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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

19th March 2010

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

I could not believe that I was actually leading up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup - the biggest race of the National Hunt season. As a groom, it is the thing you dream of; a horse talented enough to be listed as a runner. The horse to bring me here: a large, plain bay gelding with a mealy muzzle, scarred knees and donkey ears by the name of Imperial Commander. I had mucked out, brushed, nursed and generally cared for him daily for four years. I always bought him bags of apples and carrots and lots of packets of Polo mints. I had originally given him the nickname Nelson, only to shorten it to Nelly. Numerous times, I had dragged him in from the field, muddied mane in soily dreadlocks. Two years previously, he’d left for respite in Ireland, his season halted early in the January due to being lame behind. I said farewell, not knowing whether he would be back. This is where we'd ended up: in the crowded paddock of Cheltenham Racecourse, where TV cameras bustled with owners, trainers and seemingly the entire world.

The jockeys mounted. A splash of colour in the grey rain, Paddy Brennan in our piebald stars and stripes. Nelly was striding out, arching his neck, ears snapped forward. We won the Best Turned Out, but this and the parade (walking the horses in numerical order up past the stands) is a soggy blur. I remember walking on with my head down, deadpan, nervous but immensely proud of the horse I was beside. They cantered off to post and Sparky (also known as Richard Bevis, Nelly's work-rider and my head lad) hugged me – an unusual gesture from him.

My nervousness of the past weeks, including a loss of appetite, intensified to beyond terror. Plus, hopelessness – there was no more I could do but stand and watch. On the outside, normal and quiet but inside, a fumbling mess.

Everywhere was heaving, so I hovered on the outside of the little stable lads’ stand with Steve, the box driver and Dan, the yard’s tractor driver on a day out. Excitement pulsated through the dreary greyness. Rain I would have usually tutted at went ignored. Kauto Star’s lad agreed to do a TV interview, but Denman’s lass refused, not budging from leaning over the white rails, shaking her head. Like me, some other grooms coped with nervousness by staying in their personal bubble.

Photo Credit: Racing Post

Thousands of racegoers cheered as the tape went up and the eleven runners streamed towards the first fence. My eyes were glued to the big screen but, in reality, I wanted to look everywhere else. I gnawed at my fingernails as my heart hammered faster. ‘I don't think he's jumping,’ I muttered. Dan looked at me, astounded. ‘What the f**k? Which horse are you watching?’ His voice overflowed with confidence and swagger.

The whole stand erupted in thunderous groans as Kauto Star, the favourite and dual Gold Cup winner, firstly made a gut-wrenching mistake and later fell. Yet, I was watching my horse stalking, playing a waiting game, happy in his own rhythm. His massive stride ate up the turf, ears flattened back in effort. ‘We've got this,’ Dan said, which is translated from racing talk into ‘We’ve won’. He was leaping around but I held on until Nelly flew the last – in front, still in front, forever in front. Then, I was crying, running, getting picked up by the boss’ teenage son Willie and hugged and kissed, and ran again towards my horse. Craig, from work, rang my mobile. He too was in tears, unable to get any words out.

Nelly was at the end of the chute, sides pumping like bellows and victoriously posing. Paddy, arms aloft, waved his whip like a sabre in front of a scrimmage of shoving, clicking photographers. My brilliant, brave horse: now a Gold Cup winner, a part of racing history. A jubilant and triumphant Sparky at Nelly’s shoulder, the man who hugely attributed to this horse’s success.

I’ll always remember the walk back down the chute. The two chesnut hunt horses leading us in walked too slowly, shying at the roars of the crowd, waving scarves, race cards fluttering, newspapers thrown skywards. Nelly, unfazed, a true champion, marching proudly and purposefully. More hugs, a big kiss from the jockey, catcalls from the crowd, whoops and hollering all around. Hugh, the landlord from our local, the Hollow Bottom, only just visible in the scrum, flailing a black and white stripy scarf. (A box of which he had unveiled to me earlier in the month, much to my horror. I had told him to sell them to a pack of Newcastle supporters.) My brother’s girlfriend Niamh hanging over the rail, shrieking and screeching, all cascading wet hair. All these tiny fragments. Joy beyond words, smiles massive, those crowds cheering for my heroic horse.

Then the music and the crescendo of clapping in the winner’s enclosure; heaps more hugging and kissing and teary eyes. And a horse that stood like a statue, proud in his winner’s rug, ears pricked. All of us posing for another sea of cameras, wearing huge smiles. Nigel, my boss, bear-hugging me; Ricky, the yard maintenance man there too – a hundred people there in that one moment.

Then, Dan led Nelly away to the dope box, his proudest moment, he told me afterwards. The owners, a syndicate called Our Friends in the North, stepped up onto the podium, passing around the gleaming, glinting Gold Cup itself. Nigel then went up but the biggest cheer was for Paddy. Finally, myself – Nige telling me I was a ‘dirty girl’ for having a muddy face. Another big kiss from Paddy and a silver photo frame as my memento. The three of us were called down to the front for more photos.

As soon as I could, I escaped to go to my horse, getting more hugs on the way. One hug over the white rails by the weighing room was ironically from Rhys Jenkins, who rode the first ever winner I lead up in a point-to-point back in March 1999. Up in the dope box, it was quiet away from the crowds but Niamh was elatedly waiting and jumped on me so we both fell over.

Then, I was taking the reins of Nelly back from Dan. The reporter, Brough Scott, was there with a Dictaphone. I pointed out Nelly’s scarred knees and Brough betted that he was the ‘only Gold Cup winner with knees like that’.

To say how I felt would be impossible - sheer joy an understatement. But, leading him back to the stable yard, an undisturbed walk with an arm slung over his neck, I could not quite grasp it. I did not ever think I would lead up a Gold Cup winner: it was all my dreams bundled into one day. It had stopped raining but I was not sure when. Nelly already had a dark green plaque screwed on his top door, depicting his full name and the year in gold letters, which will stay there forever. Whenever he returned to Cheltenham, he always went into that particular stable: number six.

Yet, I had little time to reflect, having to wash my face and get Nikola, my other runner ready for the Grand Annual. It was a day beyond everyone's dreams as Baby Run won the Foxhunter’s under Nigel’s eldest son Sam and Pigeon Island won the last under Paddy Brennan (in which Nikola finished seventh for me).

It was getting dark when we loaded up the runners, the winners in their sponsored winning rugs, with the crowds watching. We arrived home late due to the lines and lines of traffic but after a hilarious journey crammed in the lorry with Tim the vet and several of his female friends, who eventually fell out of the lorry at a red traffic light and disappeared, presumably, into town. We drank a bottle of fizzy rosé given to us by Denman’s groom Lucinda, their day a lot greyer than ours when all their hopes of another Gold Cup were dashed.

Nelly had ‘congratulations’ banners pinned around his stable door and balloons, which were shuddering and squeaking in the wind and rain. Rustling in the deep clean straw, eating a mouthful of feed, and a mouthful of hay, Nelly was his usual greedy self on the day he became a champion.

After showering and pulling on my favourite pair of jeans and my pair of four-inch red high heels (I never had a bad night out wearing those), I quickly dried my hair and those of us who had been squashed into the lorry then piled into Maddie’s car. She abandoned it in Squeezy’s driveway at the opposite end of Guiting Power. Teetering on heels, in the pouring rain, we hurried under one flimsy umbrella. Cars were parked on the patch of a village green, up the verges, in driveways with no gaps at all.

The Hollow Bottom was a packed, alcohol-frenzied celebration. Black and white starry balloons were everywhere. (Hugh later told me he’d ordered them in advance, like the scarves, as his felt so positive about the result.) Craig took me into the marquee out the back, held my hand up high and everyone cheered.

It was the presence of my family that gave me the most pleasure - Mum, Dad, my brother Tony, Niamh, Niamh’s friend Lucy, plus Neil and Dorothy who rented out my parent’s holiday cottage every Festival week. My parents, who had hated the work I loved, hated the accommodation and lack of career prospects and smarted at my going to work there after graduating from university, were suddenly proud. Their pride shone as bright and golden as the trophy. We drank champagne (on the house or on the boss’ bill or the owner’s bill, I never knew which) on that rainy night before I left to continue celebrating in The Plough at Ford. The night was only beginning!

It did not sink in that I looked after a Gold Cup winner. Even when I woke up the next morning in fumes of gin, late for work, fully clothed in bed with colleagues Foxy and Louise, and Claire's terrier Crackle. Ally and Gemma burst through the door, haranguing Foxy as he glided away ghostlike. Gemma threw a Racing Post on the duvet – the headline roaring ‘Imperious Commander’ – and even then, it felt unbelievable.

I originally wrote this account a couple of months later and a shortened version was published in March 2011 by the now-defunct Gloucestershire Echo. I’m so pleased that I wrote it down, otherwise some little details might have faded. Twelve years have passed and to say spinetingling might be a cliché but to hear that commentary, to watch the race on YouTube, to look at photographs is spinetingling. I have many newspaper cuttings glued and taped into two bulging scrapbooks, accompanying the many memories of Nelly, the people and the day that spilled onto the Saturday with TV interviews and the three winners parading down the Hollow Bottom pub. A local, Gloucestershire-trained winner meant so much. And more press, photographers and crowds…smiles and happiness that never lost their gloss. We dined out for lunch, a basket of chips nestled in the Gold Cup and continued drinking bubbly.

Winning that race will never leave me, and even though every year another winner gets added to the list, the fact is Imperial Commander, my Nelly, will always be on it. The best horse I will ever look after.

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Mar 25, 2022

My favourite read so far!!!!! Great memories!!!!!!!


Chris Clayton
Chris Clayton
Mar 10, 2022

I'm guessing you've had worse days .....!??! What an amazing read, I had no idea that was you leading Imperial Commander up. As it happens Hazel and I were at Cheltenham that day, our first ever visit as my birthday treat. It was of course at the time the great Kauto Star and Denman were lighting up racing and I was firmly in the Denman camp. That morning as we stopped near Cirencester for petrol who was at the pump next to us but A.P. himself. I managed to splurt out something like "Good luck today" to which he replied "Thanks very much.." The man was an absolute legend (still is of course) and it just made our day. …

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