like this has been fantastic - I’d be lost without it.

“I love watching it, I love the enjoyment and so does my wife. It’s very special and there has been a lot of excitement over the last few months.

“He seems to have loads and loads of stamina, and he demonstrated that last week - so a three-mile chaser looks like his future, and he has talent so we’ll be hopeful.”

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