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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

February 2021 Diary

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

I was supposed to be going to Wetherby on the 28th January but was rescheduled to Fakenham to take Frisco Bay (Frisky). His groom Alex Howitt had just passed her driving test but it was deemed the four-hour drive was too far for the first time behind the wheel of a two-box! It was only my third time there so I followed the satnav, knowing I was going in the correct direction when I saw the first signposts to Cromer.

Hot food was being served in a bar cheered up by old silks, pretty bunting and dusty saddles in the eaves. Disappointingly, all I had was a disposable cupful of vegetable soup (there was a choice of soup, bacon roll or stew) accompanied by two slices of a baguette. Yet, to compensate, there were free hot drinks from a fabulous tuk-tuk stall ironically called Cuppa JoJo. I had a delicious hot chocolate; it was a very lovely touch.

The day was grey, the paddock was waterlogged and the track was as muddy as the stable yard but Frisky finished third. Noteworthily, it didn’t rain!

On Saturday night of that weekend, head lad Alan Berry chugged round the yards in the Kubota Gator, towing a small gritter. Apparently, on seeing this groom Megan Petrie exclaimed “Where’s Berry going with that mobile barbeque grill?”

Not only was there snow on the ground and with a forecast of -3˚C, it wasn’t quite barbeque weather! I think Meg was just hankering for the summer months ahead!

January’s Employee of the Month was awarded to Lauren Hall for working hard in and out of the yard whilst racing. She joined us last September and loves the riding out as much as leading up the winners she’s had so far, Flight Deck and Time To Get Up. Lauren, 24, loved riding as a child and after A-Levels, she graduated with a degree in Equine Sports Science at Nottingham Trent University.

Lauren receiving her Employee of the Month Award from the Boss

“I got into racing after my Uni organised a visit to the Northern Horseracing College,” said Lauren. “We all got to ride out there for a week and it was great, so I decided to go back when I heard about the entry to employment course for people who already have equine qualifications. I realised I wanted to work in racing after university because I had missed riding after all the studying I’d done there for years.” Prior coming to Jonjo’s, Lauren worked at Tony Carroll’s for three years and now looks after the aforementioned Flight Deck, Time To Get Up as well as Monbeg Genius, Punches Cross, Fast Getaway and the unraced Mr Biggs. She lives with her fiancé Sean Dodd in Evesham and was originally from near Coventry. In the future, Lauren would love to further her degree and qualify as an equine physiotherapist or chiropractor, or work in an equine hospital. Hopefully, she will do a few years here, and lead up many more winners at Jonjo’s before reverting to studies.

On February 2nd, Sir Captain Tom Moore, the prolific fundraiser, who raised over £30 million for the NHS walking laps of his garden, sadly passed away. He’d reached his 100th birthday, a magnificent man. He became a symbol of hope and love during the first long lockdown last summer and slipped firmly into the nation’s hearts. There was an ironic sadness that he died from Covid-19. To me, he was a hero and a reminder of my long-gone grandparents, and of that special generation who were so honourable and selfless.

First thing in the mornings and at evening stables, I work ‘down the pens’. These are situated away from the main yard, not far from the bottom of the short gallop and was where Grand National winner Don’t Push It was famously trained and had the company of his six Jacob sheep. Since then, more pens have been added. I have two horses living down at the little yard known as ‘the Plough stables’, which are opposite the pub. They get corralled into the pens at night, each have field shelters with deep straw bedding, and get to go out in the fields after being ridden. They love to eat the grass and roll, creating many muddy patches. As time is always short, I do not brush off the mud.

The Pens

The Manuscript (Manny) loves the mud

I look after the horses with a few quirks, like bleeders, fussy eaters or simply ones who prefer to live outside and not in the confines of a big yard. Down here live Cloth Cap and his sidekick His Dream, The Manuscript who always loves rolling in the mud, Killbrook, a recent addition and Papa Tango Charlie who finished a great second on his first run from here. I also have Dream Berry who is browner from mud than his actual colour of flea-bitten grey and Jacqui O’Neill’s ‘pointer Monbeg Gold, who also finished a narrowly beaten second in a hunter chase! It can be windy and freezing cold, and I have to put a lot of extra rugs on them but I really love looking after them. I feel proud of ‘my’ horses, of the two winners that have come from the pens and I love the challenge of working out their individual care and feed.

Presently, the pens have become a bit of the building site, with another field shelter being constructed by head of maintenance Federico Bazan and his team. There’s a lot of mud, noise and disruption at the moment, with all the horses snorting at the revolving cement mixer, but it’ll be worth it in the end when more horses can live down there.

The second week in February was bitterly cold; the coldest nights being -5˚C, barely getting to 2˚C by lunchtime. There seemed to be a permanently biting, savage wind, which makes it important to look at the ‘Feels like’ temperature on the weather apps. On the Monday, I was at work at 4:15am and, amidst a dusting of snow and the frost, we loaded up the four runners destined for Carlisle. We left the yard by 4:50 but on the M6, just past Spaghetti Junction, we needlessly got the call that the racing was abandoned. That set the precedent for a freezing week when all the jump racing was cancelled.

Getting dressed took ages, pulling on a corn-inducing number of thermal and woolly socks, and many layers including long-johns. Yet, it was all in vain as my toes were always cold and I contracted a few purple, unsightly chilblains. Our faces were weathered and scarlet. Whilst tacking up, I always put my gloves beneath the horse’s rugs that I fold back on their hindquarters to warm them up (momentarily) by their body heat.

Down the pens, the mud solidified and the automatic drinkers were frozen and rendered useless. I took halved blue plastic barrels and kept these filled up manually. I had to fill up water carriers from the hot taps by the industrial washing machine and lug them round the estate, continuously topping up. But all this lugging around of containers warmed me up! There were slabs of ice, resembling thick glass, floating like oversized ice cubes in the tubs. Spiky icicles hung from buildings like glass stalactites; everything looked beautiful but life was tougher.

I always feel close to nature down the pens. In the winter darkness, I bought a headtorch but this often cut out, plunging me into horror movie blackness. Yet now, it’s much lighter when I’m mucking out and I see some beautiful twilight and sunrises. It’s too light to hear the yelping foxes or hooting owls in the woods but now I hear the drumming of woodpeckers hammering into tree trunks.

During this cold period, when I was feeding the field horses, a flock of pheasants would join me and the horses, pecking at the mix and the nuts I dropped. One hen pheasant, who I nicknamed Philippa, was really bold. She came very close, not scared of the horses and sometimes going between their legs! She was a pretty freckled tawny brown with beady yellow-black eyes, and was far hungrier than the horses.

I was watching the racing on ITV that Saturday afternoon, when Lauren Hay, who was working the weekend, rang me in a fluster and needing help. Monbeg Gold (Monny) had something plastic stuck on his pastern! I went over and there was a bemused Monny, stood next to Dream Berry, wearing a chunky black plastic anklet. It came off with a couple of tugs, Monny wasn't hurt and it made us giggle! Lauren apologised profusely for interrupting my afternoon off – but it wasn’t a problem, especially as we laughed about Monny’s new jewellery!

On Thursday evening, as always, I do my own ex-racehorse after work – he’s only a three-minute drive away. I performed the usual duties, refreshing his water and tying up a new haynet but, with a clatter and a crash, I fell over the newly filled water bucket, smashing my glasses into my face and cutting just above my left eyebrow. I know I wasn’t knocked out, because my little dog Daisy ran over and licked my face as I was prostrate in the gravel, water filling one welly. My glasses were in about eight pieces and portrayed how I am bungling and forgetful. I fed my horse, who only cared for his dinner, as blood dripped down my face and clogged up my eyelashes. There were bloodied grazes around my eye and I looked like I’d been in a fight. Once home, I made a panicked call to my husband Joe, who was on his way back from Sandown.

He organised with the racing doctor Philip Pritchard to stitch me up but not before we arranged rescuing two of that day’s runners from outside Stow-on-the-Wold after their two-box had broken down! Lauren Hay drove as my face was swelling and they took the horses back and Joe drove me to Dr P’s house. He enthusiastically put in about eight stitches and is hero for all his care towards jockeys and clumsy stable staff.

On the 20th, I had a great day at Ascot with ‘my’ Arrivederci when he ran well again and finished third. He’s done me proud a lot this season, and he galloped on to another place. I’d never won a Best Tuned Out at Ascot before and was delighted (and surprised) when ‘Lucky’ won it this day. It made the shampooing, scrubbing and the purchase of a Vanish stain-remover bar for his silver tail worth it. I also got a shout-out on ITV Racing by presenter Luke Harvey explaining my black eye, stitches and bruising! I received a few texts, including one from my cross Mum whom I had neglected to tell in order to stop her worrying!

The next day, the yard had a great day when Soaring Glory won the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. He won it so well under Jonjo Junior and gave everyone a huge boost. SG is looked after by Georgia Plumb, who has ridden him out a lot too and dotes on him. It’s her third season here and a mention must go to work-rider, Kim Zimich, who has worked hard on muscling him up by riding him with draw-reins. SG is a calm natured horse, never nasty and is a pleasure to have on the yard; he has these long, honest ears and always has a shiny coat.

With winning the Ladbroke Trophy, a chase at the December Cheltenham meeting and now the Betfair Hurdle, it’s been awesome to be winning these good races again.

On the 22nd, we had two runners at Carlisle but had to take one up as he was going into training with Sandy Thompson, so we had to take two two-boxes. Nick Healy, one of our newly recruited drivers drove the two runners and I took the other one. We had a clear run, which took four hours! It was a beautifully sunny day with a cloudless blue sky. I led up a ‘spare’ in Theme Tune (Timmy) in the novices’ hurdle and I was delighted when he won – the third winner I’ve led up this season. It was great to have another winner for owner Trevor Hemmings, especially in the bright northern sunshine. Nick’s runner, Orrisdale (Orri) ran well to finish third and Nick’s words of “A winner and a third, I’ll take that” were well said!

Soon, the Cheltenham Festival will be here and I can’t wait.

Theme Tune (Timmy)

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