Jedd O'Keeffe: Sam Spinner's trainer in good health, on and off the course

Sam Spinner
Sam Spinner, ridden by Joe Colliver, won the Stayers' Handicap Hurdle in November at Haydock
JLT Reve De Sivola Long Walk
Venue: Ascot Date: Saturday, 23 December Time: 14:25 GMT
Coverage: BBC Radio 5 live

For Jedd O'Keeffe, the name of the race could hardly be more resonant.

As the trainer prepares Sam Spinner - jumping star of his mainly flat-racing stables in North Yorkshire - for Ascot's Grade One Long Walk Hurdle on Saturday, he can reflect on a lengthy journey of his own.

In 2011, having been diagnosed with cancer in his throat and neck, the 48-year-old embarked on an intense course of treatment which saved his life but nearly finished off his business.

"They found a tumour on my tonsil and in a saliva gland, but they were always very positive about being able to cure me," he says.

"The treatment was horrendous - I was meant to have six lots of chemo, but could only manage four, I felt that bad. I had to be driven by my wife Andrea daily to Middlesbrough for radiotherapy.

"It really knocked me - I was taken from home to hospital in the middle of the night, and lost my voice at one time.

"Though I'd finished the treatment, I was still very ill, and needed staff to cover. With the cost of all that, and the financial crisis, we felt we couldn't go any further, and rang the owners to say we were giving up."

It was Paul Chapman, owner - with his wife Caron - of Sam Spinner, whose promise of support was the catalyst for the reversal of that decision.

Having just sold his business in the financial sector, Chapman came up with plans to expand his racehorse ownership interests.

O'Keeffe said: "All our owners have been so, so supportive, but at that time Paul in particular said he was thinking about half filling the yard.

"Obviously you'd love every owner to have a Sam Spinner running in their colours, but the fact it's Paul and Caron is terrific considering how much they were able to back us."

'It's very exciting to have a real star'

Jedd O'Keeffe
O'Keeffe bought Sam Spinner for £12,600 as a three-year-old

Now only required to have a once-a-year check-up by doctors, O'Keeffe - officially John Eamon Declan Dunderdale, but always Jedd - feels in the best of health, as does his training operation, which enjoyed its best ever flat season.

Sam Spinner is one of 45 horses in training at Highbeck Lodge, nestled in on the edge of the picturesque Middleham racing centre in the Yorkshire Dales.

Bought for 12,000 guineas (£12,600) at Doncaster sales as a three-year-old, the horse appealed to his trainer as an "amazing walker, with a good, honest face saying he was going to be a racehorse".

Since first setting foot on a racecourse in February 2016, Sam Spinner has not been out of the first two in eight starts.

The original plan had been to qualify for a prize on the undercard at jump racing's Cheltenham Festival in March. However, results have forced a change of heart.

A narrow, and perhaps luckless, defeat in a valuable hurdle at Chepstow in October was followed, six weeks later, by a positive demolition - by 17 lengths and more - of a field of good-quality rivals in muddy conditions at Haydock.

Now, with an official rating that translates to big weights in handicap races, sights have been raised to Ascot's top-level Christmas feature and to the Stayers Hurdle - very much one of the highlights - at the Festival.

"We went to Haydock not certain about the extra distance [just short of three miles] and not sure about him on the deep ground, and he coped well," said O'Keeffe.

"A rating of 155 has forced our hand a little bit, and forced us into getting on with it and look at conditions races [up from handicaps].

"I'm embarrassed to say that I'm a bit green about the gills on the jumping programme, but Ascot seems the right race, and people a lot wiser than me say it's an open year, with no [three-time winners] Big Buck's or Reve De Sivola in there."

Sam Spinner
Sam Spinner has three wins from five starts when ridden by Joe Colliver

On board at Ascot is regular jockey Joe Colliver, who is back riding having served a short jail term in 2016 for perverting the course of justice after a drunken car crash.

It has been fairly slow progress since his return in January, but the partnership with Sam Spinner - three wins from five starts - is helping the 26-year-old rebuild his career.

Recent bans - one for using his whip despite being well in front on Sam Spinner at Haydock - have not exactly speeded that up, but success in the Long Walk Hurdle, one of the National Hunt season's major long distance-hurdles, would change all that.

"Joe didn't realise how far clear he was," said O'Keeffe. "And he didn't want to chance it - he knows what he did was wrong.

"It's very exciting for all of us in a small stable to have a real star, and I'm really grateful it's happening as it is."