An Interview with Top Owners Geoff and Donna Keeys
‘So many of the memories we’ve got and the stories we can tell are due to racing,' says owners Geoff and Donna Keeys.
They discovered racing by accident via their daughter’s interest in ponies. ‘We went racing as a family,’ remembers Donna Keeys, who has been involved in ownership alongside her husband Geoff for over twenty-five years. ‘The children enjoyed going too.' Geoff recollects, one day, watching Desert Orchid, standing next to and talking to a gentleman who transpired to be the great grey’s owner. ‘As members of the public,’ he says, ‘it felt as though we were part of something bigger.’
The afternoons out developed into Geoff and Donna craving for a bigger part of this sport. Starting off in racing clubs and syndicates, not many people have been so closely involved in all angles of racehorse ownership. A one-off breeding experience, buying youngsters for which ‘the naming process is always fun and interesting’, hurdlers and chasers to point-to-pointers.
One of their first horses, Wisley Wonder, was a quirky character. He always started but took to refusing at the last fence, and still won five races. The first horse they owned on their own, Gentle Rivage, ran in their colours from a bumper at four up to becoming a good ‘pointer in his twilight years, ending his career at seventeen. In fact, ex-jockey Willie Twiston-Davies rode Gentle Rivage in the Andoversford’s hunt members’ race when Willie was 16 and the horse was 17, finishing second. ‘A number of current professionals once rode him ‘pointing and I’ve followed the careers of these successful jockeys all the way,’ chuckles Geoff. Gentle Rivage was third at the Festival in 2000, won five under Rules and four between the flags.
One of their more recent horses, Perfect Candidate, was bought as a five-year-old at the end of a two-day trip round Northern Ireland organised by trainer Fergal O’Brien at the start of his training career. He was trained by Fergal right up to his retirement at fourteen at the end of last season, having won out of all three yards at which Fergal has trained.
Photo Credit: Sharon Slade
Over the years, Geoff and Donna have shared many winners and many good times alongside lots of their runners. One of those was called Randolph O’Brien, who I actually looked after for much of his racing life when I worked for Nigel Twiston-Davies. 'Randy' won three chases and was placed numerous times. There has been laughter and celebrations along the way – the usual highs and lows of racehorse ownership but the highs are most poignantly remembered. Perfect Candidate, always shortened to PC, won nine races, including three at Cheltenham and ran in two Grand Nationals. Geoff and Donna are particularly keen to ensure their horses have a good life at the end of their racing careers and are very grateful for the support they get from all the people involved in racing in achieving that.
Geoff and Donna both spent the early parts of their lives living and working in a variety of different places both in the UK and abroad before settling over twenty years ago in Ford, Gloucestershire, a pebble toss from the famous racing pub, the Plough Inn.
Randolph O'Brien, Gentle Rivage, Perfect Candidate
How did you get into racehorse ownership?
We were involved with our daughter Georgia’s horse and a lot of the other people in the livery yard were involved with racing. We were persuaded to go to Sandown for a day out one Saturday – it started from there.
What was the first racehorse you owned?
We bought shares in White Horse Racing, a racing club who had horses with David Elsworth at the time of Desert Orchid. That was the gradual start that led into joining syndicates. The first of those was formed by a group at a new golf club called Wisley in Surrey, which had as members racing enthusiasts who included the owners of Young Hustler and Moorcroft Boy. During the early ‘90s, we owned Wisley Wonder, Wisley Warrior and Oh So Wisley with Nigel Twiston-Davies and Man Of Wisley with Nicky Henderson. Our first full ownership was in 1998 with Gentle Rivage, who was brilliant; ran more than thirty times and was nearly always in the money, including a third at the Festival.
Which have been your past racehorses?
Wehave been involved in over 20 if you count those in both shared and sole ownership. After Gentle Rivage, we bought a two-year-old, naming him Randolph O’Brien for reasons we won’t go into. We had so much fun with ‘Randy’ who won three chases and was placed numerous times. He made us appreciate a good jockey when, with instructions to lead, Timmy Murphy missed the break at Towcester but was in front by the time they were jumping the first. They won by over four lengths. Ballynabragget was another we owned as part of a group, while Priests Bridge, Nev Brown, Tullyraine, Arctic Gold, and homebred Fiorenza were all ones we owned on our own.
Which trainers have you been with?
David Elsworth with the racing club, Nicky Henderson with the Wisley Syndicate, Nigel Twiston-Davies as both a sole owner and syndicate member and Fergal O’Brien, both when he trained ‘pointers and since under Rules.
What is the best advice you were given?
Maybe people gave us advice and we ignored them! We were told racing wouldn’t make us money and they were right. We did have one syndicate member who left when he discovered the (gelded) horse we owned would not have any stud value at the end of his racing career!
What was the inspiration behind the designs of your colours?
After buying Gentle Rivage during the Cheltenham Festival and rushing there very late, we arrived to see French Holly whizzing past the winning post in the Royal & Sun Alliance and we loved the combination of the maroon and navy, so we simply added the epaulettes.
We own Perfect Candidate but ran him under the name ‘ISL Recruitment’ which had recently been started by our son Henry. The company chose those green and white colours to go with their logo.
Please list the racehorses you own at the moment:
We are still in the process of deciding what to do next following Perfect Candidate’s retirement, but we are members of an FOB Racing Partnership that owns Manothepeople, who has yet to run under Rules as well as a couple of part shares in two youngsters that are currently in pre-training.
What is your favourite racecourse?
Cheltenham without any question with its history and how local it is, and Ludlow because of the beef dinner!
What have been your favourite horses?
Wouldn’t like to choose - all of them have had their own characteristics and personalities.
Photo Credit: Su Jones
What is your favourite meeting?
The April and October meetings at Cheltenham – it’s quieter with no crowds.
Which race would you most like to win that has so far evaded you?
The Tinglecreek or Queen Mother Champion Chase – those top two-milers are the ultimate chasers.
What is your most memorable day’s racing?
30th November 1994 when Wisley Wonder won his first race, a bumper, at Huntingdon - or when Perfect Candidate won on 19th November 2017 at Cheltenham. Geoff watched it from the owners’ room at Uttoxeter, where he’d gone to be with another horse of ours, Mount Batur who was having his first run.
Wisley Wonder, centre.
What, generally, does racing excel at?
Actually, going to a race meeting has become less and less important. Even more enjoyable is seeing the horses at home in training, watching them going up the gallops, chatting to the stable staff as well as talking with like-minded people about the many amusing and memorable situations in which we have found ourselves. We love going racing most when we can just bump into people we know.
What aspects within racing could be improved?
There needs to be more space for owners at meetings. We don’t ask for posh food or free food, just to be confident there will be a seat available when you want it. The owners’ room is so often crammed and jammed and it’s uncomfortable.
There are some notable exceptions. Cheltenham, Ludlow and Bangor all come to mind. At all three, you have to be careful to remember you have come to watch racing as it’s so tempting just to sit in the warm owners’ room all day enjoying the lovely food.
What do you admire in racing?
Everyone involved in this sport – the stable staff, the vets and the farriers, the trainers and other owners all contribute to the whole show. There are whole different groups of people whose company we enjoy.
What is your most favourite holidays destination?
There are two places we love to be: our home in Ford and Troon in Scotland.
What is your favourite meal?
Any meal from the Plough at Ford and anything from a restaurant called Lido in Troon.
What is your favourite drink?
Geoff: Any London dry gin with a distinctive flavour.
Donna: Passionfruit margaritas from Lido.
Meeting up with the family, looking after the house and garden, most sports and running The Keeys Partnership, our business for the last 25 years. It helps organisations set and implement their overall strategy. At the moment, most are early-stage businesses in which we invest. We are also involved a charity called Water City Music, which inspires young musicians to perform at striking venues across the UK. Until Covid, the centrepiece of this had been large numbers of school children performing at the Tower of London during a week in June.
Photo Credit: Racing Post