18 January 2004
Having overcome more than his fair share of ill luck the ambitious former top jockey now has a trainer’s title high on the agenda.
It was one of those magical windy Cotswold mornings with a cold sun on the valley and the promise of Cheltenham over the hill. But the real magic is in the man.
Sure the place runs him a pretty close second. In its latest stage, the Jackdaws Castle training establishment has become one of the wonders of the racing world. Polytrack gallops run up the western facing slope from the village of Ford five miles from Stow-on-the-Wold amid an immaculate tapestry of paths and paddocks and hedgerows reminiscent of Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle.
High on the hill, its state-of-the-art, 100-box stable-yard set in the old quarry, now has a helicopter pad for owner J P McManus and an aircraft hanger-sized barn which houses a clutch of horse walkers, a swimming pool, an accompanying equine solarium and a loose school big enough to host the Horse of The Year Show. Quite a place for Jonjo O’Neill.
He has, of course, had several lifetimes already. It was before a minor televised meeting at Stratford some 33 years ago that trainer Gordon Richards told us that he had a promising boy riding for him in the opener. Half-an-hour later I remember doing the replay of what was to be the first J J O’Neill success in an extraordinary career which included a record 149-winner championship season, Sea Pigeon’s Champion Hurdle and Dawn Run’s unforgettable 1986 Gold Cup before Jonjo was diagnosed with cancer later in the year.
Even on that still untidy first occasion you could recognise the inspirational life-force which was always at the centre of Jonjo’s riding and which had begun at home in County Cork on the back of a neighbour’s pig. Without the finesse of John Francome or Richard Dunwoody, he had an irrepressible country boy enthusiasm which made him every inch their equal when the chips were down. It was a quality he has had to draw on through adversity enough to sink an Atlantic liner.
Twice he snapped his leg into little more than a bag of gravel. The first time at Stockton it was so bad the bones came out through the boot. The second time at Bangor came in a freakish mid-air accident when his shin was snapped in 36 places by the scissors motion of another horse’s flailing hind legs. It took 412 days to get back in action, but back he came, and as Dawn Run was led in at Cheltenham Jonjo O’Neill was the most popular jockey on the planet.
By that summer he also seemed to be the unluckiest. The cancer took him down to the darkest depths of his soul, the family strain of recovery finally cost him his first marriage, the eventual embarkation 16 years ago on a training career up on the crags just north of Penrith seemed a gesture as much of defiance as of any realistic new tilt at the top. But now, about to saddle his 300th winner in the three seasons he has been at Jackdaws Castle, and having already become the first man to notch a century both as a jockey and a trainer, a title in the latter division to match his two riding championships is unapologetically one of his ambitions.
By 2000 he and his second wife, Jacqui, had built Ivy House up to a 70-horse, 50-winner establishment but they wanted to head south and when Jonjo saw Jackdaws Castle he knew where he wanted to go. “I rang one or two people who might have the money,” he said with a quiet confidence which reminds you he was always a lot deeper than he looked. “Then I got hold of J P (McManus, the legendary gambler now known to the wider world as John Magnier’s shareholding partner in Manchester United). He bought it. I rent it. He has some 20 horses with me and he loves it. Or I keep telling him he does.”
We are down in the car at the bottom of the gallops. The cranky grey Iris Gift, who could be French ace Baracouda’s danger in the Cheltenham Stayers’ Hurdle, is skittering stroppily away from the string. “Just let him go and do his thing,” said Jonjo in a conversational voice that it takes you a second to realise is “walkie-talkied” to the rider’s helmet. The half-dozen other horses in the group canter off up the steepening incline with us cruising beside them on the silk smooth tarmac. “I never ride now. There just isn’t time. From the car I can see them all.”
The “seeing” is the key role that Jonjo takes upon himself in the 24-hour day training operation. “That’s the only place I know,” he said with beguiling modesty. “That’s why I go with the horses every morning. Because that is what I am best at. The whole thing is about team work. Listening to all the others, fitting the whole jigsaw puzzle together.”
A day at Jackdaws Castle suggests that there are some very capable hands making the pieces fit. Almost all Jonjo’s staff, including head man Alan Roche, came down with him from Cumbria, ex-jockey Robert Bellamy is a very capable general manager, a set of cool secretaries control the paperwork and “without Jacqui,” Jonjo pointedly said, “I wouldn’t begin to bother.”
The couple have two young sons to add to O’Neill’s three older children. They should provide a welcome distraction as the pressure heightens towards those Cheltenham Festival days in March, not that Jonjo approaches them with anything but relish. “It’s just magical,” he remarks, his voice warming at the thought, “the buzz when you get there. All the people, the wondering if you have got everything right.”
The two most prominent in his thoughts among a hugely powerful strike-force will be Champion Hurdle hope Intersky Falcon, “such a talented little horse and to think that he couldn’t even win his bumper to begin with”, and Keen Leader, “a great big lolloping fellow, of course Cheltenham [where he has fallen twice] is a bit of a problem, but his jumping is fine if he gets into his rhythm. He’s a proper horse, and if he comes through OK [next run probably the Hennessy in Ireland], he absolutely could be the one to challenge Best Mate”.
The key to getting them to their peak is understanding. Looking at Jonjo’s now slightly puffy face you see someone who has had to understand himself well enough and it is of the different characteristics of the horses he speaks. “You see a lot when they are out in the field,” he pointed out. “Keen Leader likes to be left alone to do his own thing. Horses like that keep galloping. Intersky Falcon is happy to be one of the crowd. Neither are bullies. Those bully boys in the field, they usually turn out to be soft.”
Not something you could say about the trainer.