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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

August 2021 Diary

The annual fortnight without any jump racing meant that August had been quiet for runners, but the yard had still been hectic due to many of the staff and jockeys being on holiday. The yardies continuously worked really hard, mucking out many extra boxes to cover the people on holiday and all the riders had five lots. Some of the lads rode seven or eight lots straight through lunch and finished up as we returned for evening stables. The mornings often finished an hour late; we were tired but got through it together because of everyone mucking in with the mucking out and riding out!

The play still continued despite the hard work. One Saturday morning, I had finished mucking out down the pens when two riders came to tack up their first lots. They excitedly filled me in on all of the frolics and antics of the previous evening, the words bursting out of them with glee:

‘Jamie had done this…’

‘Kea had done that…’

‘Lilly had done…again...’

‘Tom had done that…’

The pea-green faces and slitty eyes were of nauseating hangovers, and the ribbing and laughter of a still merry string. All due to the staff social down the Plough, kindly put on by Jonjo and Jacqui after the busy fortnight and the many extra hours.

Over a fortnight, Western Power renewed the electricity poles on the estate. A generator and fuel tank were situated on the track going up to the round gallop. The horses got used to its humming and buzzing presence, though a few always used it as an excuse to spook and the rest always cocked an ear towards it suspiciously.

Back in June, I joined Cheltenham Running Club, hoping I’d progress from the running I started and continued sporadically about three and a half years ago. Though I hated PE at school, I have enjoyed the club runs, hoping to lose weight and improve my fitness. The club is full of the loveliest and kindest people. There are the tall, leggy elites, who are like the Cheltenham runners compared to us selling platers! It’s been a fun summer, running reps on Tuesday evenings, road and off-road running on Thursdays and the odd longer runs on a Sunday morning. It’s taken me to parts of Cheltenham and the surrounding area that I’ve never seen before, including seeing the run-in hill from the bottom of the racecourse, where I imagined all the battles that have occurred there at the Festival.

No one minded that I heavy-breathed like I needed a hobday. Slowly but surely, my running improved and I enjoyed it so much more than slogging out kilometres on a treadmill. I’ve suffered a bit of lameness, which improved after a trip to the chiropractor but this summer, I have completed a 5K and three 10Ks, with more planned for the autumn. I bettered my previous 10K time by five minutes to 58:02.

Through Racing Welfare, I completed an online Mental Health First Aid course. It was spread over two weeks, with four sessions from late morning to lunchtime. Attendees included trainers, trainers’ wives, RW employees and a clerk of a course. Everyone was so lovely, and we were taught imaginatively and informatively by two instructors. I became friends with the other two people in my breakout room and got to know them pretty well and laughed a lot with them too. The course portrays a hugely positive step forward in the understanding of mental health in the racing industry. I’ve also started a Mentoring course via Haddon Training so my brain is definitely being stretched at the moment!

Oscar, the fluffy kitten, is now at the lanky stage. He spends the mornings tumbling round the hay barrows. His paws, which look like they’ve been dipped in white, are fleet and he is well able to escape Daisy. He’s now climbing and is fearless. Since he’s become bold, the other ginger cat Gin has been keeping a low profile. She was always about the yard, mewing by the tack room but is now only seen around the farrier’s box; clearly disgruntled at the stripey kitten’s presence.

The owner of Phil The Thrill, Berys Connop, sent the yard ales and beer and many delicious flavours of shortbread. I saw a sheepish Daisy slinking away, a whole biscuit between her jaws but she didn’t eat it initially. She slunk into Delilah’s stable and buried it in the back bank – odd behaviour from a greedy terrier; maybe she prefers a chocolate Hobnob! We send our thanks to Berys, who is laid up on ‘box rest’ after suffering ligament damage from an altercation with her cob. Get well soon!

I was sent some photos of ‘my’ former March Is On and I also saw a video of him looking amazing whilst being reschooled. It’s lovely to hear that a horse I looked after is now happy in retirement and doing dressage. I did have to smile that he’s now called Arty – the former nickname I gave him of Marty must have been lost in translation somewhere along the line!

March Is On happy in retirement!

It had been ages since I’d been racing so I was delighted to go with Powerful Hero (Magic) to Chepstow Racecourse on the 19th, a cloudy but warm day. Chepstow is very familiar to me from all the times I’d gone with jumpers, but I’d not led up there on the Flat since 2003!

It was also the first meeting I’d attended that had none of the coronavirus procedures we’d lived by since last July. There was no health questionnaire to fill in via email, temperature checks, safety questions, wristbands and mask wearing was limited to the dope box and weighing room. I spent the day thinking I had forgotten to put my mask on, flapping my hands around each pocket in a panic, before remembering I didn’t have to wear one. It’s funny how masks became a second skin and it’ll take a little while to get used to the old normality.

Magic was a treasure to shampoo and plait, and he loved being brushed. I swore he thought he was being massaged, leaning into the bristles and curling his head to me. The sunshine smiled fully through the clouds as we walked to the paddock, causing his brownie-black coat to shine. He ran well too – he’s still a big, weak baby and may have a holiday.

Last month’s Employee of the Month went to Joe O’Neill, the boss’ nephew. He came over to the UK to work in October 2010, initially to look after the finance side. After six years, his task changed to Racing Manager. This is a varied role which includes dealing with staff, owners and jockeys and all the odds and ends in a racing yard. He is always scouring through sales catalogues, and represents Jonjo on the racecourse. He is also the first friendly face new staff meet.

Joe, 39, grew up in Castletownroche, County Cork, where his parents, Tom, Jonjo’s older brother, and Breda, train racing greyhounds. During Joe’s childhood, he had a dark grey pony called Silver, who bucked off his young rider daily and is who Joe credits for him not taking more of an interest in being a rider now!

On leaving school, Joe worked in the payment section of the Barry Group, which is associated with Costcutter over here. He stayed for nine years, with a six-month break when he moved to New York to play football. At home, he also played football for Killavullen and hurling for Castletownroche. Joe had always supported his Uncle Jonjo, coming to visit in school holidays when Jonjo trained in Cumbia and was at Aintree when Don’t Push It won the Grand National. Celebrations caused him and younger brother Tom Junior to miss their flight home and travel to Gloucestershire for a night.

'Joe has seen many big winners during his time working here. His most special memories include his favourite winners, Synchronised in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and More Of That beating Annie Power in the World Hurdle.

I know I’m biased, as I’m Joe’s wife, but he is an unsung hero of the yard who works tirelessly, often seven days a week. We initially met in the Plough one November and again at a hunt ball in the first month of him moving over here – a memory Joe can recollect a lot more clearly than I can! We got married on a sunny day in May 2018.

He’s a Newcastle United fan and his favourite meal is steak and chips and his preferred drink is Bacardi and cola. Since Joe’s ‘retirement’ from football, he’s taken part in 10Ks, half marathons and five-aside football teams. Joe loves returning to Cork to visit friends and family, his niece and nephews and to hang out with the greyhounds, cattle and brood mares on the farm.

It won’t be long until ‘proper’ jump racing begins. Summer is slipping away; the vivid greens are here for a while longer but the flowers are curling, colours dropping and combines have started guzzling up the crop fields. One morning, as I fed the pens and started mucking out, a fox was in the tufty grass in one of the paddocks. He was mousing, and even walked within feet of me, totally unalarmed. With black ears pricked and paws gathered up, he kept pouncing, his muzzle sharp as a point. Maybe he's one of the ones I hear shrieking in the woods when the mornings are dark. He eventually gambolled under the fence and into the trees, busy tail flicking.

Summer Love between Clondaw Promise and Papa Tango Charly

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