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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

April 2022 Blog

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

April can be summed up as winners, winners and more winners. It was a glorious end to a good season. We notched up eighty-two victories, our best season for seven years. We didn’t have the big winners of last season but hope lies in the many youngsters we look forward to running next season. This term’s success is testament to the boss, the head lads, the jockeys, the owners and all the staff. Everything just clicked into place, like a jigsaw.

On the 16th April, at the Challenger Series Final day at Haydock, Zabeel Champion, a good Flat horse formerly trained by Mark Johnston, won by half a length and then An Tailliur, the absolute little hero, won his seventh hurdle of the campaign. Up in Carlisle, Jamie Brace won on Maypole Class – the sugary icing on what already had been a delicious cake of a day. We had a winner at Worcester in the week but Haydock definitely felt the swansong.

Kevin Brogan won the Conditional Championship by thirteen winners with a total of forty-seven. A huge feat and well deserved after driving hundreds of miles about the country. He’s popular and loved by everyone – we all felt very proud. His friends organised a surprise celebration down his local, The Royal Oak in Andoversford, near Cheltenham. There was fantastic live music, a rich variety of pop mixed with The Dubliners, and the atmosphere fizzed with laughter and chatter, amid the local lads playing pool. Most of the staff went, his weighing room colleagues and staff from other yards he’d ridden winners for. Kev wore a big grin all night, as if he couldn’t quite believe the last few hours.

Despite three (I think) large pink gins, I couldn’t face going clubbing in town so as the young ones were piling into taxis (head of travelling Harrison Day hitting the pavement first) I left for home, with my husband Joe, head lads Alan Berry and Johnny Kavanaugh.

Jonjo Junior rode fifty-nine winners, his third personal best season so far, including his first Grade 1 on Champ. Jonjo Senior turned seventy and that was about April done and dusted. Yet, this being Jackdaws Castle, there’s always a lot more to a month than that…

The runup to this year’s Grand National was a lot less stressful than last year, when Cloth Cap was favourite. At the time, I felt I was in a plot of a Dick Francis novel with all the talk of nobbling and security. This time, the days past normally and calmly; my nerves a lot less jittery.

Easysland was a nonrunner so it was just Clothy. His lad Nick Healy was bursting for their second crack at the National, and with dry weather leading to good ground, he could barely contain his excitement. Clothy was running well until stopping quickly and pulling up. It transpired that he’d bled – the main thing is that he came home.

Our result took nothing away from the fairytale for the Waley-Cohen Family, with son, a true amateur, Sam announcing he’d retire after the Grand National. What a way to bow out and on the biggest stage. He previously won seven races over those fences but the National had illuded him. Yet, then the seven-year-old, Noble Yates ran a blinder and Sam rode a blinder and it was a family dream come true…It was as emotional as only the Grand National can be.

This season, my personal achievement was sending out fifteen winners from down the pens. It was beyond a dream. It’s muddy, cold and I swear there are dozens of fat rats who I feed as much as the horses. I dedicate every winner to all who helped me. My colleagues worked in soggy conditions, rugged up in the wind, trudged through sludge, snow and storms, following whatever scrawled instructions I’d left in the feed bin. A special mention goes to our longsuffering farrier Mark Welfair, who I’d message about lost shoes or runners and who’d have to shoe them in the mud and the rain.

Amid the happy days were the sad ones too. In January, we lost Papa Tango Charly to colic. In 2019, he’d come from the sales with a huge price tag. All his official names could have worked as his nicknames, Tango because he was bright orange, Charly was ok but we used Papa the most. Last summer, he came down to the pens and was the first to be allowed to be free range, and not locked in all night. He won over hurdles that June. Papa first met Clondaw Promise (Clondy) during their summer holidays when they were turned out together, with the aim of being fed up.

One memory makes me smile. I always gave them breakfast early but once, I was a bit behind schedule. When Berry drove up on his rounds of the fields, Papa and Clondy came trotting over, neighing and manes flying. Berry and I hadn’t realised that we’d both fed them for weeks; they’d been happily gobbling down two breakfasts.

Less than a month after Papa died, we lost Clondy due to an injury. He was the sweetest character, always gentle and kind. They were the best of friends, never far apart and Clondy was usually close by Papa’s side. At one point in the winter, they were unbeaten in five races between them, most notably four chases. Those were two sad days but they are now back together, forever in each other’s shadows.

I felt for their grooms, Nick for Papa and Shannon Bishop for Clondy, who both loved them and enjoyed their winning days. To me, they were my big achievement: two horses who’d thrived living down the pens, who’d never won a race before and of whom I was immensely proud.

During the last couple of weeks in April, I had a change of duties. After I finished mucking out down the pens, I went to Slade Barn, the satellite yard, where fourteen horses were on recuperation and respite. There were youngsters on holidays, retired ones and an Irish pointer from the sales. The yard nestles in a dip so there’s no phone signal. My little Jack Russell terrier Daisy curled up in her bed and had a lengthy morning snooze. I loved working away without any distractions. There was the occasional rumble grumble of the machinery in the nearby quarry, the farmer spraying the crops in the neighbouring farmland and the odd squeal from an excited youngster. Apart from these, life at Slade was very quiet.

Sometimes, someone off the yard came to help me finish off, or one of the maintenance men brought over bales of haylage. So, word of the morning on the main yard usually filtered through:

‘… and … have fallen off.’

‘… is going home.’

‘… fell off and … has taken him to hospital.’

'… got kicked in the face.’

'... is now mucking out but is still leaving.’

On reflection, fourteen stables containing fresh, hungry racehorses are still a lot simpler to deal with than most of my boisterous younger colleagues.

I was delighted to take Head Law to Sandown for the jump’s grand finale on the 23rd, not only to watch Kev receive his trophy for Conditional Champion, but just to have a day out. ‘Heady’ had won his last three hurdle races and is the most beautiful horse. His coat is black and shines like glass; he arches his neck and half dances along, so I wasn’t really surprised when he won the BTO. Actually, I was because Donald McCain’s runner and a couple of others were amazingly plaited. I guess Heady was just glossier than the rest.

Head Law happy in the pens

In sunshine that was cooled by a breeze, I was proud to be leading him up as he’s another to have loved living outside in the pens. He ran disappointingly but came back with a hugely swollen knee after giving it a bang. Sky Pirate ran in the Celebration Chase and was running a great race, with the possibility of a place, when blundering in a spectacular way. Jonjo Junior’s UHU was effective and they pulled up soon after. Not the most successful final day of the season but never mind. I spent a sunny day with good friends and a beauty of a horse. I saw a lot of racing pals, grinning widely at McCain’s head of travelling Ludo Gaubusseau in a smart pinstripe suit. I also said farewell to Paul Nicholls’ head of travelling Kate Nutt, for it was her final day. And what a way to sign off with five impressive winners.

Now, we’re all on the blank page of a new season. The excitement and the hopes will start up again but first, let’s enjoy the summer and the holidays.

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Chris Clayton
Chris Clayton
Apr 28, 2022

Lovely recollections, highlighting the ups and downs that these magnificent animals bring us. May the coming season bring all that everyone at Jackdaws would wish for and deserve. 😀☘️

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