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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

February 2022 Blog

I hadn’t fallen off for a couple of seasons, so I was well overdue. The string was trotting down the new path towards the bottom of the short gallop. My mount, Half The Freedom, tripped and I caught the reins but the big, gangly, clumsy chesnut tripped again, onto his knees, disappearing from under me. I inelegantly rolled off, landing on the sandy track and leaving an imprint, goggles pinging off.

Unharmed, Half The Freedom trotted back into the yard, where he was caught by the walkers. The following day, in accordance with yard tradition, I brought in six packets of Maryland cookies – not quite a cake but the next best thing.

The clumsy Half The Freedom with his doting groom Tirana Jakupi

In the early morning of the 16th, I was mucking out as usual down the pens. It was still dark and I'm not often spooked but, I felt an uneasiness when, beyond the black woods, two bangs sounded, each followed by an explosion – like both barrels of a very, very loud shotgun going off. Then, there was an even louder bang, a pause then a flow of orange sparks, like a fountain firework. The lights went out and, after a moment, the rumble and grumble of the generator started up. The woods remained silent of the usual yipping foxes and hooting owls.

Fortunately, I had my head torch but this spookily reflected the horses’ eyes into small floating orbs, like aliens, and threw up long shadows. I continued mucking out, hoping the rustling in the straw was simply my terrier Daisy. The generator was still rumbling as Head of travelling Harrison Day and I set off for a day at wet, grey Wetherby. Arrivederci (Lucky) ran unsuccessfully on awfully heavy ground, pulling up. Our second horse, Moscow Spy, was declared a non-runner so we were able to leave early - hampered by Lucky being slow to pee in the dope box and me getting Harrison and I a cake each for the way home.

Meanwhile at Hereford, Joly Maker won under amateur Jamie Brace - his first winner for us. He gave ‘Jolly’ a peach of a ride and thoroughly deserved to win. Though being bitterly cold, the sun shone and the sky was blue, giving groom Georgia Plumb a great day – there’s nothing better than taking one runner and having a winner.

When I arrived home, there was a lorry outside our cottage. It piggybacked a generator that was powering the village, sounding like a jumbo jet continuously flying overhead. The electricity company’s men were working on the faulty wooden pylon under icy bright spotlights. They were gone in the morning, leaving muddy wheel marks, disturbed earth and the power restored.

On the 17th, Harrison celebrated his 24th birthday pretty tamely with a meal out and not partying like previous birthdays. Even though there were no runners for two days, he worked the mornings, riding out five lots like everyone else.

I hadn’t been to Newcastle since early 2007 – well before the turf was changed into all-weather, so I jumped at the chance to take Powerful Hero (Magic) on 22nd January and back there again on the 19th February. It was a long journey but not as far up as Hexham. Although Magic didn't win either time, he was a gentleman to take. The second time he ran there was on Student Night. I’d forgotten what a real crowd was like, on what was obviously a very popular night out.

There was pulsating clubbing music, disco lights up in the stands and fairground rides. No one was drinking from glasses, but mostly straight from bottles of cheap rosé. The dress code was eclectic; skirts were minimal, and there were suits in a rainbow of colours, even top hats and tails. The crowds were having fun and by the looks of the double decker buses all lined up, this fun was going to continue in the town centre after the last race.

Racing was hit with more heartache when, in the middle of the month, Warren Greatrex’s yard lost a member of staff called David Thompson through suicide, only months after the death of jockey Michael Pitt. A few years ago, our yard went through a similar experience, and there is a tiny iota of comfort knowing that their neighbouring yards will rally round, and Racing Welfare will be there to help. It was a stark warning that mental health is an ongoing issue, one that isn’t going away.

Working outside during Storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin was far from easy. They weren’t flurrying gusts but colossal, invisible beasts intent on shoving, punching and stampeding ahead, roaring through branches and tossing handfuls of rain, like grit, into our faces. We held our neck straps a little tighter, jammed our heels down further and sometimes fought for breath. Our words were snatched and flung far away like autumnal leaves.

As I drove to evening stables, a tree had toppled, its branches reaching across the road in a vast tangle. Down the pens, another huge tree had fallen – the wind now loping off, slightly sated, less ferocious. The maintenance men, Madalin Marian (Doc) Radu and Florin Alin were there, accompanied by the whinge and whine of a chainsaw. They trimmed enough off to allow cars to pass but left the other tree for now, a saddening sight of earthy roots as messy as its splintered branches at the other end.

It was a tough few days, especially for the drivers of the lorries. On the Friday, Fakenham and the all-weather meetings were abandoned well in advance, but then racing continued over the weekend when conditions weren't much better. Yet, seeing the pictures of waves as high as houses raining blows on the coastlines and reading about trees that fell not so harmlessly on to main roads, rather than in paddocks, made me feel very lucky that our battle had been meagre.

I'm back at running club, though my attendance is sporadic due to racing. But as often as I can, I am once again pounding the streets of Cheltenham with the best group of people. I say ‘pounding’ but that's far too athletic for my silly, rolling gait of flat footedness. Intervals on Tuesday nights kill me and I tail off and, after rainy days, I don't warm up until halfway through a scorching shower but I'm back running, however one-paced. And I've even wondered about training for a half marathon…because if I can do 10k then, surely, I can do 21K after more training?

Colleague Spotlight

Twenty-five-year-old Ionut Alexandar Dina is universally known as John, and has been a yard man here since 2015. He's from Curtea de Arges, a town situated two hours from Bucharest, the capital of Romania.

‘I came over here to earn money to save up and build my house back home,’ explains John. He got the idea of working with racehorses from a friend who had previously been a yardie for Ed de Giles in Ledbury, Herefordshire. From the beginning, John showed a great aptitude for this job and love for the horses and the sport. He's excelled in every part of the yard, always working hard and often acting as unofficial yard manager and interpreter. Since 2017, John has supervised the swimming of the horses, often alongside fellow Romanian Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea.

The first winner John led up came at Cheltenham in November 2016 with Call To Order, and he was in the winner’s enclosure there again in 2018 with Palmers Hill – the most poignant victory, being Jonjo Junior’s first ever winner there. Even though John has led up winners at Aintree with Champagne At Tara and more recently at Ascot in December with Palmers Hill, it is those Cheltenham winners that mean the most to John.

John has a huge following on the video-sharing app TikTok with over 850 000 followers and fifteen million 'likes' overall. He shares videos of his swimming duties, allowing viewers a glimpse into that side of training. His videos recently got shared by the Lad Bible on other social media platforms.

John leading in Palmers Hill at Cheltenham

Photo Credit: Francesca Altoft

At home, John’s family includes a brother Alan, who is younger but apparently much taller, and a little dog called Bob. Whilst working here, John met girlfriend Megan Petrie who is also a yardie. They started dating a couple of years ago but it got more serious during the first lockdown and they are looking forward to spending the summer visiting each other’s families.

John looks after Palmers Hill, Hang Tough, Easyslands, When You’re Ready, Fleminport, Gary Clermont and did have Quarenta and Django Django until they both recently retired.

Favourite Horse: Palmers Hill.

What is your favourite part of the job? Going racing and having winners.

Favourite racecourse: Cheltenham and my second favourite is Ascot.

Least favourite racecourse: Plumpton.

Favourite canteen: Ascot and it's free!

Favourite jockey: Jonjo Junior.

Hopes for the future: To pass my driving test.

Favourite drink: San Miguel and in the past, it was whiskey and coke.

Favourite meal: Steak and chips. Or roast lamb at the Plough on a Sunday.

Favourite snack: I like sweets, especially Randoms.

Favourite film: Saving Private Ryan. I like any army films.

Hobbies: I play football.

Favourite holiday destination: Egypt to see the pyramids.

John and When You're Ready

Photo Credit: Chepstow Racecourse

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03 mar 2022

Great reading Jojo. 😁👍

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