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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

March 2021 Diary

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

On February the 22nd, we had four runners at Carlisle. It seemed an age since I had led up a winner, so I was chuffed to lead up Theme Tune (Timmy). He’s a smallish five-year-old with a greenness to his attitude, but he ran really well following up on his Ludlow win. It’s always satisfying when youngsters win because, hopefully, they are ensuring the yard’s future. It was also our sixtieth winner of the season.

On the 26th, I went to Warwick with one runner, His Dream, who finished a pleasing third over fences under conditional Phil Armson. After collecting the colour bag, I went to the nurse who removed the stitches from when I’d fallen over a water bucket. I was home early and had started to power-wash the lorry when a group of colleagues headed towards the walkers, about five of them were carrying a wriggling and writhing Luis Rous.

“Help me, JoJo,” he called. I continued with my task as Luis was already putting up a good fight, protesting and flailing, that he got free at least twice. He was nevertheless scooped up, manhandled into helplessness and thrown in the horse pool with a big splash. It was his final day before leaving to go back to his home county of Yorkshire to return working for Kevin Ryan. Staff get thrown in the pool for a variety of reasons, mainly birthdays, being cocky or on their last day of employment!

On March 5th, I completed my mucking out down the pens and then packed up the lorry to go on an overnight up to Kelso with the gorgeous but grumpy Cloth Cap (‘Clothy’). I’d already had a run-in with him first thing as he gave his rider a hard time when refusing to be caught. I grabbed onto his rug, only for him to try to bite my face! It was going to be a long weekend!

I had led Clothy up only once before, in November 2018, when he won over fences at Catterick. Clothy is officially looked after by Nick Healy but, as he lives down the pens, Nick stayed behind to ride out and I got to take him. I was excited and honoured to go. When Tiger Roll was taken out of the Grand National, Clothy moved up to be the new favourite.

There’s always a long list of things to take, including the usual racing kit, feed, hay and my overnight stuff too. I set off at 9am, calling in just before the M5 for breakfast and stopping again at Tebay Services for lunch. Clothy is a wonderful traveller; never stomping or moving even when we left the motorway and got on the scenic but twisty A7. Passing through Hawick and other villages and towns we followed the River Tweed, which was sometimes glassy and smooth and, at other times, bubbling and fast flowing.

We reached Kelso in fine weather at about 3:30pm. After unloading and unpacking, I led Clothy out for ages and gave him a pick of grass. That evening, I was put up at The Black Horse hotel in the town; I had a gorgeous little room with an en-suite. It was funny to see the lorries parked up in the cobbled square, especially David Pipe’s big HGV.

That night, downstairs in the bar, which was shut to other customers, all the overnighters gathered for a pub dinner. I sat with Kim Bailey’s and Paul Nicholls’ staff – and what a lovely evening it was. Due to the lockdowns, it was ages since any of us had eaten out and it was a big treat. All of us said we’d have a main course and pudding with our £15 vouchers but we were all too stuffed after huge portions and lots of golden chips. It’s always a big social on overnights, though perhaps not the partying of years gone by! A G&T, a meal and a good chat was what coronavirus had done to overnights.

I got up early to give Clothy his breakfast (noting that he’d eaten up and importantly drank lots of water!) and then went back to bed for a couple of hours. Then, the usual leading him out and pick of grass. He was typically in bad humour, grumping at me whenever possible. I shampooed him, plaited his mane (never would I be brave enough to plait his tail!) and left him in peace.

As I was there alone, I looked around for someone to help me saddle and I asked trainer Michael Scudamore, who didn’t mind helping, as his older brother Tom was riding. Michael brought the saddle to the stables and Clothy was good, until he turned bullish when I was oiling his hooves. Stomping about, he trod on my right foot and unceremoniously knocked me onto my backside into the gravel. I was under no illusion whether it was the hoof oil or me, it was definitely me.

To lead up, Clothy was a gentleman and Michael kindly legged up Tom. It was a proud day when Clothy jumped amazingly and won by just over seven lengths – I was delighted and even though he dragged me about afterwards. I actually felt proud of myself for looking after him throughout the mud and winter weather, for feeding him and being with him most days. Clothy wore his Bet365 winner’s sheet with pride and posed with Tom and me for the photographs, though there was no cloth cap for him to wear this time.

It was great to drive the long journey home with a fab winner, his trophies and, as Kelso always does for every winner, a big net of carrots!

Photo Credit: Grossick

My little Jack Russell had an unsavoury experience down the pens one evening. Usually, Daisy rats and sniffs throughout the field shelters but on getting out the jeep, the tractor fertilising the paddocks chugged past. Daisy got pelted with thousands of tiny white balls and, tail tucked, ears flattened, she got straight back into the jeep and didn’t leave the passenger seat until work was over. In fact, it has put her off coming down to the pens since!

Another yard legend is the fluffy ginger yard cat, Gin. She did have an identical sister Tonic but she died a few summers ago. I’m not sure how old Gin is but she’s been here for as long as me, which is over eight years. Gin lives in the feed room, where she has made a bed on top of the cupboard on a folded stable rug. She also sleeps in the tack room, leaving tell-tale orange hairs on pads, saddles or any clothes left in there. Though she’s meant to be a mouser, there was a rat she cohabited with in the feed room, the one that Daisy dispatched. Gin is loved by head lad Johnny Kavanagh, who feeds her too well on Go Cat! She will weave round ankles, meowing and loves strokes and attention – I think Gin would have loved a life in a centrally heated house rather than on a stable yard!

Lauren Hay often covers for me down the pens when I’m racing or on her weekend working. Recently, she contacted me about Monbeg Gold getting a plastic ring round his leg like a bracelet, and one Saturday I got a message from her about…a spider on His Dream’s rug! To be honest, it was gigantic, black and looked battle-worn but I was unsympathetic and said she must still rug up! As a committed arachnophobe myself, I was pleased it was Lauren working and not me. I often talk about the friendly pheasants and rodents living down the pens but I hadn’t come across oversized bugs yet. I’ll just put it down to the Escapades of Lauren!

After a fall off Tidal Watch, Jonjo Junior received a kick and suffered facial injuries. He had stitches and severe bruising. Just before Cheltenham, he was OK-ed to ride on the condition he wore a Zorro-type mask, which stuck to his face. Whatever he looked like didn’t matter one bit; we were all just pleased he was back in the saddle.

The Festival started off negatively when our star mare Annie Mc was injured and it was declared she wasn’t going to run. It was disappointing for her owners, the Coral Champion Club, but mostly for his groom Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea. Yet, it’s the peaks and troughs of racing, and something we get used to.

The Cheltenham Festival 2021

This year’s Festival came round pretty quickly and started quietly with Georgia Plumb taking ‘her’ Soaring Glory. It was her first visit to the Festival but of course, it was a pity that there wasn’t the infamous ‘roar’ as the first race jumped off. SG was a well beaten fourth but was still a credit to Georgia as he won the best-turned-out. Head of travelling Harrison Day made a proper day of it and took Georgia and Megan Petrie down to watch the Champion Hurdle, and then Honeysuckle walk back in. it was also Megan’s first ever visit to the Festival, so they’ll cherish it as a day, even though Megan’s lead-up in Lithic pulled up. The Tuesday was also Daisy’s fourth birthday and she celebrated with a new squeaky ball.

The Wednesday dawned sunny and was a fantastic day when Sky Pirate won the Grand Annual under Nick Schofield. It was my Wednesday afternoon on so I was down the pens, listening to it on the William Hill radio on the Racing Post app. The signal is slightly dodgy and as the battle was occurring up the hill, Sky P hitting the front, the commentary cut out. It was not until my husband Joe called me to say he’d won that I knew the result. It was brilliant, fantastic – social media went mad. It had been five years since we’d last had a winner – a long five years. Sky P really stuck on well and it was brilliant for everyone, his owner and yard sponsor Martin Tedham, groom Lauren (of the spider incident) and Harrison for driving his first Festival winner – the whole yard was buzzing. The sun was definitely shining! The irony lay in that Jonjo O’Neill, an Irishman, saved the UK from not recording a winner, as the Irish monopolised the rest of the day (and the week!).

Sky P is a legend too – so quiet and laid back at home, that it would seem impossible that he’s found his niche over two miles! The aspect that was missing was going over to the Plough Inn for celebrations – I know they had one in the hostel but the pub’s closure due to lockdown was a shame.

We had no remarkable results on the Thursday but it didn’t really matter as we’d had a winner. Grooms Lauren Hall and Kea Taylor had their first experience of the Festival, as did Jay Bisson on the Friday. I had two runners there from the pens; Monbeg Gold (Monny) ran in the Foxhunters’ and Dream Berry ran in the boys’ race under Kevin Brogan.

Both horses were incredibly muddy but, at least, Monny is bay! No horse should be called white, only grey but Dreamy could only be classed at the latter. His coat was flea-bitten white, no dapples or iron grey parts but mostly he was brown and strained from mud, had black creosote stains and his tail was orange from dirt. Jay and I undertook the task of his cleaning very seriously. We shampooed him twice, then followed up with washing up liquid and then the final scrub was with a vanish bar! The suds that came off him resembled litres of cappuccinos running down the drain but the final result made Dreamy incredibly Persil-white. After I dusted his tail off twice with talcum powder, only the tip of his ears were still brown! I was immensely proud.

Jay had a great day leading up Monny, who gave Jonjo Junior a great spin before pulling up. I led up the whitened Dreamy, who finished well down the field but who I was proud to be alongside. When I was leading him back to the stables, he suddenly spooked at a racecourse official in a red coat who was at the Centaur entrance. His hoof landed on my right foot and I face-planted into the rubber tiles. To be fair, the other grooms behind me didn’t laugh too obviously but I let them pass. I had to gather up my rolled-up paddock sheet that was unravelling, tongue tie, throat-lash number and lead rein, which were strewn behind me like wreckage. I could only think of will I ever stop falling over…

To sum up, to have had one winner in the week was brilliant and for the rest of us, it was just great to go.

Jockey Rachel Blackmore proved an inspiration; six winners, leading jockey of the week and second in the Gold Cup. To have watched her coolness and skill was an honour. Yet, it was her quote of “It doesn’t matter what you are. We are jockeys winning races” was what stuck with me; there was nothing about gender, just equality.

What a wonderful week, National Hunt racing at its finest.

The following day, we didn’t slow down much as we had six runners at the Midland Grand National day at Uttoxeter. I’d been the year before when I’d led up in the first, before racing went behind closed doors and then was stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic. In some ways, it felt longer than a year ago but then, simultaneously, time had flown by.

It was another fabulous day when Time To Get Up (he’s aptly named as is often caught snoozing in his stable) won the big race. He came from Ireland with good form, having finished second to Monkfish. It was a first big race winner for his doting groom Lauren Hall, a tiny slip of a girl next to the height and bulk of the beautiful chestnut horse. Jonjo Junior gave him a fabulous, waiting ride. There was not the fanfare of even the Festival behind closed doors but I was watching from the pre-parade with my Gullivers Collonges, who is so quiet. He just stood at my side, watching the winner coming in from across the paddock.

On Monday, 29th March, the lockdown restrictions were eased slightly. I’m not sure how our lives at the yard will change but owners were allowed back on racecourses. Hurry up Aintree!

Colleague Spotlight

The latest Employee of the Month went to Kim Zimich, a work-rider who joined us in the autumn and is here six mornings a week, mucking out then riding four lots. Kim grew up in really rural Canada and emigrated over here to follow her dreams of competing. She has competed internationally in eventing and dressage, as well as working in both Flat and National Hunt racing. As well as her homeland of Canada and here in the UK, riding has taken Kim around the world, including Florida in the USA, Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia and Denmark. She teaches lots of clients on a regular basis, as well as having lots of tuition herself on her dressage horses – she’s beyond the epitome of a worker, and never ceases to find enough hours in the day for her work. Kim lives in Milton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire but travels around a lot due to teaching, which takes her to Sussex most Sundays.

Kim rode Soaring Glory a lot before his Betfair Hurdle success and her riding brings a different dynamic to the yard, one of strengthening and often calming! She’s a witty, bubbly character, always up for a giggle and definitely makes the mornings a lot brighter.

When did you come to UK and why?

I moved here when I was 19. I’d just sold my Junior event horse in America so I had a bit of money, and this is the best place in the world if you are an event rider. I got a job as a working student in Lincolnshire and moved over without knowing a single person.

What have been your past jobs in racing?

I’ve had some cool ones.... I spent two years in Newmarket, mostly riding for William Haggas, who was a great boss, but did some freelance work as well. I spent a breaking season at Eddie Woods’ yard in Florida. He had 150 yearlings in at a time, we would each do 15 each morning, and every six weeks a new bunch of 150 would come in. I also spent a season freelancing at Classic Mile, a track in Northern Florida.

A year after that I went to Australia for 18 months. I flew into Melbourne. A friend of a friend had a house ten minutes from Flemington so I spent eight weeks riding out there, until I had enough money to get the rest of the way to Adelaide, where I split my time between riding out at Morphettville (the city track), and the country tracks around Adelaide. I also did a lot of breakers for some private clients and got to ride most of my babies in their official jump outs!

How could racing improve compared to the other equestrian disciplines in which you’ve worked?

I think all sports have their pros and cons. I believe the sport horse industry owes a huge debt to racing because so many of the advances in vet care and procedures are brought about by the racing industry. Sport horse owners just don’t have the numbers or the funding to make veterinary centres like NEH or Rossdales viable. However, because the racing industry makes them possible, we are then able also to use them for our sport horses. On the other hand, it still surprises me that more attention isn’t paid to the racehorses’ way of going; the entire point of dressage is to improve the horse’s natural athletic ability through strength, flexibility, and balance training. This approach has been adopted by all horse sports bar racing, which I find baffling, as the stronger, better balanced and sounder an athlete is, the better it will logically perform.

What horses do you own?

I have Fizz - my Queen, a six-year-old Danish warmblood mare, Kinky, a four-year-old KWPN gelding and Snoopy, a three-year-old Oldenburg gelding. All three have been found and bought by me as two-year-olds (Fizz and Kinky in Denmark, Snoopy in the UK) and all three have been broken in and produced by me.

How many hours a week do you teach?

I try to do ten horses per day, seven days a week. Sometimes that’s more teaching, sometimes more riding. Usually, I ride 6/7 and teach 3/4 but that swaps on weekends.

What are your hopes and dreams?

I want to represent Canada at the Olympics, and fund this goal through running my own successful business buying, producing and selling top quality sport horses.

Favourite horse at Jackdaws Castle:

It would have to be Soaring Glory, wouldn’t it?

Favourite drink:

Malfy grapefruit gin.

Favourite meal:

Pad Thai, or avocado on toast.

On a day off, what do you like to do?

I don’t have days off; I’m building a business from scratch! I had one last year because I gave myself food poisoning...

Best party you’ve ever been to?

I can’t really answer this without indicting myself, but… there was a full moon party in Thailand where my ‘friend’ and I somehow lost all our clothes and made it home at 8am naked, except for UV paint. Or the night in Florida, after which I woke up with a tattoo of a camel on my bum (his name is Murphy). I have, of course, been kicked out of most pubs in Newmarket at one point or another as well...

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