Tuesday 17 October 2017

Jonjo driven by unbridled passion

Jonjo O’Neill is full of hope for this week
Jonjo O’Neill is full of hope for this week

Paul Hayward

Two hills away from Cheltenham racecourse Jonjo O'Neill is buzzing around his gallops as happy as a holidaymaker.

Not even the absence of last year's Gold Cup winner, Synchronised, which was killed in the Grand National, can dampen the trainer's spirits as he describes the Festival as "magical and brilliant".

Trainers with big Cheltenham teams are usually as volatile as nitroglycerine in the days before the start of four days of operatic National Hunt racing.

But the more adversity O'Neill encounters, the more defiant he becomes.

A master jockey before turning his hand to the great puzzle of racehorse preparation, O'Neill has beaten cancer, had Alverton and Dawn Run die on him in races and lost Synchronised at Aintree last April, a month after he had won the Gold Cup under an astounding ride by Tony McCoy.

As we drive round Jackdaw's Castle, the training complex in the Cotswolds, O'Neill can look back on 21 Festival winners as a trainer and some of the great Cheltenham images from his time in the saddle.

Sea Pigeon and Dawn Run were his most famous partners. In his first appearance at jump racing's carnival, mind you, he "almost put Tommy Kinane (a rival jockey) into the Arkle bar" with one audacious surge round the final turn.

He still remembers the nerves. "It's your first time in an international weighing room with amateurs you don't know and the top lads in Ireland and France. In your own little mind you're thinking, 'I've made it'," he says.

Characters

He walked in at "20 years old to see Ron Barry, Terry Biddlecombe, Bob Davies, Tommy Carberry – really good characters. Nowadays the kids go into the weighing room all the time, but for us to see the names up there – Pat Taaffe and Arkle – and to see Pat's peg, wow, that was a thrill".

As we survey the gorgeous Cotswold landscape, the Cheltenham hopes gallop by: Cloudy Copper, Shutthefrontdoor, Taquin Du Seuil, Alfie Sherrin, Albertas Run and Get Me Out of Here. But there is the ghost also of Sychronised, which followed the path Sunnyhillboy will take when contesting Friday's Gold Cup before a crack at Aintree.

No Gold Cup winner had gone on to win the National in the same season for 78 years but O'Neill maintains there was no connection between Synchronised's "freakish" injury and the difficulty of winning both races.

The native of Castletownroche Co Cork should know. In 1979 he rode Alverton to Gold Cup victory but then saw the champion put down after a fall at Becher's Brook, the fence where Synchronised capsized before continuing riderless to the 11th fence, where he fractured a leg.

"You wouldn't believe lightning would strike twice would you?" he says. "It was so unfortunate, because to lose him when he was loose like that was freakish.

"You want to give up racing, you want to give up living. You want to give up everything because this thing's gone wrong for you, but then you pull yourself together and say, 'stop being a bloody spoilt kid and get on with life'."

He takes up the story of Synchronised's rise last year: "We didn't know he was a Gold Cup horse, to be honest, because he was such a unique type. He was only just coming right close to Cheltenham.

"The only worry I had about him in the Gold Cup was that they might go too fast and he might be tailed off after the first mile. Then if we were close enough, I knew we'd definitely come home.

"On the second circuit we were confident he would be placed. But then, coming to the last, AP gave him an unbelievable ride.

"They were made for each other, the two of them. Both full of guts. And it all went right for them. He was actually better going to Liverpool. He really was coming right. You could see it in him.

"He went to Aintree and going down to the start he ducked and dropped AP. That told me how well he was. He was a cute old monkey."

This story is told with a mix of realism and affection. O'Neill, the only person to have both ridden and trained 100 winners in a season, understands better than anyone the love trainers and their staff feel for horses; and he knows too the futility of giving in to misfortune.

"It's tough, bloody tough, losing a horse like that, but life goes on, and at the end of the day it is an animal, and there are more important things going on in life. The whole yard is down, everybody is down, and you have to jolly everybody up. Time is the only healer. I've seen it before.

"We get a horse beaten in a seller and we want to give up racing. We're a bit petty, aren't we? It's only because you're so engrossed in the whole thing. You do take it to heart, and if you didn't you wouldn't do it."

O'Neill is consumed by the challenge of working out the physical and psychological make-up of every horse.

Antics

"When you get it right you think, 'yeah, I've got it'," he says, punching the air. "When you get it wrong you think, 'why did I do that? What was I thinking of?'"

Given his success in both roles, as pilot and trainer, which he would have chosen if he could have had only one career?

"That's a hard one, that. The day Dawn Run won the Gold Cup was a magical day," he says. "The whole of Ireland knew she was going to win. She'd only had five or six runs over fences. She wasn't a natural jumper and I was thinking, 'will she get around?'

"She was a very game mare and Paddy (Mullins) was a brilliant trainer who had her sized up to a tee. Paddy would never give you any orders. He would just say, 'ah, she's well today, lad'. And you thought, 'ooh, that's good'."

His most precious training memory, though, is from Aintree – winning the National with Don't Push It in 2011. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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