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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

January 2022 Blog

We started 2022 in the best way when Judicial Law won over hurdles at Exeter. It was our fiftieth winner of the season but, the middle of the month was rather frustrating, with winners slowly totalling six and a bit of bad luck too. There was an upturn in the weather, with little rain and clear frosty mornings, resulting in sunrises of trees like black ink on a vivid watercolour sky. Around the 17th, due to the lack of grey clouds, the Wolf Moon hung clear, a huge, discarded silver penny suspended in the sky.

Jonjo’s eldest son, Tom O’Neill, had a fortnight’s busman’s holiday, driving diggers and helping the maintenance team put in a pathway down to the bottom of the short gallop. It cut through the woods, passed down the edge of the schooling field and the paddocks by the pens. It’s made such a difference, and lots have become much quicker.

There’s no taking a turn, waiting, or going back down the gallop; the string keeps moving fluidly like quicksilver. The woods are pleasant to ride through, the breeze murmuring through the bony fingers of the branches. Dead, brown leaves seep a rotten scent and the hooves are muffled on the sandy surface. As yet, no deer leaping away has sent the string whipping round.

At Wetherby on the 7th, File Illico won a chase, his second of the season. He’s a lanky, skinny sort who had been living down the pens under my care to keep him eating. He’d gone up to the main yard to sort out a slight foot issue so, regrettably, I can’t claim that winner for the pens. My main helper there, Shannon (Shanny) Bishop, and I are still seeking our tenth winner.

File Illico

After writing in my last blog about my retirement from riding work, I made a comeback in the New Year. Due to racing, there were fewer riders than usual, so I got to work ‘my’ Arrivederci (Lucky). I thought I’d follow the others up, but I even got to join the leading pair and go on when Lucky was going by far the best (no, he wasn’t running off with me!). I loved working again – the rush of wind, jumping off upsides, enjoying Lucky being on the bridle and that he wanted to gallop. I was rather a passenger but he’s a great ride and looked after me. I was blowing the most at the top but the buzz stayed with me, echoed in my grin for the rest of the morning.

Arrivederci has been a favourite of mine ever since his arrival as a three-year-old, he was once a steel dapple grey but now he’s a lot paled to resemble a fluffy summertime cloud. In the last year, he’s been plagued with wind issues and has had a couple of operations. Hence why he hasn’t run before now but when he did, he was over hurdles at Taunton. He’s one I cannot wait to see a fence, which has been delayed to next season as he’s missed so much of this one. Taunton, being a nippy, greyhound track, didn’t really suit him so I was delighted when he finished fourth.

Before his race, he won the best turned out, probably because he stood out as a grey, so I managed to visit a little tent by the stands. It was selling Cornish Rock Gin and Rum in many lovely flavours – I spent my turnout winnings on a bottle of the Blue Angel gin, and was given a free miniature of Cherry Kiss gin and a Rock Gin jute bag. I then persuaded the vendors not to back Arrivederci until he’s going over fences.

Head of Travelling Harrison Day watched but didn’t show as much interest in buying a bottle personally. He’d had a heavy weekend ‘on it’ and had sloped into the yard, slitty eyed and pale, asking, ‘Would you mind driving to Taunton?’ Adding that he’d drive back. I think a whiff of my Rock Gin would have sent him back over the edge he’d spent the morning clawing himself up from.

I was happy to go with Kilbrook to Sandown – especially on a Saturday and it was an easy day with Harrison driving. Furthermore, it was raining really hard, and a cosy warm cab is preferable to freezing cold, wet lots. Kilbrook is named after a place in County Kildare but I nicknamed him Killer, even though he doesn’t have any murderous tendencies. I’m fond of Killer – he’s a tall, bay gelding with long ears and a kind face. I think he’s a worrier and we moved the partition in the two-box after a lot of stomping and banging during his previous journey. He stood quietly, travelling very happily.

Killer lives in the pens and whatever the weather, when they run, all the ones living out must be shampooed. They love a roll, are fetlock deep in squelchy mud and their tails are like old sea rope, hanging heavy with soil and tangled with twigs and crispy leaves. After being lathered all over in bubbles and having soap massaged into his tail three times, Killer did look very presentable before I plaited him all up. After a good going over with a dandy brush, I kept finding mud even after I thought I’d got the last bit brushed off.

After oiling his hooves, I took Killer to be zapped out by the BHA at the stable entrance but had to pass him to Harrison as I’d forgotten my face mask. On running back to the pre-parade, I saw Harrison turn Killer back round and pick up the bag again. This only meant one thing: we were going home. Killer, now a non-runner, was all dressed up with nowhere to go.

He ran later the following week, on the Wednesday at Leicester, which was doused in golden sunshine, meaning a few fences were omitted due to the low sun. He finished third, beaten about two lengths. I was very happy with that. He’s such a gent that I wouldn’t mind travelling Killer all over the country, as long as he doesn’t have a partition in the lorry.

On the 13th, I drove to Bangor with two runners, taking Clondaw Promise for Shanny, who was at Catterick with ‘her’ Anyharminasking. Being in Wales, which had banned crowds due to the Omicron variant, the racing was behind closed doors. There were no spectators, just a smattering of owners, officials and racecourse attendants milling around the paddock. The sun was bright and low and, like at Leicester, a few of the fences were dolled off due to the low rays. Clondy was a length and a half in front when falling at the last – thankfully, he was unhurt. His head muddied and tufts of grass caught in his bridle buckles and a fluffy cheekpiece missing. Winner #10 is, very frustratingly, evading the pens. Meanwhile, up north, Shanny had better luck when Anyharminasking won really well under Jonjo Junior.

Anyharminasking, Shanny and Jonj at Catterick

Some mornings pass so quietly, the mood dire if the weather is rainy, whilst on other mornings we are as boisterous as a monkey enclosure at feeding time. It can be still dark and before 08:00 some rumours get around, often open to exaggeration and sensationalism. One such morning in January, when it came to light before first lot, that a well-known colleague had a romantic interlude with another colleague. I was told on leaving my car, so I told a few others including the farrier and news escalated… I heard the conquest exclaim, ‘How do you know?’ when she was on the mounting block. I’m not sure she knew that everyone knew but it wouldn’t have taken her long to work it out. A lot of people were laughing, and one head lad catcalled, ‘S*****r’ at high volume. He was in denial but eventually did admit it on the way racing. (News came to light later in the saddling box that it wasn’t the first time, so maybe they’re the newest Jackdaws couple…)

It was good we had a lots of laughter early on because the rest of the day was a bit frustrating. Up in Haydock, Papa Tango Charly could only get fourth place. At Ascot, Cobolobo (Bobies) ran a blinder but got beaten in a photo finish, literally by a nostril – to be second at Ascot is amazing but it’s always easier to beaten by a length than a tiny amount. The owner-rider David Maxwell gave his horse, the winner, a brilliantly cool, stalking ride, and in hindsight, we were probably always held.

Gary Claremont ran a blinder, finished third and will hopefully go to the Festival. Our biggest hope and winner last time out at Ascot, Palmers Hill pulled up. My little fella Monbeg Genius (Minnie) finished fourth, which wasn’t too bad a run, and I spent a lovely day with him. He’s so cuddly and loves attention – it was his idea of heaven getting all plaited up and the mud brushed off him.

The frustrations are just part of this sport and another day, they’ll belong to someone else, and it’ll be us who will be grinning after a couple of winners. January is never the best month – it’s always seems to last for ages; the weather is gloomy and the nights draw in a lot quicker than it takes them to lighten again. It’s just hard when a day doesn’t go to plan, for everyone works so hard and sometimes, there are disappointments. To take away the positives from Saturday, we still had a second and a third, Harrison and John Dina won turn-outs and our conditional Kevin Brogan won the race in which Palmers Hill pulled up and he’s still in front in the race for the conditional title. We’re keeping everything crossed that he keeps this lead.

Colleague Spotlight

Alexandra (Alex) Howitt proudly describes herself as a ‘proper Donny girl’, which is emphasised by her strong Yorkshire dialect. Alex started riding aged ten at a riding school and on leaving school, began studying NVQ Levels 1 and 2 in Horse Care at the local Doncaster College. Whilst there, she competed in showing classes on her piebald cob, Bert. On completing college, Alex attended the neighbouring Northern Horseracing College on their two-week intensive Racehorse Care course, designed to open opportunities for equine students in racing.

Alex, 22, started at Jackdaws Castle in August 2018 and currently looks after On The Bandwagon, Shantou’s Melody, Apache Creek, Annie Mc, the unraced Pyffo, Frisco Bay, Known and recent winners File Illico, Manintheshadows and Bean In Trouble. She’s led up her biggest tally of winners so far this season. On as many weekends off as possible, Alex goes home to Donny to visit her family and pets – cat Birdy, chocolate Labrador Maggie and her two-month-old puppy Connie. Alex is a great colleague; she does a saucy WAP dance annually at the Christmas party and was unanimously voted Finest Filly at last year’s staff awards; she’s a driver, turns her horses out immaculately and rides Cloth Cap on a daily basis. She is also currently studying for her NVQ level 3 in Racehorse Care.

What’s your favourite horse?

On The Bandwagon (Bandy) – he’s very different and I love him. He’s a bit quirky and right from the start, I really bonded with him.

Who’s your favourite jockey?

Conditional jockey Jamie Brace.

What’s been your best days in racing so far?

Leading up Manintheshadows when he won at Donny – it’s my home track – and taking Bandy to Aintree last October – I never thought I’d take him to such a big track and it’s somewhere I’d always wanted to go, and I won the best-turned-out too.

What are your ambitions?

To, one day, be in the Army. To be part of the King’s Troop is my dream.

Favourite meal:

Tuna Napoleon – I’ve loved it since I was little.

Favourite drink:

Thatcher’s Gold and Rattler Cider…but not together!

Favourite holiday destination:

I love Cornwall, especially Coverack. I love the village but especially the beach, where I blow up my rubber ring and float for days on water that’s like glass.

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Chris Clayton
Chris Clayton
Feb 02, 2022

Another gem! I particularly liked the bit on "Killer" and hearing about Harrison's "weekend on it..." We've all been there, but in my case too many years ago to remember!

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