An Interview with Top Trainer Jonjo O'Neill
The youngest of four brothers, John Joseph O’Neill was born in rural Castletownroche, in northern County Cork. His father Tom was a cobbler, shopkeeper and greyhound trainer.
Photo Credit: Gettys Images
Jonjo’s winning ways started off on the Flat when dead heating on Lana at the Curragh. The following year, he rode his first winner over hurdles on Irish Painter at Downpatrick and then won on his first ride over fences on Stan Royal at Navan. He left Ireland shortly afterwards and came over to the UK, joining Cumbrian trainer Gordon W. Richards.
Here, his first winner was in September 1972 on Alexandra Parade at Stratford – a humble beginning to a hugely successful career, in which he rode nearly a thousand winners. On April 19th 1978, he rode five winners in a day at Perth and was twice champion jockey in ’77-78 and ’79-80. At some point, the British press gave the Irishman the moniker Jonjo, a variation that stuck throughout all aspects of his life.
Gaining an affinity with Cheltenham Racecourse, Jonjo won two Gold Cups: on Alverton in ’79 and Dawn Run in ‘86. He rode the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double on Dawn Run, the only horse to have ever done so. His other Champion Hurdle victory was in ’80 on Sea Pigeon, on whom he won fifteen races, including the ’79 Ebor at York under topweight. He scored a Triumph Hurdle on Peterhof in ’76, as well as the Cathcart on King Weasel.
Winning the Topham, the Ebor and the Gold Cup
The list of top horses Jonjo rode is lengthy, winning six races on Night Nurse including the 1982 Mandarin at Newbury and six on Ekbalco, including a Christmas Hurdle. Despite never getting a clear round in the Grand National, Jonjo won a Topham on Clear Cut in ’74. Yet, he bravely overcame adversity too when breaking his right leg twice; the second time at Bangor in ’80 and, having nearly lost the leg due to the severity of the injury, had thirteen months off to recover. Out of racing, his life was colourful: in March 1981, he received the iconic red book in an episode of This Is Your Life, and that November, he starred on a TV advertisement for milk (watch it here https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=_OIDStBXqz8&feature=you.tu.be ). There are rumours he once had a pop record, though this has subsequently been mislaid over time! An autobiography was published in ’85, ghost written by journalist Tim Richards but many of the notable events in Jonjo’s life had yet to occur.
His last ever winner was on Jobroke at Ascot in April ’86, bringing a close to his successful sixteen-year riding career and he began training at Ivy House Stables in Penrith, Cumbria, during which he survived lymphatic cancer. In 2001, he moved to Jackdaws Castle and, so far, has trained over 2400 winners.
Jonjo’s exploits as a trainer have matched, if not exceeded those as a jockey, tallying up more Cheltenham and Aintree winners than he rode. He’s notched up twenty-seven Cheltenham Festival winners so far with Synchronised winning the Gold Cup in 2012, a Triumph Hurdle winner with Spectroscope, two Stayers’ Hurdles with Iris’s Gift and More Of That, six National Hunt Chases, four Pertemps Finals and a Grand Annual in 2021 with Sky Pirate. He’s been associated with many other big winners, such as Intersky Falcon, Clan Royal, Taquin Du Seuil, three-time Festival winner Albertas Run, Wichita Lineman and Holywell. Don’t Push It won the 2010 Grand National, the only victory in that race for twenty-time Champion jockey AP McCoy and Eastlake was victorious in a Topham with in ’16 under Barry Geraghty.
Jonjo has also trained big winners on the Flat, including the Windsor Castle at Royal Ascot with Gipsy Fiddler in 1990 and, twenty-four years later, the Ascot Stakes in 2013 with Well Sharp, as well as a Northumberland Plate with Tominator. All these notable successes saw him decorated for Outstanding Service to Sport in Gloucestershire in 2016.
Jonjo, 70, is married to Jacqui; they have two sons, the successful jockeys Jonjo Jnr and amateur AJ. He has three children, Louise, Gilli and Tom from his first marriage, plus six grandchildren so far. He lives in the Cotswolds village of Ford, a mile from Jackdaws Castle and has an elderly Jack Russell called Hughie.
Did you have a horsey childhood?
From the age of six, I got on my first pony through the Hunter family and would climb on any of their ponies and donkeys. I then progressed to hunting.
How did you get into racing?
I worked for the local trainer Don Reid for twelve months – he was based in Mallow, near to where Cork Racecourse is now.
Your best days as a jockey:
My win in the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon was special because he was such a tactical ride – I had to produce him late. On Dawn Run in the Gold Cup, I had the weight of the whole nation behind us – she had the heart of a lion.
Your best days as a trainer:
Don’t Push It in the Grand National was the special because it’s such a unique race – everyone globally knows about the National. Synchronised was on song the day he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. That season, all the pieces fell into place, including him winning the Lexus in the December.
Favourite racecourse as a jockey:
Favourite racecourse as a trainer:
Which racecourse do you wish had never closed:
Nottingham as a jumps track – it was a great course.
How has racing changed for the better?
Safety – looking back, jockey helmets were laughable and we never had body protectors.
And, for the worst?
None of the changes racing has made have been negative – it’s kept up with the times.
Which is the best racing party you’ve attended?
All of them – no party is ever bad.
Celebrating Jonjo's 70th birthday on the yard, the 2010 Grand National with owner
JP McManus and alongside Synchronised and AP McCoy with the 2012 Gold Cup
Favourite meal: Gammon, egg and chips.
Favourite drink: A good red wine.
Favourite holiday destination: What’s a holiday?
Favourite music: Country and Western.
TV program you’re watching at the moment: Clarkson’s Farm.
What’s the first car you drove: A red Ford Capri.