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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

April 2024 Blog

Updated: May 7


Team Jackdaws began April stuffed full of the delicious Easter Eggs we were treated to by Assistant Trainer AJ O’Neill. He must’ve been quite a sight leaving Booker Wholrsale! The relentless rain finally eased into sporadic sunshine and the grass grew lush and emerald. Before we knew it, it was the end of the winter season with three horses leaving for Punchestown. The pens had sent out a total of eight winners for the season, making me proud. We’d battled the elements during evening stables and the riders had faced so many rainy lots in the mornings that it had felt an endless winter.

Roll on the summer, sunshine and holidays before we do it all again.

 

Minnie

My Aintree Grand National dream died at the Cheltenham Festival when Monbeg Genius (Minnie) overreached badly into a front leg. Luckily, there was no damage to the tendon so he recovered well and was roughed off by the middle of April. It would have been amazing to lead up in the Grand National, as opportunities to look after a runner in it are few, and there’s such pomp and fanfare in the preliminaries.

Half of me was disappointed that this year’s National wasn’t meant to be, but then the other half felt relief. Minnie had only had one decent run when third in the ‘Hennessy’, and his ownership was under fierce scrutiny in the press. Minnie has a big team behind him as he is universally loved within the yard. He’s a huge character and has this cheeky, beautiful face and the tiniest of ears. When fresh, he squeals and broncs but when he’s in full work, anyone can ride him because he becomes really quiet.

I’ll always be proud of looking after Minnie and leading him up. I feel uncertainty for next season – who knows how he’ll run but I hope he can have more runs like at Newbury.

 

Couch To 5K

This season, leading up difficult horses left me feeling shattered, a day’s racing tired me out and a morning of extra mucking out made me weak. After no longer riding out, mucking out has proved limited for maintaining fitness. It is hard to juggle work and motherhood; sometimes, I fall asleep on the sofa, awakening with a crick in my neck halfway through another repeat of Heartbeat or in the bath, when the water turns chilly. This led me to start my own interval training, downloading the Couch To 5K app and choosing Radio 2 presenter Jo Wiley for voiceover encouragement.

Before having a baby, I used to run three times a week in a running club round Cheltenham and I have missed it for fitness and mental health. It is early days of returning to run but it feels good to be back out again. I'll never be a natural: I’m clumsy, flat footed, cumbersome – the total opposite to Daisy, my little Jack Russell, who is a demoralising running partner. She is fleet on her tiny paws as she always beats me, barely out of a canter, veering off to sniff plenty and still passing me out in a couple of strides. As a goal, I’ve booked into run a 5K in the summer round York Racecourse. It’s called the Chocolate Run so I’m hoping that’s the added incentive I need to keep going.

               

What makes some horses difficult to lead up?

Though it's rare, some are just horrible to handle at the races. It often isn’t through inexperience or being young; a few aren’t easy for their whole careers; maybe it’s due to a lack of manners or unbridled excitement.

Back in the autumn, I took one that, though I am experienced, I could hardly control. Even in the pre-parade ring, he was difficult, though it's hard to express in which way. He was fine most of the way round until the same end of the pre-parade when he snaked his long neck and became increasingly unmanageable.

To saddle, the horse stood like a statue but in the paddock, our conditional jockey Ben Macey, who also often drives to the races, took the offside rein and we struggled together. The more we circled the parade ring, the more awful the horse became. He wasn’t exactly strong but, in the end, he was stomping his front leg so violently, that he was nearly lying down on us. It took all of Ben’s and my technique to keep the three of us upright. I was being propelled around, pretty much helpless, ever grateful for Ben’s assistance. The horse nearly got loose when the Boss legged up the jockey. I had the rein wrenched out my hand but luckily Ben kept hold of his side. We got the jockey on at the second attempt and they thankfully cantered off.

I don't ever mind taking bolshy horses or hard horses to lead up – in fact, I actually like the ones that march purposely round paddock, the ones who eagerly anticipate the race, but this one was something else. Even after the race, he wasn't any easier, particularly as he went wobbly with overheating and nearly collapsed. I certainly earnt my overtime and driving home, I felt incredibly exhausted and flaky.

Since then, whoever takes that horse saddles him in the stable yard and they go up to the paddock much later on, doing as few laps as possible before the jockey gets on and not circling repeatedly. He's also been given to Ionut Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Ungureaunu to lead up: Gabby is bigger and stronger than the average stable girl and has got a reputation as a bit of a horse whisperer, so it's a great combination and life leading up this particular horse has become so much easier.

 

Fly High Zondy

When ‘my’ Arriverderci retired from racing, his perfect replacement was another grey French-bred by Martaline running in the same red and green colours of Sir and Lady Broughton. Both were gorgeous, dappled greys who turned lighter and whiter with age. Like Arrivederci, Zonda danced and pranced his way through the Owners’ day parade so I again thought he might be a handful at the races – but no, both were gentlemen to lead up.

I loved Zondy, and I sadly lost him at Warwick on 25th April when he sustained a fatal injury. I take a lot of comfort in the quick actions of the veterinary team and he did not suffer. He was the kindest, most genuine horse, who despite never having won, always ran with credit and was placed every time. He’s one that I’ve squirreled away in my heart with the few racehorses that I have lost early over the years.

Zonda, AJ and the Boss' final ever winner as a sole trainer


The 2023-24 season was an end of an era when the Boss’ name of Jonjo O’Neill will be no longer be against our runners, having been joined on the licence by youngest son AJ O’Neill for the new season, under the moniker O’Neill Racing. The Boss’ final winner was Cawthorne Banker was at Kempton on the 22nd, and the day after the finale at Sandown, we had a party down the Plough Inn at Ford in celebration of the Boss and over 2500 winners he’d trained.


Another change is the shift from the old white board, dotted strategically with many little magnets on a huge grid that showed what every horse was to do, from being ridden to walker, racing, swimming or even days off. This 'riding out board' had informed every individual riders of their lots and what particular exercise they’d be doing.

All this information is now on a big screen near the feed room, which AJ updates every afternoon for the next morning; lots of coloured squares now inform riders of the needed information. There’s been a few glitches and, of course, changes cannot be scribbled on with a marker or rubbed off but it’s so innovative. O’Neill Racing is moving with the times!

 

Colleague Spotlight

Chloe Cullen, 21, is a Dubliner who did not have a horsey childhood but has made a solid career working in racing. She has a tiny frame but is very able to ride out and handle the horses. On the 13th April 2022, she led up her first ever winner when Steady The Ship prevailed over fences at Southwell and this season had two lovely wins with Regal Blue, the latest on ITV Racing on Midland Grand National day. Chloe has gone from being mouse-quiet to finding her feet, and now shows lots of character – she’s come on so much in every way and is an asset to the yard, whether on a horse, the yard or a racecourse

At home, Chloe has two dogs, Marley and Tilly, and two cats, Bubba Jay and Olly. Through work, she met her boyfriend Madalin Marian ‘Doc’ Radu, who is the head of maintenance and they’ve been dating for nearly three years. This month, they left for their annual trip to Romania but went via Dublin so Doc could finally meet Chloe’s family and friends.


How did you get into racing? I started riding at 16 when the school asked me to join their polocrosse team. All the horses were ex-racehorses and I fell in love with racehorses, so I decided that racing was that I wanted to do.

 

How did come to Jonjo O’Neill’s? I googled racing and got a place at the Northern Horseracing College for twelve weeks. They sent me to Alastair Ralph’s, which was a smaller yard with less opportunities to ride out so I was unhappy. My roving tutor sent me to Jonjo’s and I was very quickly put on my first horse to ride, who was the legendary Locks Corner.

 

Favourite horses: I loved Gwennie May Boy because he had kind eyes, would do anything you asked me to do and was never naughty but could be cheeky. He was sent to Dan Skelton’s and has done amazingly well.

Riding out, first ever winner and with Regal Blue at Haydock


Favourite aspects to Jonjo’s: Doc, working with legends like Alan Berry and Johnny Kavanagh, looking after and riding the nicest horses I have ever met and having a laugh with everyone.

 

Worst aspects to Jonjo’s: Losing horses, early mornings, not being able to go home often enough and riding out in bad weather.

Choe's TV winner with Regal Blue


Best day in racing so far: When Gwennie May Boy won his first race. I’d been riding him for a year and his odds were 80-1. I was proud and happy and a bit shocked. A very close second, was Regal Blue winning at Uttoxeter – it was my first winner on TV.

 

Favourite jockey: Kevin Brogan.

 


Favourite racecourse: Newton Abbot: it’s in beautiful Devon, has an easy lead up and good food in the canteen.

 

Hopes/dreams/aspirations for the future: To pass my driving test, work abroad and travel and to have one of the horses I looked after in a yard in their retirement from racing.

 

Favourite meal: Just rice but Doc cooks amazing Romanian dinners, such as salami.

Favourite drink: Tea.

Favourite treat: Brownies.

Favourite holiday destination: Romania. Doc took me home with him last year and I loved every minute. We visited Dracula’s Castle, saw mountains, two bears and beautiful beaches, and ate amazing food.

Favourite music: Anything in the top charts.

Favourite film: The Greatest Showman.

Ideal day off: A date with Doc at Buongiorno café and a movie night at home.


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01 de mai.
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5 star as per normal. Great story again.

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