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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

December 2020 Diary

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

I do love the frosty mornings, especially the silver haw frosts; cobwebs are sparkling lace, the ground twinkles like a surface of diamonds and, before twilight, the stars are like thrown glitter.

The bad side to the first heavy frost was that each padlock on the pens’ gates had frozen solid. Head lad Johnny Kavanaugh sorted out a kettle to keep in the shed to thaw them out in the future.

The frosty, sunny weather was mostly in the runup to this year’s Ladbrokes Trophy, or for those of us in a time warp, the Hennessy. Nick Healy officially looks after our runner, Cloth Cap, but as he lives out down the pens, he’s under my daily care. ‘Clothy’ is a beautiful bright bay with a large star, shaped more like a splodge. He is rather grumpy and treats me with disdain – he has these little shark eyes that glare at me like I’m the biggest nuisance in his life, even though I feed him, muck him out and rug him up against the cold. He’ll often threaten to kick by lifting a hind leg and I’m not convinced it’s purely a threat! Some mornings, I can’t even check his legs as he’ll squarely present me with his backend. Yet, I love him – he’s no nonsense, a pie and a pint man with no regard for frivolities.

Photo Credit: Francesca Altoft Photography

On the Thursday morning before the Ladbrook Trophy, jockey Tom Scudamore came to school Clothy. I did the first canter on him and met the jeep on the schooling ground. It was torrential rain, but when I legged Tom up, I said, “You’ll enjoy this”. You could tell he did – Cloth Cap pinged five fences; Tom’s big grin said more than any words. The next day, I did Clothy’s two canters and he felt very well. He was wearing a hackamore; he poked his nose and shot away; I had zero control!

On Ladbrokes Trophy afternoon, I watched at home and I was screaming at the TV, shaking and loving every leap (especially the fourth last, when I thought he should be tiring). It was our first big winner in years and every stride was amazing. It was the boss’ first victory in the race, Tom’s third and also owner Trevor Hemmings’ third.

The most poingnant moment was when, in the winner’s enclosure, Clothy posed in the photographer’s own cloth cap. In Mr Hemmings’ absence, he was still there in spirit.

I had a break from racing for ten days, before a trip to a dark, wet Leicester on December 3rd. Harrison Day drove the runners to Market Rasen and The Manuscript won under Richard Johnson. When I heard that, I was delighted: it was another win for my pens and a first winner for groom Shannon Bishop on her first day’s racing!

The following day I left stupidly early to go to a cold, freezing and very rainy Sedgefield with At First Glance. One aspect of racing that is truly heart-warming is how my fellow travelling heads helped me out, because I had gone up there alone.

Alex Walters, head of travelling to Jamie Snowden, collected my saddle from the jockey and passed it onto Ludo Gaubusseau, head of travelling to Donald McCain. He then legged it over to Stuart ‘Stretch’ Baker, head of travelling to Harry Whittington, who was slightly hindered by his runner being in the dope box. Nevertheless, he brought my saddle back to the pre-parade and saddled with me. All this in abysmal, slanting rain!

These amazing people in racing help each other every day purely because they want to, and because we’re friends, basically family, due to being all involved with this sport.

December 7th was a sad day when, up at Musselburgh, Bhutan (Boo) was fatally injured. He lived down the pens with fellow grey Dream Berry. Last November, he was amateur AJ O’Neill’s first winner at Ludlow, when we literally drove through torrential rain and floods to get there! Boo had the sweetest nature, was never nasty and I was sad to lose him.

On the 11th, it was great to go to Cheltenham. However, it was a lot different, quieter than when I had last been there on Gold Cup day. Sydney Smith and I took Tegerek, who had won there in October and had been third in the Greatwood. He is quirky and it was so frustrating when he planted when leaving the paddock, because he is talented. Helped by jockey Kevin Brogan, he went down the chute backwards but then stopped again on the track, where he should’ve cantered down. The stewards were forced to withdraw him – it’s sad for his syndicate owners. It was his first run in the famous tartan and red colours of Sea Pigeon. There were plenty of four-letter expletives, and none more so, when unsaddled, Teg jig-jogged all the way back to the stable yard.

The next day was a far better day when Sky Pirate won at Cheltenham under the yard’s new favourite jockey Tom Scu! It was the first Cheltenham winner for owner and the yard sponsor Martin Tedham and for groom Lauren Hay. It was another fabulous, confident ride by Tom and mostly, it was great to be winning races round Cheltenham again.

Fame And Concrete won a bumper at Southwell on the 13th, which was a rainy Sunday, but he won impressively by thirteen lengths. He’s looked after by Georgia Plumb and is owned by Pat and Nan Hickey, all of whom have shared plenty of success with Soaring Glory. Hopefully, this fella can be similarly successful!

I drove two up to Catterick on the 15th and was delighted by a new lorry park. Lorries no longer had to line side-by-side in a boggy field, dotted with tussocks and cow pats. The canteen was its usual delicious self, with a vast array of cakes and bakes.

Our Employee of the Month went to Kea Taylor. Kea, 20, only started here in October and is flying in her new job, loving going racing and riding work. Her first two lead ups were winners with ‘her’ Maypole Class, who also won best-turned-out at Bangor. Kea attended the Northern Horseracing College in 2019 after growing up surrounded by ponies, horses and dogs. Having previously worked for Jedd O'Keeffe, Kea also worked in her mum’s livery yard near Doncaster prior to getting this job, via her friend Sydney. She said “My mum, who also came from a horsey family, worked at the former trainer’s David Barons in her early twenties and my Grandad owned a racehorse, Baylaw Star. I think from there, everything just grew, until we ended up with a yard of our own and a big collection of ponies!”. Kea has competed in ridden showing and dressage but loves nothing more than jumping, going up to 75cm with her own mare at home.

“I dream of one day, having my own yard in the countryside,” said Kea when asked about the future. “where I can live on site and have a few liveries. In the meantime, I’d just like to improve enough in my riding to ride a bigger variety of horses.”

I went to one of my favourite little racecourses on the 17th, Hereford. It was a crisp, sunny day and had a second with Cawthorne Lad over hurdles. We had stickers for arm numbers instead of the old armbands. There was a smattering of spectators, many in Christmas jumpers and everyone wore face coverings – the new normal for us all. Yet, it was not long before the risk of Covid-19 grew again and spectators were, once again, no longer permitted and, in high risk tiers, nor were owners. The coronavirus pandemic is still very much present, as much in every day life as well as in racing.

On the 19th, I drove three runners to Ascot, with John Dina and Megan Petrie. The day started off amazingly when Megan’s Morning Spirit (Sprigget) won the first. Perhaps he was lucky when Ben Pauling’s runner fell when upsides at the last, but I was delighted to have driven an Ascot winner and for Meg to have a winning lead up on her first ever visit there. John and my runners were far from winners but Sprigget made it a great day!

Mr and Mrs Jackdaws, John and Megan, with Morning Spirit at Ascot

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there could not be the usual Christmas party. Yet, certain aspects still occurred. PA Clare Bowring and I organised goodie bags for the staff, which included a mug with a festive staff photo on it, sweets and an alcoholic miniature. Then, we also held the Jonjo O’Neill Racing Christmas Awards with categories that had been voted for by the staff. There may have been rigging of those votes and a lot of bias too! For the prize-winners, I ordered fourteen rosettes, choosing navy and purple to match the yard colours.

The award winners were Lauren Hay for the Finest Filly; Moodiest Mare went controversially to Georgia; secretary Jade Aspell won the Loudest in the Yard but mostly due to the tunes she loves belting out whilst on the gallops and Biggest Party Animal went to yardie Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea for his hostel is known as Club Fred most weekends. For instance, one Saturday when I arrived back late from racing, there were disco lights flashing in the window, wolfish howls and females screams all emitting from Fred’s hostel to ‘Eye of the Tiger’. The votes for Stallion of the Year unanimously went to head of travelling Harrison, whereas Best Gelding went to Luis Ruse. I accidentally gave the Best Groom and Horse Combination to yardie Ionut Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Ungureanu and Locks Corner, whereas it should’ve been Gabby and As You Like. The Best Rider and Horse Combination rightly went to head lad Alan Berry and Ashfield Paddy, who is far from easy and has to be ridden out alone. Golden Oldie was won by the other head lad Johnny; Rear of the Year went to Lauren Hall, the Quietest in the Yard to Shannon and the Wooden Spoon was won by Sydney, whose rosette was acquired and worn by Nick for a while! Votes for the Yard Clown unanimously went to conditional Phil Armson; Mr and Mrs Jackdaws went to Megan and John, which was fitting after such a good day together at Ascot and John also won Fall of the Year. He did not receive a rosette but a pair of orange armbands, for his fall was into the pool whilst swimming a horse!

Next year, I’m thinking of organising a Secret Santa!

'My' former Imperial Command (Pumba) who I took to Tatts to be sold back in October, won first time out for his new connections on the all-weather up at Newcastle. I was chuffed to see him doing so well as he was a bit of a legend to us all. It would have been an early Christmas present for trainer Mark Loughnane and his yard!

Sadly, on the 22nd, I missed out on the opening of the Cloth Cap Café due to taking March Is On (Marty) to Huntingdon. Back in July, the yard won the big yard section of the Lycetts Team Champion Award and in August we had a mobile home delivered. It was dank, smelly and the maintenance team had to knock down walls, remove many items including a horribly stained mattress and a dirty kitchen and bathroom. There were many skips filled from its contents but the end result is stunning. It has been transformed into a relaxing space for evenings watching races and probably will be the next party centre! Round the outside of the newly painted building were a string of blue fairy lights – just as long as another type of blue flashing lights don’t appear there one night!

On Christmas Eve, we were allowed to ride out in festive costumes, so there were many Christmas jumpers, Santa hats and reindeer antlers. Regrettably, my light up Santa Stop Here sign flew off halfway up my first canter. After that, I opted for red tinsel! It really was a jolly morning until I heard rumours that there was a plot to throw me in the pool as it was my birthday (it was -3C, so very cold). The new head lad and assistant trainer Ed Telfer told me not to go to the tack room. I stashed my tack until later that afternoon and escaped without a dunking!

I was meant to be at Kempton on Boxing Day but Dream Berry was a non-runner. Therefore, delightfully, I had the joys of a full weekend off and watched a fabulous King George whilst munching on a multitude of chocolates and biscuits I’d been gifted.

Joe, Daisy and I hope everyone had an amazing Christmastime and wish everyone a very happy and healthy New Year.

Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards 2021

At the end of November, I received an email that I had been shortlisted to the final ten in the Community Award. More brilliant though was that Alan Berry had been shortlisted in the Leadership Award, which greatly satisfied me as I had written his nomination. Alan has changed the workings and routine within the yard for the better; he has modernised yard life and is a joker. He is always there to answer questions and queries and has been a massive part of Jackdaws Castle for nearly twenty years.

For Round Two, there were telephone interviews. I found these quite hard as I’m not the most confident of people over the phone, but it was a really good and a different experience! I felt proud of myself and Alan for getting shortlisted and though we never got through to the final three, it was brilliant to have finished in the top ten. I wish the finalists lots of luck for the virtual ceremony in February.

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