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  • Jo O'Neill

April 2021 Diary

Updated: Apr 30


March ended on a positive note, with some of us having the first coronavirus vaccines, including our Romanian yardmen. It’s a long two years since they’ve been able to go home. Getting the jab meant they’re all one step closer. April is always the end of the ‘proper’ National Hunt season, with the Grand National and then the climax at Sandown. Horses begin to be roughed off and as the yards empty, the fields fill up!



On April Fool’s Day, I took Frisco Bay (Frisky) to Uttoxeter. Frisky is looked after by Alex Howitt but she’s just started driving the two-boxes and she was off to Wetherby. I had a great day with Frisky, who looked shiny and smart after being shampooed and plaited up. Richie McLernon had to send him with a circuit to go and another runner came looming but Frisky held on to win. It was his first win after a few placings and it’s always great to give Richie a winner, because he’s the yard’s biggest supporter.

I had a bonus waiting for me back home. After unloading and parking up by the little shed that houses the pressure washer, I saw the old one had been replaced by a gleaming new one. It was brilliant, a couple of blasts and the lorry was clean. There was hot water and bubbly soap, all of which had stopped working on the old one.



On the 3rd, jockey Dickie Johnson retired at Newton Abbot. Another of the old guard, perhaps the final one to retire, after AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty. Over his career, Dickie had ridden fifty-six winners for the Boss. Of these, I’d led up a tiny amount: one at Warwick with my former favourite Dursey Sound, a Worcester win with American Legend and Monbeg Gold over hurdles at Exeter. The last time that I led him up was on March Is On (Marty) at Plumpton in January. I was on my own and asked Flo Wright from Ben Pauling’s to help me saddle, and Dickie was on the verge of coming over but Flo got to him first, collecting the saddle just in time. The last winner Dickie rode for us was in December at Market Rasen when he won on The Manuscript.


Dickie's career began at David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson’s and ended up Champion Jockey four times. His longevity in this sport was admirable. When I was in sixth form, I remember tipping Looks Like Trouble to win the Gold Cup to a few of my teachers, including Mr Thompson my French teacher from GCSE. Dickie was always a gentleman and a hero, very willing to do early weigh outs. He has always been at the forefront of National Hunt with big winners, with that big smile and he’ll be missed.


I felt the pressure on the run up to this year’s Grand National! I was looking after Cloth Cap (Clothy) who was the hot favourite. I think the week before was the worst – paranoid, I felt his legs more than twice a day, and hoped he’d get there in one piece.

Clothy was led up by Nick Healy, who also had a runner in the bumper, Pressure Sensitive (Billy). I opted not to go for the day out, for a few different reasons but the main one was that, bar a well beaten third years ago, I’d had little luck at the big Aintree meeting, gathering as many letters of form to accumulate an alphabet. I preferred to stay at home. The ground was perfect but it wasn’t meant to be. Despite taking to the fences and jumping well, Clothy pulled up before three out, having made a noise. He has given us an amazing year to now and owed us nothing.

Rachel Blackmore made history when becoming the very first female jockey to win the Grand National, adding to the tally of amazing successes at Cheltenham in March. She became a real-life National Velvet when winning on Minella Times, a second winner for owner JP McManus. Rachel is an amazing ambassador to racing, portraying this sport in such a positive light.

We were all bought back to the winter blues when we woke up that Monday to about three inches of thick, fluffy snow! It was like a Christmas card and even though it had melted by lunchtime, it was a cold horrid morning much more usual in January, not April!















The Manuscript in the April snow!







Our seventy-first and final winner of the season was Generation Gap (Gen) on the 16th. His usual groom Megan Petrie was on holiday, so he was

taken by Alex, on her first time driving alone. There were no mishaps and Gen rewarded his owner Mrs Lizzie Wills’ patience with his first success. Gen is a big, dark bay who has the biggest, dopey eyes but he finally came right, which was particularly satisfying after a crushing fall the time before.


On the 19th, the heart-breaking news broke of the death of amateur jockey Lorna Brooke. The whole racing community was numbed. Lorna, 37, was a familiar sight on racecourses, saddling her own horses, often wearing a coat over the top of her mum’s, Lady Susan Brooke, orange and brown colours. In 2016, I had helped Lorna by leading her up on her beloved Spock at Southwell. I couldn’t wear work’s sponsored blouse and the only other item I had was a turquoise t-shirt with ‘Your Mum Would Love Me’ on the front. I apologised when I showed Lorna and she laughed, saying it’d do! I also remember she rushed back as soon as she could after the race, still in breeches and boots but minus the colours, to care for Spock.


Photo Credit: Sarah Matthews


After that, Lorna would always say hello and speak to me. Her smile was bright and she loved everything about racing. Racing also loved Lorna and her passing has left a massive void. I’ll remember her at the races, carrying her saddle, saying hello to everyone and smiling her big, beautiful smile.


Nick won the latest Employee of the Month for having two runners on Grand National day. Nick, 22, attended the British Racing School and started here in January 2018. ‘I became interested in racing from a young age by going to my local track Folkestone and the likes for Newton Abbot when we were holidaying down in Devon,’ says Nick. ‘This sparked my interest, so I went to the BRS on the twelve weeks course and came to Jonjo’s straight after.’ Nick's confidence has improved no end; starting out as someone who used to get decked a lot, he’s now a key member of the team, riding work and driving to the races.


Nick’s first winner came with Ready And Able at Huntingdon, when he was honoured to lead up Derby-winning purple and white of Derrick Smith. Nick’s best days here, so far, have been leading up the Ladbrokes Trophy winner and leading up in the Grand National. ‘My dream is eventually to become a trainer,’ explains Nick. ‘I’d love my own yard where I can train my own horses and one of my reasons coming to Jonjo’s was to learn all about the training side of things. I’d love to go over to Dubai or Australia to ride out there and experience how they train over there.’

Outside of racing, Nick has an interest in estate agenting, and says, “If I wasn’t in racing, or if I left racing, that’s what I would go into.” Nick also plays golf with his brother Oli and dad, saying he lacks the best skill but loves the banter and rivalry between them. Also, with the easing of lockdown regulations, Nick hopes to watch more live football games, especially involving his favourites Arsenal.

Nick receiving his award from the Boss

Head of travelling Harrison Day and Kea Taylor went up for Perth for the three-day meeting with a runner each day. As they were loading up, there were a few jokes about blowing bagpipes, men in kilts and hairy haggises but Kea retorted, “I’m not worried about those, just about exercising Present Chief round the racecourse.” She’s certainly a brave girl!


We finished fifth in the Trainer’s Championship, mainly boosted by big successes of Cloth Cap, Soaring Glory, Time To Get Up, Annie Mc and Sky Pirate. With that slate now wiped clean, we’ll all concentrate on bettering everything next year but only after focusing on summer holidays first!


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