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  • Jo O'Neill

March 2022 Blog

Updated: Mar 31

March started in the best way with File Illico (Lilo) winning at Leicester for owner, the Honourable Mrs Lizzie Wills, and groom Alex Howitt. I was delighted to send out our tenth winner trained down the pens. The horses live in the open, get turned out daily, if not live out so they can wallow in mud! They often have issues such as skinniness and tying up. I’ve never had many winners down the pens. Last season was exceptional with Cloth Cap winning the Ladbrokes Trophy, but the total of winners was only three. I feel a lot of satisfaction that we’d tallied up ten.


It’s not just me though – I do the morning mucking out and feeding but I have help in the evenings. Shannon Bishop joined me this winter, and more recently so have Georgia Plumb, Leah Burnet, Lauren Hay and Jessie Kennedy. Their assistance and company have been invaluable, and also the chats and the laughter they've brought along with them.


Head lad Alan Berry celebrated his twentieth anniversary of working at Jackdaws Castle. As an amateur jockey, he rode two Festival winners and lives on site with his wife Lisa and daughter Eva.

Since being drafted up to run the second yard, Berry has changed the routine and made the yard run more smoothly. He is no-nonsense, a brilliant horseman, loves a joke or a prank and tells a funny tale; Berry IS Jonjo O’Neill Racing.


On the 6th, Head Law (Heady) won over hurdles at Huntingdon – another inmate of the pens so winner number eleven! He was led up by Nick Healy but most credit goes to Georgia Plumb, who rides daily at home. Heady is a star away from Black Beauty but has the shiny black coat. He used to live with Red Maple (Reddy) but neither spent much time out in the field, hanging around in the pen all day. So, I put Reddy out in the big field, where they only come into their individual pens at night, and Heady now lives happily lives with Theme Tune (Timmy). They spend lots of time grazing together.


What a wonderful Cheltenham Festival! There were four days of top-class racing, fabulous winners and glamorous, colourful crowds. I did not attend with any of our runners, but watched as much as I could on ITV during my lunchtime and listened via the William Hill radio whilst at work. During morning stables, Jonjo and Jacqui O’Neill hosted many owners and guests for drinks and food. A few helicopters flew in, hovering like huge dragon flies. Rolls of laughter and rumbles of conversation leaked from the open windows of the owner’s suite.

Rachael Blackmore proved again what a fantastic jockey she is, starting with a second Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle, culminating in a brilliant Gold Cup victory on A Plus Tard, reversing last year’s placings with Minella Indo. She’s a great advocate of this sport. I think saying that Rachael Blackmore is the ‘first lady jockey’ to do this and that and that is old hat by now – she’s so amazing that after last year’s Grand National, a Gold Cup was all too inevitable.

The Wednesday’s rain did not dampen the spirits of local yard Ben Pauling after their Global Citizen won the Grand Annual. It had been five seasons since he was in training here, an Irish point-to-point winner who I thought was gorgeous. He was a sweet, kind character, whom we called Twickers and won a bumper for us, a three-runner affair at Worcester. When the owners changed yards, I always followed his runs. He’s looked after by my friend Hannah Dean, who’s Pauling’s head of travelling, and they’ve shared many good days winning together. Hannah has always updated me on him and I’ve seen him a handful of times too. I was proud of Global Citizen, pleased he’d won a big race, and delighted for Hannah and their team.

The booing of Delta Work after the cross country, beating the legendary Tiger Roll, was not decent, and should not have happened. Tiger Roll making a comeback and finishing second was amazing and nothing should have been taken away from the winner. Having the same connections meant that both horses walked into the winner’s enclosure together and then Tiger Roll paraded in a commemorative rug. The winner of any race should never be booed, whoever they beat, especially not one like Delta Work who is up there in the betting of the Grand National. He was a worthy winner in his own right.

Groom Lilly Whale had her first visit to Cheltenham when Coeur Serein ran in the Pertemps Final. She was thrilled to go, her day bettered further when ‘Corey’ won the best-turned-out and ran well enough, finishing eighth. As Festivals go, even without us having a winner, it was just brilliant that the whole four days went with a bang.


Chepstow has never been my luckiest track. I had only one winner there: Ballyshan in early 2006 ridden by Carl Llewellyn and not as much as a placing since. I wasn’t convinced that ‘my’ Monbeg Genius (Minnie) would beat the favourite, Mr Glass, trained by Paul Nicholls so I was a bit shocked when he did. It doesn’t matter whether it was the better ground, tongue tie or a galloping track, I was so delighted that Minnie won. It felt ages since that rainy day in October at Ffos Las when he’d won first time out. He’s just my favourite – he’s petite, sweet and loves a hug, a proper arms-round-his-head hug. Plus, it was winner number twelve for the pens!


Monbeg Genius and Jonj winning at Chepstow

Photo Credit: Chepstow Racecourse


Mrs Wills was our most winning owner of March. Prince Escalus and Ashfield Paddy both won at Hereford, adding to File Illico’s win. She’s a great supporter of the yard and is often here to watch her horses on the gallops. So far, she’s had eight winners this season.


This month we got the sad news that double Festival and Grade 1 Aintree winner Holywell died aged fifteen. He was retired in 2017 to his regular jockey, Richie McLernon’s home near Mallow, County Cork. Only days before, Richie had shared a video of Holywell rolling, bucking and squealing. At the beginning of retirement, Richie’s sister Diana had showed Holywell, but he was happiest living out on the farm with calves and foals.


I looked after Holywell in the twilight years of his career. I didn’t have him during those big wins, when he was looked after by Ganga Singh and then Kate Hanson. We still shared some great days together: I led Holywell up in the final Hennessy Gold Cup and he was my one and only lead-up in the Grand National in 2016. He fell at the second but Richie thankfully caught him straight away. I will always remember we were first out of the paddock so we led the parade. Holywell won me the best-turned-out for the 2015 Betfair Chase and was second in the 2016 Ultima.

As well as these memories, I will always have a lot of love for Holywell. He was kind natured and was renowned for being very gutsy. He was unremarkable to look at; a small, plain bay, but he was fun – he’d squeal and jump around. I was very proud to look after him. After all, he was a yard legend.


Colleague Spotlight

Lucy Westlake, 23, initially worked for us for the 2018-19 season and started driving the two-boxes, but she loved riding out best. She took on our Bronco Billy when he retired from racing, before rehoming him to continue his new life on the hunting field.

Lucy is a very plucky rider and competed in the ’19 Golden Button. She left racing at the end of that summer to work in a hunting yard. Yet Lucy never left entirely; she kept in touch with Alex and Georgia, often returning to ride out and came to a few Christmas parties. In return, Alex and Georgia went to watch Lucy's pass out parade in Hyde Park, London.

Now a soldier in the Lifeguards, the Household Cavalry, Lucy has spent the last few weeks back with us fulltime, in order to gain her Category A License. In April, she attends an amateur jockeys’ course at the British Racing School before she can ride in the military races at Sandown. Lucy is a tiny, wiry, strong 5’3”, so has a jockey’s physique and, with her gritty determination, I know, one day, her name will be on the winning connections of the Grand Military Gold Cup.


Did you have a horsey childhood? I was born in Taunton, Somerset and moved to Gloucestershire as a child. I’ve ridden horses all my life. When I was young, I did the usual Pony Club and hunting.


What did you like most about working in racing? The yard atmosphere and everyone was friendly.


Lucy hunting on Bronco Billy


What’s your favourite horsey discipline? Hunting.


What made you want to join the army? I wanted to do something new. I was a bit bored of being in the same area, around the same people of years.


How did you join the army? I looked it all up online. It was very easy.

How did you come to work with horses in the army? I completed my Phase 1, the basic soldering. Then I went onto Phase 2 in London, where I worked with the horses and was ‘up ridden’ (fast-tracked) from week one to week eight. Then, I learnt how to do section work and to clean the kit to parade standard.


At Royal Ascot, last year.


Has your army life ever crossed over with racing? Me and another lad in June 2021 went to Royal Ascot in full ceremonial uniform. We led out the runners of each race and the winner back in. We also cantered past the Queen between a couple of the races. It was a brilliant day.


How did the opportunity to get your amateur license arise? I was asked by my Colonel if I wanted to get my license. I said that I definitely would. Whoever is in the Army or the Reserves can ride in the Grand Military races, my aim is to ride round Sandown in the biggest one.



Have you enjoyed coming back to Jackdaws Castle? Yes, it’s been great – so familiar, like coming home.


What’s your advice for anyone wanting to join the army? It’s definitely worth it. It’s a different way of life and you get lots of friends. These qualities make it very similar to working in racing – we’re all living together and working together.

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