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  • Jo O'Neill

December 2022 Blog

Updated: Jan 5

December 2022 Blog

What a month December has been. It’s been incredibly busy coping with snow, the freezing cold and driving lots of winners around the country. We also partied hard at the staff party too and ate lots of chocolates that owners sent to the yard. As ever, the miniature Bounty bars in the tubs of Celebrations were left until last, until they were eaten too.


Jonj

November finished with Jonjo Junior winning on Champ on the 25th. It's great when ‘Jonj’ does well on other yard’s horses; it gives us a boost too. The next day at Ascot, Petit Tonnerre (translated into Small Thunder but known as Pierre; The other Petit Tonerre is a piebald stallion in a French-Belgium comic book series, as well as having cartoon and movie adaptations made.) ran a blinder to finish second – he was very slick and lightning-quick over his hurdles. Pierre had previously run well first time out at Aintree to come third and went one placing better. His groom is John Dina but Pierre moved down to the pens in the autumn. Having had treatment for stomach ulcers, it’s beneficial for Pierre to be living in the field. He's a lovely addition and is also easy on the eye; a gorgeous French-bred with lengthy legs and a pretty face. His only crime is that he is not always the best to catch, especially in the dark.


Jonj winning on Champ, the other Petit Tonnerre and our Petit Tonnerre with his groom John Dina


Three Out of Four

On December 8th, we had an early start in two little lorries and we were driving through the main gates at 04:30 to go up to Newcastle. It was a cold day and didn't warm up, but was a fantastic day when we sent out a treble and a second.

Blue Shark (Sharky) won for conditional Jamie Brace and delighted groom Tirana Jakupi. Crebilly (Billy) is a residence of the pens so it meant a lot to me when he won. Billy is a character, a playboy who can be incredibly awkward and annoying but that didn't matter on the racecourse when he won by twenty-one lengths. It was a second winner of the season for the pens and he was well looked after by Shannon Bishop.

Then it was a favourite of mine: Monbeg Genius (Minnie) who I absolutely love. He's small and has a cute face. He loves a galloping track and certainly loved it at Newcastle, winning by six lengths. In the winner’s enclosure, when Jonj leaned into me for a celebratory peck on the cheek, I shimmied nearer. I couldn’t help grinning: it was a third winner for the pens. I was delighted and had a halo glow of satisfaction. Later on, in the bumper, Impatient finished second, making it an extra special day for Tirana who dreamt of looking after a grey for ages.

On the way home, Shannon and I were travelling back down the M1 motorway when our two box suddenly went into limp mode and died to an eventual halt in the middle lane. Artics thundered past and cars beeped at us as if we were parked up for a picnic. My emergency 999 call and the Highway Agency shutting off the left lane happened in a bit of a blur. Shannon and I had gripped hands in the enormity the danger we’d been in, and now shivered under foil blankets like two marathon finishers, that had been supplied by the Highways Agency before they drove off. We sat on the top of some concrete steps on the embankment, the crash and roar of the busy motorway below us. The horses were calm throughout, picking at their haynets. After a wait, the motorway was shut on both carriageways and in that dark silence, the two horses were swapped onto the rescue vehicle and we eventually got home, finishing up at 1:45am. What a day to remember in every sense!


Dollar Bae

The mare Dollar Bae (Dolly) has built on her bumper win of last season, scoring the last twice over hurdles at Leicester and Southwell. She is tiny in size but determined in character. She's looked after by Leah Burnett, who is having a good season looking after the likes of Dolly and Iron Bridge.

That weekend coincided with several inches of snowfall; not slushy, half-hearted snow but the fluffy snow on the front of Christmas cards. I didn't envy the drivers of the two small lorries driving back from Southwell. It was a relief to know they had made it back safely.


Wintery scenes, Leah and Dolly and Woolly Wonders


Snowy Days

During the snow, our head of maintenance Madalin Marian ‘Doc’ Radu was a hero for getting the gallops back to a usable state. On the Monday, the horses trotted round the indoor school and the next day, they cantered up the grass but then, due to Doc’s hard work and early starts, the gallops were able to be used again from Wednesday.

The main roads were cleared and remained that way but the roads around Jackdaws Castle resembled ice rinks, only accessible by tractors and 4x4s. Doc was out regularly with the snow plough. Him and his maintenance sidekick Florin Alin also helped out by bringing a huge container of water round the fields and pens, watering all the horses where the troughs and automatic drinkers had frozen.

It was bitterly cold too, as low as minus 14 degrees the one night and I didn't dare look at the ‘feels like’ temperature on my weather app. I dragged on a skiing jacket over my Wasdell coat and slipped and slid over to the pens. Initially my Jack Russell Daisy accompanied me but she regretted it, hunching deeply in her fleece coat and burrowing into the straw; she was shivering so much that I left her at home after that.


The Racing Welfare Christmas Dinner

This year, the last event I helped out at as a Racing Welfare volunteer was Christmas dinner at Cheltenham Racecourse on the 13th. One beneficiary brought along a vast array of beautifully knitted tea cosies, including a Christmas pudding one, and stitched cushions, scarves and woollen hats – all for sale in aid of the charity. We pulled crackers to a burst of pops and Christmas tunes jangled away in the background. I chatted along with a table of the most amazing beneficiaries, all former stable staff or jockeys, whilst we all wore flimsy paper crowns that slipped or ripped. It was time well spent with lovely company.

My brilliant table at the RW Christmas Dinner


Kev

On the 16th, ‘our’ Kevin Brogan deservedly won the Conditional of the Year at the 2022 Lesters ceremony. He added it to winning the Champion Conditional at the end of last season. When stepping onto the yard in August 2020, Kev was as keen as mustard. A graduate of RACE, he previously worked for Gordon Elliott, where he’d sat on the likes of Tiger Roll and Apple's Jade. From Kill, County Kildare, Kev was very quiet and polite and a lot of the younger, female staff shot second glances at this willowy, dark haired lad with beetle brows. Kev’s first winner for Jonjo O'Neill was on Tegerek at Cheltenham in October 20 and as yet the biggest win of his career was on Phoenix Way at Ascot last January for Harry Fry. It isn't uncommon for Kev to drive thousands of miles per week; to be in Scotland one day, then down south and then back up north again. He always helps, bracing the winter chill in silks to saddle up. I hope Kev is still riding in years to come, that luck is on his side and I can follow his successful career, feeling that I was there in the early years.


Festive celebrations

Later on in the month, life on the yard got a lot more Christmassy. The staff party was held on Saturday 17th at the Wesley in Winchcombe. Everyone got dressed up, some dresses barely skimming thigh tops, and there was lots of sparkle. It was a fun evening: the dancefloor was full, the food delicious and the photo booth caused much merriment. I left, a lightweight, at half past ten but I hear many of my colleagues continued to party in town through to the morning. Those who didn’t wish to go clubbing went back to the yard in the bus and enjoyed partying in the hostels.

Christmas Jumper Day fell on the 22nd, though there were none of the Santas and Mrs Clauses of the past few years. Just a few woolly, brightly coloured and festively patterned jumpers, until Ryan Newhook swung his leg over his second lot and changed the state of affairs. He was dressed in a red and green elf outfit – the only thing absent was the jingle and tinkle of bells on his toes.

Ryan won the first prize of the bottle of Jackdaws gin. He rides out as regularly as his carpentry business allows, as well as a busy family life with wife Lucy and kids Flo and Barney. Ryan, who loves playing cricket during the summer months, was bitten by the horsey bug through Lucy, who once worked in racing for trainers such as the late David Wintle, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Emma Bishop. He rode Powerful Hero in the IJF charity race at Newbury last May, raising over £7000.

Ryan had retired racehorses Mont Royale and then Splash Of Ginge, who he competed in jumping and team chasing. Ryan is a bit of a hero; when everyone else pulled on a jumper, Ryan went all out elf.

Christmas Day came and went in a flash, and it was Kempton and then Chepstow. The latter wasn’t only a day when rain fell relentlessly in symbolic Welsh weather but it was when Saint Davy won and nothing could wash away the happy grin from groom Ionut Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Ungureanu’s face. Flight Deck then won – he’s a big, beautiful horse with a perfect diamond between his large eyes. He always appears a tubby, round type but won really well. Jonj also won the Finale Hurdle on Comfort Zone for Joseph O’Brien – another successful day all round!


2022 has slid by so quickly – a quicksilver of a year in which we’d battled all the extremes of weather as we spent mornings riding up the gallops and round the estate. I loved my time volunteering for Racing Welfare and enjoyed a good number of winners trained from the pens last season. The New Year, as always, came and went, getting swallowed up by a day’s racing – and we wouldn’t change any of it. Happy New Year and all the best for 2023.

Chepstow's winning team: Jack Wilmot, Jonj, Saint Davy, Gabby and the Boss

Photo Credit: Neil Duggan

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