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An Interview with Jockey Jonjo O'Neill Junior

At 25, Jonjo O’Neill Junior is following in the footsteps of his legendary father and namesake, who won many big races as a jockey during the 1980s and has trained even more since. Father and son have become a formidable duo on the racecourse and have big hopes for this coming winter with their yard overflowing with youngsters. Nowadays, Jonjo Senior is aided by Jonjo Junior, who often plots and plans each individual horse’s campaign plus his youngest son, AJ, who is Assistant Trainer and has ridden winners as an amateur.

Jonjo O'Neill Junior and Senior after Junior's 2019 Festival win

Photo Credit: Racing Post

Amongst other big wins, Jonjo rode the winner Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ race at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival on Early Doors, ’21 Midland Grand National on Time To get Up and his first Grade 1 last season for Nicky Henderson on Champ, all in the famous green and gold colours of JP McManus. He also won the 2021 Betfair Hurdle on Soaring Glory, a Denman Chase on Gold cup-hero Native River and a Lanzarote Hurdle on Big Time Dancer.

Jonjo was born in Carlisle, Cumbria and moved with his family to Gloucestershire in 2001. He still lives there now in Andoversford, near Cheltenham with his miniature dachshund, Vinnie. He goes out with Éva Shoemark, whose brothers Conor and Kieran have ridden many winners between them.

Did you have a horsey childhood? I started with a palomino Shetland called Peacock, who used to drop me all the time and escape out of the school by running under the white railings because he was so small!

I went through Pony Club with a Connemara called Starboy who was super – not always an easy ride but he taught me so much. I had a few racing ponies through my teens, and that’s when I really got the bug.

What is your first racing memory? Black Jack Ketchum, who was a phenomenal little horse trained by Dad when I was a boy. He wasn’t big but very talented and won many good races, including Grade 1s. He was owned by family friends of ours, Derek and Gay Smith, which made it extra special.

Growing up, which jockeys did you admire? AP McCoy. I was very lucky to be brought up with him around. I admired how mentally and physically tough he was; how he used to lift horses from nowhere to the line to the win – it was always a trademark of his.

I also loved Kieran Fallon and Frankie Dettori – both had very different styles but were both so effective. I always found it fascinating how these great jockeys had such different styles but were all still brilliant.

When did you realise you wanted to become a jockey? By the time pony racing came along for me, I already had my mind set on being a jockey. I used to take my Connemara pony up the gallops behind the racehorses and I always rode ‘up the skutts’, thinking I was a jockey. Poor Starboy would only last about two furlongs before he was out on his feet!

What race days do you particularly remember as a kid? I was lucky enough to be at the 2010 Grand National when Don’t Push It won and the 2012 Gold Cup when Synchronised won. I’m grateful I was old enough to really appreciate what had happened.

More recently, I’ll never forget the 2020 Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury when Cloth Cap won. I couldn’t ride him as he had bottom weight. Early on, I had fallen on one of Colin Tizzard’s, but I was standing by the last fence as Tom Scudamore jumped the last on Cloth Cap. I probably haven’t screamed as hard in my life. At the time, I was riding a lot for Dad and it had been a few years since we’d had a big winner. I was just over the moon for the yard and the team, but especially for Dad.

Winning the Denman Chase on Native River

What is it like having a former Champion Jockey as a father? People would always say to me that I have ‘huge boots to fill’ but I never look at that as a negative or something daunting. I honestly take it as a challenge and something to work towards. Dad was a fantastic jockey and was so popular (partly, I think, because he was such a nice guy), which makes me immensely proud. To ride 149 winners in a season back in the ‘80s was just unbelievable, and only by me riding now, do I really appreciate what an achievement it was. Obviously, his wins on Dawn Run in the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup, (a feat that hasn’t been achieved since and on a mare too), has put Dad into racing folklore, which makes me proud.

Best days as a jockey so far: I’ve been very fortunate to have had some great winners so far. Winning on Champ, who’s named after AP and owned by Mr JP McManus and family was very special as it was my first Grade 1.

Winning the Betfair Hurdle on Soaring Glory was brilliant because it was my first big winner for Dad. We’d brought him as an unbroken three-year-old so have witnessed his progression all the way through. He is owned by Pat and Nan Hickey who are great supporters of ours and good friends. I recommended Pat buy the horse when he was visiting the yard so I was delighted his faith paid off.

Another day I’ll never forget was winning the last race of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival on Early Doors for Joseph O’Brien and JP. Winning at the Festival was something I had dreamt of since I was seven, riding the arm of the sofa, pretending it was at the Festival. The McManus family have been very good to my own family and have known me since I was born – so it was literally the stuff of dreams.

The Betfair Hurdle on Soaring Glory

What race would you most like to ride the winner of? The Cheltenham Gold Cup – it’s the pinnacle of our sport and, I think, everyone hopes to be riding a Gold Cup horse, let alone a Gold Cup winner.

Who is your racing hero? My Dad. He came from a very modest background out of racing, travelled over to England and made something of himself from nothing. He was Champion Jockey twice and won a Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup twice as a jockey. He overcame serious racing injuries, had cancer twice and managed to win the Gold Cup and Grand National as a trainer. He is the hardest man I know and has got so much experience in every aspect of life.

To be honest, Dad’s just a complete inspiration.

What’s been your best racing celebration so far? I couldn’t possibly say, not that I’d remember much of it! I just hope that there are a few more to come.

What are your future aims? Every jockey’s aim should be Champion Jockey. It’s the top accolade a jockey can get and it’s something I’m striving towards. But you have to be realistic and, frankly, I don’t have enough ammunition at the moment to be in contention, but it’s something in the future I can hope that can happen. At the moment, I’d would love to land a really good horse that could win a lot of top races, season after season, a real champion. That would be the dream.

If you could ride the winner of either the Champion Hurdle or Champion Chase, then which one? I’d love either. They are both races that I’ve been in awe of ever since I got into racing as a boy. But to be on a Champion Hurdle winner…there is no fluke and the horses have to be so sleek in their jumping. I think it’s speed in the highest form in the National Hunt division – as well as being the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. It adds to the occasion and it would be incredible to win.

Favourite racecourse: Cheltenham as it’s my local track and has an atmosphere like no other. It is the theatre of dreams and I hope I can have some more great days there in the future.

On Champ

Least favourite racecourse: I only have Ayr and Hexham to complete until I’ve ridden a winner at all the jump tracks in the UK. However, Sedgefield has always been a bit of a bogey track despite having a winner there. It’s not my most favourable but hopefully that’ll change!

Favourite meeting: I love the Grand National meeting at Aintree. The buzz is brilliant, it’s slightly more relaxed than Cheltenham and the Liverpudlian people are great craic. Yet, my favourite does have to be the Cheltenham Festival – the whole season is geared towards those four days and it’s our sport’s Olympics. It’s so competitive, which makes it special to win there.

Is there any horse from the past that you wish you could have ridden? Kauto Star. To win the Tingle Creek over two miles and the King George over three miles as a six-year-old, and then going onto win the Gold Cup later on that season is just phenomenal. To continue holding that level of consistency, especially winning five King Georges, is just unheard of and probably won’t be done again.

Favourite snack: Jaffa Cakes

Favourite meal: I love a really good steak.

Favourite holiday destination: I haven’t been for years but I loved Barbados.

Favourite music: I love classics like Queen and Elton John – I always have their albums playing in my car. I like lots of rap and hip hop, like Stormzy, Dave, Aitch and ArrDee.

Ideal day off: I never get them! But a good Sunday lunch with some of my old school friends and some jockeys I’m close to that live around the Cotswolds.

Other hobbies: During covid, I got into cycling. When I have the time, I like to read and I’d always listen to an audiobook in the car on a long journey. I love watching any good sport too – I’m a big football fan and love watching all high-end sports.

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