JONJO O’NEILL COMEBACK
During the first of Jonjo O’Neill’s famous comebacks it was his leg that he and the doctors were trying to save. During the second, in 1986, six years after the freak accident at Bangor which snapped his right leg so brutally that it felt “just like a bag of gravel”, the stakes were somewhat higher. Cancer had struck. This time they were trying to save Jonjo’s life.
The darkness of those storm clouds of yesteryear should not be too easily lost in the sunshine of Jonjo’s smile. The beaming face under the top hat watching Well Snap come home at Royal Ascot and the smiling man in a suit giving credit to jockey Graham Lee after Tominator’s astonishing final furlong Northumberland Plate victory last Saturday seem to be that of a man at peace with himself. But, even if he won’t say this himself, to truly understand Jonjo O’Neill you have to appreciate that he has twice had to go to war with his body. And that the battles were not easily won.
In truth there was a third and earlier disaster, at Teeside Park early in 1975 when what was at the time no more than a two season career of promise seemed to be snuffed out long before its time. It was about as brutal as these things get and if you are reading this at the breakfast table you might like to finish eating first.
Jonjo was minding his own business on a blameless animal called Night Affair when the horse in front ran out and sent Night Affair and his rider through wing of the hurdle. “He wrapped my right leg round the wooden post at the end of the wing,” was Jonjo’s graphic recollection in his 1985 autobiography, “and as I slid to the ground I could see the bone below the knee sticking out through my riding boot. It was like an enormous nail protruding from my boot and after staring at it for a second, I leaned forward, grabbed the bone and straightened the leg. After those initial seconds the pain took over, roaring through my whole body. Every nerve was stretched to breaking point. I wanted to haul myself to my feet and run away to take my mind off the agony. But all I could do was to lie and wait, tearing at the Teeside turf with my fingers.”
Treatment, especially with pain relief and fracture plating, was still fairly primitive in the 1970s. Jonjo did not get any medication until reaching the ambulance room and at Teeside Hospital he was put from ankle to hip into a soon-blood soaked plaster cast which two weeks later had him rushed back into intensive care with a grapefruit sized blood clot below the knee. But the little ginger haired grocer’s son from Castletownroche in County Cork would not be denied. As a sure foretaste of what was to come he pulled through the long weeks of pain, immobility, and depression to bob back six months later with a winner on the flat at Hamilton.
By the time of the Bangor fall five years later, Jonjo O’Neill had twice been champion jockey, had ridden a then record 149 total in the season 1977/78, topped the century again in 1979/80, won the Gold Cup on Alverton in 1979 and the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon in 1980. On the first day of Royal Ascot that summer he and his first wife Sheila had bought a farm near Penrith from which he planned to train in the future. He was a hard-working, smiling, god-fearing soul nobody had a bad word for. But in mid race on a hurdler called Simbad, the fates played him an even worse card than they had at Stockton.
“Simbad caught the top of the hurdle, sprawled on the grass and skidded along on his belly for twenty yards or so,” recalls Jonjo. “I was still on him and only when he started to roll over did I step off him, just like jumping off a bike. I pulled my right leg up and over and as it stuck out I pushed it between the hind legs of another horse. It is virtually impossible to put the handle of a brush between the hind legs of another horse’s legs when he is going at full gallop, but somehow I poked my leg there. I saw what happened. The horse’s legs scissored mine in a cutting action. I heard a horrid crack. Felt excruciating pain as I lay flat on the Welsh turf nursing the lower part of my leg which was like a bag of gravel. Lots of broken bones.”
Jonjo was in deep trouble but by now he had both experience and allies, most notably the splendid, saintly, mutton chopped figure of Carlisle Orthopaedic surgeon Hugh Barber who had become something of an expert at sticking O’Neill back together. Indeed if the jockey had listened to him the Bangor recovery might have proceeded well enough to have made what seemed like two dates with destiny at Cheltenham next March, Sea Pigeon in the Champion Hurdle and Night Nurse in the Gold Cup. But Jonjo had not got this far with prudence foremost amongst his virtues and now took every furtive opportunity to test the still unhealed leg culminating in the folly of a gallop on Wigton Aerodrome which ended in searing pain and a shame-faced visit to Hugh Barber to re-start the whole process.
So much damage had been done that not only did Jonjo have to watch John Francome give a waiting ride master class in the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon; by May the problems were still so deep-set that Hugh Barber arranged a last throw trip to Professor Martin Allgower’s renowned clinic in Basle, Switzerland. Before the operation what seemed likely to be an ex-jockey signed a form to give permission to amputate if things looked too bad during surgery. When Jonjo came round he was so convinced he had lost the leg that the nurse had to gently take off the covers so he could see his right toes wiggle.
This time prudence got a much better hearing. It was not until September that he got back into any saddle and then not until a glorious first of December at Wetherby that the name J.J. O Neill was once again raised on the racecourse number board. A record crowd flocked the enclosures, newsmen, photographers and television crews hounded Jonjo like a film star at a Premiere. It took him just three rides to deliver and as the gallant mare Realt Na Nona was led back into an ecstatic unsaddling enclosure the scenes of simple, bursting, unadulterated happiness remain forever in the memory.
Two days later he had five more rides albeit no winner up at Ayr. Seeing O’Neill the jockey up close once again made me marvel at the contrast. Out of the saddle, then as now, he had a gentle, boyish, country boy Irish charm; in it he was a little crouched-up tiger with the most compulsive winner rate in the game and as he used arms, whip and banshee yells at the final flight there was no doubt that the tiger was back.
As he towelled off his sturdy 5ft 6in frame afterwards, the first impression was of the astonishing level of conditioning already reached. “Ah yes I am fit as a flea,” he said. “But I have really grafted, have been bicycling all over the Lake District and on the farm I have worked like a slave.” The second impression was of the greater perspective provided during the lay-off by such things such as TV appearances, store openings, a newspaper column and a surely rather perilous milk commercial in which he jumped the open ditch at Newbury. “I love this game,” he said patting his gingery side-whiskers in the saddle-strewn warmth of the weighing room. “I’ve always said I would do it for nothing, and that’s still true. But while I may not have learnt much more about racing in the past year, I certainly have about people.”
In the years that followed it really seemed that the fates were delivering on their bargain. Jonjo rode 74 winners the next season and 103 (to John Francome’s table topping 131) in 1983-4 including a Champion Hurdle victory on the idolised Irish mare Dawn Run which so overexcited the crowd that the jockey nearly had his saddle and weight cloth snatched away as mementoes before weighing in. As he closed on the prospect of riding Dawn Run to what was to be a history making double in the 1986 Gold Cup, the world would have thought that Jonjo now had fortune forever as an ally. The world would have been wrong.
For all the dynamism which shines out of perhaps the most memorable all Gold Cup finishes with Dawn Run clawing back her rivals to Peter O’Sullevan’s immortal line “and the mare is getting up”, a cloud was hanging over Jonjo. “I was tired all through that season,” said Jonjo last Saturday at Newcastle airport sitting with his wife Jackie with whom he has built a magnificent training life in the Cotswolds. “I would want to stop for tea at every motorway service station and could not stay awake. There was something wrong with me but I could not say anything because you don’t get any rides if you say you are retiring.”
The end came after the Scottish National Meeting in April but improvement did not come with it. “I took my trainer’s licence and we already had 20 horses,” said Jonjo on Saturday, “but I was still getting weaker. Then I remember my daughter’s birthday in July. We had bought her a little pink bicycle and I could not even lift it out of the car. I went to see Hugh Barber. He said he did not like the look of things. It was cancer. He got me to the hospital in Manchester and…….” There was a pause, and because did not want to revisit those days again, he just gave that infectious warming laugh and added “and then they cured it. Listen,” he continued a touch more seriously, “as a jockey you break your leg but you know you will get better if you give it a bit of time. With Cancer back then, the immediate thought was that you were going to die. I could not handle it basically.”
He had been prepared to a say a bit more coming up to Christmas in 1987. A week earlier the BBC TV Review of The Year had a poignant flashback of a bald, frail faced Jonjo at the 1986 gathering and Desmond Lynam eased us into the wincingly difficult word by asking a now smiling, curly haired Jonjo, the almost cosy question “how is the old cancer?” Now we were part of a four strong posse of horses picking our way alongside the Beck that runs alongside Calder Fell. “Those treatments used to really flatten me,” said Jonjo of the eight gut wrenching sessions of chemotherapy and one of radium that he had been put through. “When we got to the fifth I felt I couldn’t take any more. I told them to leave me alone. They were very nice and just said ‘fine’ but would I like something to send me to sleep? I said ‘okay’ and went off to sleep only to wake up being as sick as a dog. They had given the treatment in the night. They were wonderful, wonderful people.”
There were of course other forms of assistance, most of all from Sheila and the family. But throughout the ordeal O’Neill, a Catholic, had kept a pretty open line to the top which he explained with a delightful Irishism half way down the Fell with the fields networking away across the vale. “I’m not very religious,” said Jonjo, “ but I am a great believer in faith. When I was a little better I managed up to here. I thought if I could get this far, I couldn’t be dying.”
Much has happened in both his personal and professional life since that December morning on Calder Fell. Great empires have been served, Grand Nationals and Gold Cup not to mention Royal Ascot races have been won and the drive for more continues beneath the smile. It is what lifted him through three-fold disaster. It remains an inspiration to us all.