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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

December 2021 Blog

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

December had many very busy moments; some were great and others weren’t so great. The weather or traffic, to name a couple of factors, were troublesome at times… Storm Arwen hit on the weekend of the 27th November. It brought high winds that swirled noisily around the cottage all night and freezing temperatures, culminating in a downed tree at the bottom of the short gallop. I started work early to muck out, but was rerouted by the tangle of ivy and branches lying prostrate across the road, which made me reverse.

I was due to be driving the four-box to Bangor-on-Dee with two runners with Jessie Kennedy and was bringing the lorry round when I was called and informed that the meeting had been abandoned: it was just before 6:50 am. That wasn't a surprise – the lorry’s tyres had left black furrows in the snowfall, which then continued until about third lot.

With nowhere to drive to, I gained four lots and riding out the first two, as it snowed, was hellish. Snow looks pretty on Christmas cards but in reality, it's so hard, especially riding out. Snowflakes, so seemingly soft and fluffy, are more like icy bullets flying into our faces, stinging and blinding us. It was actually impossible to see where we were going and, heads bowed, we all had to trust our horses who, despite also hating the snow, were all very well behaved, as if they knew they had to be. Impacted snow from their hooves flew up like lethally aimed snowballs. When the snowfall stopped, conditions improved and the sun came out but the pelting of snowballs continued, even though the scenery was sparkly under its powdery covering of white. The snow plough, attached to the yard’s blue tractor soon zipped up and down, depositing hillocks of snow at the side of the roadways.

The next morning, we got to work extra early to leave for Carlisle, planning to be on the road by 6 am, a convoy of two little lorries. There was still lots of snow around that was crunchy under foot and other parts were as icy and slippery as an ice rink. I had to defrost the ramps on the lorries with hot water before we could lower them. I received the first phone call from the boss to say the racecourse was hopeful at just after 6. We stopped for breakfast at the Ashchurch BP garage and were at the night pay when the next phone call came at 6:45, saying it was off. Of course, we finished getting our breakfast and turned back towards home. I did enjoy the day off!

Head of maintenance, Federico Bazan, proved pretty heroic that evening. As we watched TV there was a lot of commotion outside our cottage windows. Cars couldn’t get through the village of Ford due to the snow, where the road is twisty and steep up and down. There were many cars backing up, slipping and sliding, revving and stalling. Federico collected the snowplough and cleared the undulations. After a few minutes, the cars were flowing again. He really is a hero.

The yard had a smattering of winners at the beginning of December. On the 4th, Bean In Trouble (Beanie, who is often known as the Mean Bean for he’s very grumpy) won under Will Kennedy at Wetherby and When You’re Ready (unfortunately nicknamed Wendy) won over fences under Kevin Brogan at Chepstow. Wendy’s groom John Dina was especially delighted as he loves the grey, revelling in his quirky, inquisitive nature. In fact, both winners were greys and despite their dapples, it definitely wasn’t a grey day.

Photo Credit: Chepstow Racecourse

Our head of travelling Harrison Day returned to work, his broken ankle mended, though he won’t be leading up for the foreseeable future. He was straight back to driving home the winners. On the 7th, my helper down the pens, Shannon Bishop, had a brilliant day when her Clondaw Promise (Clondy) won once again at Uttoxeter – he’s had a great start to the season with a second and two wins. Clondy is a sweet horse; he's gentle and kind and has found a best friend in Papa Tango Charly.

Papa then won for the second time in as many runs over fences when travelling again up to Carlisle (after a 4am departure on the 12th. Since moving down to the pens (which seems idyllic, but turned to a muddy swamp after the snow from Storm Anwen had melted), he has thrived and found his happiness. He and Clondy are never far apart. I know the winning streak will peter out at some point but right now, I’m just so proud of the two of them.

The one aspect of riding racehorses that I really miss is the working; galloping them on the mile ‘long’ gallop to finetune their fitness. Horses at Jonjo’s are never over galloped, so most of them enjoy a blast up the hill, though there are always the thinkers who don’t keep up, or the really slow ones. It’s been three or four seasons since I last worked and I still miss it now, especially when I see a group gallop over the brow of the hill in a solid wave of thudding hooves, flying manes and bannering tails.

The boss Jonjo generally drives the Jeep beside the workers, clocking their every step as well as logging the time of each piece of work. He also notes other details such as the clarity of a horse’s wind or its ability to settle, being keen or lazy amongst a whole list of other factors! Riders usually work in groups of four: two leaders upsides and two upsides behind. All being well, the rider situated behind on the left-hand side goes to join the leading pair and the one who remains in behind gets pelted by lots of kickback.

I clearly remember that when walking over to the ‘long’ the horses’ excitement grew. Some sweated into a white lather, or jig-jogged and danced sideways and some clinked at the bit between their teeth or yanked at the reins; they knew that it was going to be different than a normal canter. Then, with a shout from someone in behind, the workers bounced off in time together. Worst case scenario was getting left behind or leaving too much ground to be sensibly made up. The horses jumped off to the revs of the Jeep as the wind howled in my ears, accompanied by the horses’ snorting breaths. The rubber and sand surface flew up, and on other days rain smashed my face. There might have been a crack of a whip or chink of stirrup irons clashing or someone might have called out something. It was a wonderful feeling when your horse worked well, on the bridle and relishing the gallop or if he got his neck down to try really hard for you. It was also a buzz if you and your pair worked well together, as if synchronised, matching speed and going stride by stride. This always made it a satisfying morning's work and it gave me hope that the horse would run well in their allotted race.

Of course, there were the mornings when everything went wrong – when I couldn’t hold one or, most frequently, when one was too slow or wrongly matched up so I’d be tailed off. Unlike jockeys, I could never push a horse out so I looked really bad, and felt even worse. This happened once too often and I eventually hung up my ‘working’ boots, as it wasn’t helping the horses, let alone my own confidence. The nearest I now get to riding work is ‘swinging’. That’s nothing to do with swapping fun times with other couples, but rather doing a fast canter upsides in a group. That’s when I’m almost working again, loving every stride and remembering the joy of riding a proper good piece of work.

On the 8th, all those ‘contributory factors’ colluded to give me a challenging day. I jumped at the chance to go to Hexham, in Northumberland, a racecourse I had yet to tick off the list. I knew I’d have to leave pretty early to take the Deva Racing Syndicate-owned mare, Flames Of Passion (Pash), who was running in the 3:20. I got loaded up and set off. We were trundling along until, at the big Warwick roundabout, a woman jumped out of her car to tell me that the rear lorry door was open. So, I jumped out, shut it and jumped back in only to have her waving me down again. I stopped at a nearby BP filling station and rang my husband, Joe O'Neill, to tell him that there is no way I could secure the door. I tried with string, a lead rope and two head collars but it kept coming open.

In the meantime, he had called our new mechanic Rob, who was only about fourteen minutes away in Wellesbourne, and asked me to drive there so that Rob could fix it. Off I go, only to be pulled by a police car with its blue lights flashing a frenzy. Despite stressing that the mechanic was ten minutes away, she said I couldn’t go and I had to reverse back into where there was a Starbucks. Rob, with his big bushy beard and mechanic’s van, came out and screwed the door shut from the inside. All along, the brilliantly quiet Pash stood like a statue, calmly tugging at her haynet.

I set off, flying along, until a crash on the M1 caused us to become backed up in a queue of traffic. I was really worried I wouldn’t get to Hexham racecourse in time but I did, arriving at 2pm. After being scanned in at the gate, the first friendly face I saw was a friend, Jamie Duff, head of travelling to Lucinda Russell, and just seeing her meant it was all ok and I’d arrived and the horse would run. It had taken me six and a half hours to get there, including sorting out the back door. Of course, there was no time for plaiting so she had a quick mane pull and brush and I took her up to the pre-parade where another friend, Hannah Dean, head of travelling to Ben Pauling was waiting to get the saddle for me. She gave me a big smile and a wave and it was like seeing an angel – it was lovely to have her support and to have her there helping me. Pash stood quietly, meeting a few of her lovely syndicate members who had come to support her. She well ran well enough, though she didn’t like the undulating track. I liked to think she didn’t like that much mud because it was like a point-to-point with thick, ankle-deep mud everywhere.

The canteen had shut by the time I’d walked Pash off but the staff went to their van and got me a little packed lunch, a cake and some crisps too, which was really kind. In near blackness, I was the second but last to leave. Lucinda Russell’s new shiny silver Oakley lorry was the last remaining in the deserted lorry park, a vast lit-up ship on an overcast ocean. It took me six hours to get home due to bad traffic and pelting rain. I drove through the gates at 10.30 pm. Even though I’d had a lovely day at Hexham with a lovely horse and being helped by wonderful people, I'm not sure I'd jump at the chance to go there again very soon.

Nick Healy and I drove the four runners to Bangor on the 10th and it turned out to be a sad day when we lost Adicci, a promising and beautiful gelding who had a fatal fall in the chase. It had been a busy start with lots of shampooing and plaiting. I decided to lead up Adicci myself and I was pleased, in the end, that it was me with him, and not one of the younger staff. The possibility of losing a horse is always there, but we tuck it firmly away because if we don’t, we’d never go racing. Poor Adicci and his owners – he’ll be hard to replace.

Wellies have been a great necessity whilst trudging over to swampy fields to feed the horses, but they became so clogged with mud they resembled moonboots. Mud stuck thickly to them, making each step a drag. The pens became water-logged and sludgy, so they weren’t much drier. Last season, I tried a pair of purple Hunters and then spotty Joules ones but these lasted only three months before getting holey. This winter, I purchased a pair of blue Good Year ones, with the thinking that Good Years are good quality tyres but these lasted merely days. Desperate, I had to resort to a treasured pair of second-hand Le Chemeau’s, the colour slightly darker than broad beans. They are wonderfully comfy, durable and, most importantly, waterproof.

Down the pens, Daisy has taken her early morning ratting even more seriously. Not content with barking outside the rats’ hiding places, she’s now digging them out. When I’ve finished mucking out, on command, she comes from between the sheds, soily-nosed, paws like muddy clogs and blinking dirt particles out of her eyes. Instead of her former pleasant biscuity scent, she has a linger of disturbed earth, which clings to her long after the soil has dried and fallen away.

On the 14th, the festively named Holly won over hurdles at Wincanton. She previously won three bumpers in France and this was her second start for us. She was also Jessie’s first winner since coming to work here a couple of months ago. The following morning, the festive feeling continued when we wore Christmas jumpers instead of the Wasdell uniform. There were lots of woolly jumpers. Lilly Whale, Alex Howitt and Lauren Hay rode out in matching striped Team Santa pyjamas and resembled oversized candy canes. They also wore knitted Santa hats over their helmets, complete with beards. I wore a Father Christmas outfit, including belt, pompom hat and beard. After a fun morning, the stripy elves won the prize for the best costumes. Next year, I’ll have to up my game…

Photo Credit: Nigel Kirby Photography

Due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, coronavirus restrictions were once again reintroduced on racecourses, including the compulsory wearing of facemasks and the showing of covid passes, the latter to prove stable staff and racegoers alike are double jabbed and boosted. I had my covid pass checked at Haydock on the 18th, when the crowd was much bigger than midweek.

I took Phil The Thrill for his first run since coming over from France the previous year. He’s a cloudy grey and plaited up really smartly with an arched neck but at the other end, his tail had fallen out and he was left with a straggle that I trimmed to resemble a foal’s. He sadly pulled up and it later became clear he’d bled, so Phil was booked in for a trach wash by the vet. The positive was that he jumped brilliantly.

Phil’s owner Berys Connop arranged for the Cotswold Larder, the Broadway baker, to deliver some huge cookies ladened with Christmas candies. It was a very thoughtful and generous gesture of Berys, as were a lot of other owners who also sent boxes and tubs of chocolates over the whole month. We munched and gobbled down sweets and treats between lots, as is always the norm throughout December.

Whilst Phil and I were at Haydock, John Dina got his Ascot winner with the legendary Palmers Hill in a thoroughly deserved win for all involved. John had previously said he had never had any luck, let alone a winner at Ascot, but Palmy trounced this when beating Diego Du Charmil by over nine lengths under Jonjo ‘Jonj’ Junior. John was delighted, a delight that everyone shared. Jonj then won the Long Walk on Champ for Nicky Henderson, which could not have been more of a fairy-tale for it was his first Grade 1. It was definitely early Christmas presents for John and Jonj!

We all celebrated that evening in what was a perfectly timed Christmas party. It was held in a cleaned and decorated workshop with a posh burger van parked up outside, Toppers disco within and a copiously filled bar where the lawnmower is usually parked. We drank, chatted and danced, including the travelling head Harrison as there were no runners the next day. It was fun and everyone let off steam, though some more than others!

Jockey Rachael Blackmore continued to shine a bright star in this sport. She won the RTE Sportsperson of the year and, the next day, won the BBC World Sport Star on SPOTY, treading the same footsteps as massive sportsmen like Ronaldo, Usain Bolt, Muhammed Ali and Tiger Woods. I think it’s gone way beyond calling her a female jockey – that’s old news after all that she has won last season at the Festival and then winning the Grand National. She’s just a jockey as well as a great role model and an inspiration. At the Betfair Chase meeting, she happily had her photo taken with my two colleagues, and two doting fans, Georgia Plumb and Kea Taylor. I’m very jealous of them!

I celebrated my ‘big’ birthday on the 24th and turning forty wasn’t bad at all. I rode my favourite Arrivederci second lot, received gorgeous presents and ate lovely food at lunchtime and dinner with family. My lovely colleagues sang ‘Happy Birthday’ tunelessly and loudly after I’d announced this year’s winners of the Jonjo O’Neill Christmas Awards.

The sparkly and highly acclaimed awards had been voted by all staff but had to be changed as some people weren’t at work. (My Secret Santa idea hadn’t been so popular with only five names added to the list, plus Ben Brain, the wind op vet, and Vinnie the Dachshund; at which point, I shelved the idea!) Still, they were fun and everyone received their wooden medals with pride and often amusement. Love Island-star Chris Hughes helped to hand out the medals, adding that touch of celebrity glamour amoungst us scruffy stable staff.

Category winners included Finest Filly was Alex, Jamie Brace was unanimously voted Biggest Stallion as was Lauren Hay for the Loudest. Quietest went to Tirana Jakupi, Cutest Colt went to conditional Kev Brogan, Best Gelding was awarded to Ionut Gabriel ‘Gaby’ Ungureanu and Best Behind A Desk genuinely was voted unanimously in favour of Joe O’Neill, my husband. For the second year running, the Best Party Animal went to Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea for often turning his hostel into Club Fred at weekends with John and girlfriend, Megan Petrie, winning again Mr and Mrs Jackdaws. With Ascot still fresh in our memories, head lad Johnny Kavanagh and Palmy were deservedly voted Best Horse and Rider Combination, whilst Georgia and her beloved Soaring Glory were crowned as the Best Horse and Groom Combination. Head Lad of the Year went to Alan Berry, Rear of the Year to Aaron Mcloughlin-Sutherland and the Most Winning Groom title went to a proud Nick Healy for his six wins this season with An Tailliur.

This amusingly summed up most of this year – roll on 2022 and may our good fortune continue.

Happy New Year to all.

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