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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

January 2021 Diary

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

It snowed at the end of December; proper fluffy white snow. Yardie John Dina made a snowman at the back of the stables with twiggy arms, a pointy carrot nose and stone eyes; he also wore a Wasdell Group bobble hat and a scarf. Later on, he looked like a victim of a hit and run, all toppled over. Snow is far from great to work in – it is pretty on Christmas cards and when I had days off from school, but now it’s a huge inconvenience. When going up the gallops, snowflakes feel like needles on your face, and horses scoot when balled-up snow from the hooves flies up and hit the horses’ bellies. There’s much slipping and sliding, and the string picks their way through the less icy parts.

Photo Credit: Kerry Wilmot

On the 29th December, I drove up to Doncaster with two, accompanied by Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea. As we hit the northern motorways, the third lanes on both sides were being snowploughed and there were lorries skidding and giving up on slip lanes. It was freezing cold. Due to the snowy conditions we all thought it would be called off after a 10:00 inspection, but fair play to Donny, it passed.

When changing in the lorry into my smarter clothes (heaters blasting!), I had the horrific realisation from the tell-tale lightness of the plastic bag in which I had put my boots, that I had forgotten my jodhpur boots. So, I had to wear my polka dot Joules wellies for the remainder of the day. To be honest, it was so very wet and saturated from melting snow that I got away with it – this once!

As You Like (Ruby) hated the ground, but Annie Mc, queen of the yard, won the feature Mare’s Listed Race under Richie McLernon by a whopping sixteen lengths. She jumped great and even though it was cold and the racecourse was quiet (only one syndicate member was present - his mask hid his identity but as it was of Annie’s colours, it also gave him away). Fred loves Annie a lot – he’s the one who nicknamed her Queen, and he deserved to share in her success.

The end of December also coincided with Gloucestershire going into Tier 4 restrictions; there were now more tiers than on a school bleacher! Masks, hand sanitiser, social distancing – the resounding coronavirus pandemic is still at the forefront of everyone’s lives. However, all the preventative measures are far from pointless – thousands of people have died. The numbers are mind-numbing.

Racing is lucky; like football it’s continuing – without the public and for the foreseeable future, without owners. Nevertheless, the horses are racing, winning and it’s keeping us in our livelihoods, although be it behind ‘closed doors’ and all of us be-masked! I dread the cost to this sport if another full lockdown occurs again. In a few years, we’ll look back on this peculiar time as being surreal, like foot and mouth.

On January 5th, a third national lockdown began. Schools closed, exams cancelled, shielding reinstated, furlough continued and non-vital work halted. Racing carried on under the banner of “elite sport” but point-to-points and amateur jockey riding were all halted. I feel for these people in the amateur side and it must be heart-breaking that they must stop.

On Monday 11th, the rumblings of rumours about all racing halting for three weeks were quashed. The rumour had started the evening before and thankfully, it was not true. The BHA issued a statement reminding everyone to heed to coronavirus procedures but racing was not stopped. I am pleased that racing continues but it’s against a backdrop of this new variant, heavier restrictions, the crippled NHS, of rising numbers again…The glimmering hope is the vaccine.

Should all sports have continued? It’s not for me to answer but it’s going ahead and it’s safe. We’re temperature checked, wear masks, wash hands and socially distance – we’re outside but the coronavirus threat is very much there. When I went to Plumpton, the racecourse signs were accompanied by ones for a testing venue there – Newbury and Epsom, to name two, are sites where the vaccines are being administered.

January’s Employee of the Month was awarded jointly to Federico Bazan, head of maintenance, and his assistant, Madalin ‘Doc’ Radu, for all the extra work they’d put into the completion of the new social space, the Cloth Cap Café. They transformed a damp, smelly mobile home into a lovely area with TV, sofas and gym equipment where everyone can hang out, all with money given to us for winning the Lycetts Team Champion Award last summer. They worked on the mobile home in conjunction with their usual duties, including harrowing the gallops after every lot, hostel maintenance, changing light bulbs, and mending a million things such as fencing! On frosty mornings, Doc is out in the tractor at 06:30 harrowing the gallops. They fix punctures, broken tools, herd escaped sheep, anything! No job is too big or too small – in fact, the bigger the job the better!

Federico, left, and Doc, right.

Federico is Argentinian and lives on site with his wife Karina, six-year-old daughter Lucia and Dachshund puppy Malibu. He used to work with polo ponies. He has been associated with Jackdaws Castle since 2009, when he rode out before coming here to head the maintenance department in 2015. Federico can build anything out of pallets and organises brilliant barbeques throughout the summer, though a whole sheep on a spit is slightly off-putting for a vegetarian!

Doc, 28, also came to work here in 2015 and in these six years, he has performed nearly every job on the premises. He’s worked as a yardie and a groom, learnt to ride and ridden out, drives the tractors and smaller horse lorries. He has driven to the races but now is concentrating on being second in command to Federico.

With five hundred acres of estate to look after at Jackdaws Castle and the satellite yard Slade, Federico and Doc are kept very busy.


After a couple of weeks of no trips, I went to Lambourn to pick up Stop The World from Jamie Magee’s, a pre-training yard. It was good to see Upper Lambourn again, turning just past Weathercock House and seeing, as it was late morning, a few strings still out on the roads.

The next day, I took March Is On to Plumpton; a wet, grey day. It’s usually a hellish journey involving the M25 and M23, but lockdown meant it took just under three hours. I even chose to go via Oxford, and it was not busy either. Marty was definitely not endeared by the track and conditions and the field went too quickly; he finished unplaced. Whatever the result, it was lovely to lead up Dickie Johnson, even at Plumpton!

Lauren Hall, who started here in the autumn, had a great day on the 14th when the gorgeous Flight Deck won over hurdles at Bangor – it was Lauren’s first winner for the yard and the first time she’d driven racing alone! It was a very successful day and a poignant victory for the McManus family. Flight Deck is from the family of Synchronised and a homebred, so he means a lot to all of us, especially his delighted groom.

Flight Deck and Lauren

Photo Credit: Bangor Raccourse

One day, Daisy was digging in the shavings in a stable, under the feed manger. She went back to it three times, poised, ears pricked before digging again, shavings flying out between her back legs. A big, fat rat shot out (I screamed and dived away), over the hay and out of the stable. Daisy and Hughie caught it in the yard and though Hughie had a bitten nose and Daisy had a scuffed eyebrow, they were victorious.

Sky Pirate followed up his amazing win at Cheltenham on the 16th with another scintillating win over two miles at Warwick. ‘Pirate’ is a darling of a horse; quiet in the stable, and very lovely to ride. He can be prone to bucking on a Monday but only in a playful way, though he does cause my hat to go over my eyes in these cheeky moments!

On the 19th, four runners and four staff were loaded up and were over an hour away from the yard when Fakenham was called off due to waterlogging. Though, not before we all got breakfast from Starbucks on turning for home!

On the 21st, I went to Ludlow with four of the day’s eight runners. The sun was shining, though cold - it was a beautiful day. It proved a good day too when Theme Tune (Timmy) won for the first time – it was, in fact, a day of firsts. Timmy was groom's Luke Nelson’s first ever winner and the first winner for new assistant trainer and head lad of the barn, Ed Telfer. It was also great to have another winner for Trevor Hemmings.

Theme Tune (Timmy) and Luke

On the 22nd, I saw on social media an excellent ‘Birdie’ of Cloth Cap – though, whether the ears should’ve been pinned back rather than pricked forward is debatable. I’ve nearly achieved a dream – having a horse I look after being depicted by the very talented and vibrant illustrator Darren Bird. I know Nick Healy is Clothy’s official groom, but I was delighted to have a horse in my care ‘Birdied’ and so amusingly too.

At Ascot on the 23rd, ‘my’ Arrivederci finished a good second over hurdles. Nicknamed Lucky, I love him to bits and he is a beautiful grey. He just ran into one better than him and it was great he came back to form.

On the 24th, there was about three inches of snowfall. Even though the main roads cleared by lunchtime, the lanes were like ice rinks. However, Federico was out snowploughing round Jackdaws Castle on his day off and on Monday, he pulled the jeep out of the snow where I’d got it stuck in the snow whilst feeding the field horses – he should receive the Employee of the Month every month!

Colleague Spotlight

Johnny Kavanagh came to Jackdaws Castle in July 2008 as Head Lad, caring for the horses in first yard. His duties include riding out, feeding, treating injuries and managing staff. Previously, he retired in 2003 from a thirteen-year race riding career. He also worked as a starter’s assistant and rode out regularly for Jamie Osborne.

Johnny rode over 350 winners, including nine for the Queen Mother. Originally from County Laois, he graduated from RACE and worked for Michael Hourigan. In his early years there, he looked after Marians Pride, the subsequent dam of Festival winner Dorans Pride. His first winner as a jockey, Our Severin, came at Limerick in October 1987.

On coming to the UK, he was a loyal second jockey to Nicky Henderson and loved his years based there. He rode the 400th winner for the Queen Mother, Nearco Bay at Uttoxeter in May 2004. Johnny’s big race triumphs were the 1992 Tolworth Hurdle on New York Rainbow, the 1998 Lanzarote Hurdle on Shahrur, the 2001 Fighting Fifth on Landing Light, the 2002 Castleford Chase on Geos and a Listed handicap hurdle on Sudden Shock at the Aintree festival in 2002 for his current employer!

Johnny, 52, is a dedicated head lad, a talented horseman who still rides out four lots and is Jackdaws Castle’s most eligible bachelor! He often has to be pushed to talk about his time working for Henderson’s but when complicit, he loves to regale stories, especially of schooling mornings with Mick Fitzgerald. He can tell many a tale about living in Lambourn, colourful nights out and many memorable race days. Evidently a popular figure, Lambourn’s loss was the Cotswolds’ gain, where he’s ridden and looked after many big winners from behind the scenes, often tirelessly working long hours. He’s been associated with lots of Festival winners, including Albertas Run, Alfie Sherrin, Minella Rocco and Sunnyhillboy. In 2014, his yard sent out a Festival treble in Holywell, Taquin Du Seuil and More Of That. He’s also had a Royal Ascot winner, Well Sharp, and rode Northumberland Plate-hero Tominator at home.

Johnny was shortlisted for the Stable Person of the Year at the 2019 McCoys Awards at Cheltenham Racecourse.

What have been your favourite racehorses?

Get Me Out Of Here (nicknamed George), and before him, Wichita Lineman. Also, Nearco Bay owned by the Queen Mother.

What have been your best days at Jackdaws Castle?

Both the Gold Cup and Grand National. And "George" winning the Betfair Hurdle.

Please reflect on your years as a jockey:

I loved it and have absolutely no regrets.

What are your aspirations for the future?

To win the lottery, to be healthy and happy.

What is the car you’d most like to drive?

A Bentley.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Who’s your ideal celebrity date?

All of the Bond girls.

What’s your favourite drink?


What’s your favourite meal?

Steak and chips.

What are your hobbies?

I’m a Man U fan and I play golf. If I retire, I’d love to play golf (badly) at all the Championship Courses all over the world.

Johnny had many good times in Lambourn.

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