March 2023 Blog
Updated: Mar 31
The topsy turvy nature of our job continued with a few winners and battling many different weather fronts. Yellow and cheerful daffodils have replaced the little snowdrops but the gloopy and squelchy mud soon returned. Conditional jockey Jamie Brace sustained a knee injury in a fall off the ill-fated Maypole Class, so he’s currently on the side lines and is probably getting very bored.
On the 4th March, one of our favourites down the pens, Head Law (pictured above), sustained a fatal injury at Ascot. He was especially loved by head girl Georgia Plumb, who would have wrapped him up in bubble wrap if she could have. ‘Heady’ was an incredibly beautiful animal, coal-black and shiny, with a gorgeous face: a typical French-bred with legs of a giraffe. He was sweet and friendly, and came down to the pens last season and excelled, winning three hurdles on the bounce. Poor Head Law.
After a lacklustre run in a Newbury veterans’ chase, Cloth Cap (Clothy) was retired. He had been a real star, finding his niche in chasing. He won four chases, including the 2020 ‘Hennessy’ under Tom Scudamore by ten lengths. I’ll never forget watching him that day when he flew the fences, jumping for fun. He was trained out of the pens and lived with his old buddy His Dream, and I’d ridden him in the prelims. He wore a hackamore and was in more control than I was.
Clothy was never the most cordial in temperament – he was grumpy and would think about lashing out with a hind hoof or gnash teeth in your general direction. When he was younger, he could be a devil to catch, only bribery with a carrot would capture him. Yet, I couldn’t help loving him – his bright bay colour, large white star and his bonny head. He was very uncomplicated – I once described him as a pie and a pint man, who hated all frills and frivolities.
I actually led him up in two wins. The first at Catterick in November 2018 when he looked a dour stayer and again at Kelso in ’20 when he tipped the betting as the Grand National favourite. The big prize at Aintree was never meant to be with Clothy pulling up twice in it but I was very proud of his accomplishments. He was a flagbearer for the yard and especially for the pens.
Cloth Cap after winning at Catterick
More Snowy Days
There was snowfall throughout the night around the 10th. Snowflakes that were so weightless and fluffy when falling, were so smothering when settled. The layers turned crunchy underfoot, resembling an expertly iced fruit cake, but when it melted, the ground resembled a sodden sponge. Rivulets ran from overflowing guttering and big, fat droplets nosily dripped from drainpipes. Snow slowly vanished into deep puddles or turned back into brown mud. Footsteps sloshed and splashed, clumps of softened snow thudded down from branches and all around smelt heavy, drowned and saturated, so much more so than after rainfall.
The Festival 2023
The snow a week before meant that the ground was not going to be rattling for the Cheltenham Festival. It started tacky but turned to soft as the week progressed. What a Festival it was – a weeks of dreams and spectacular racing. Honeysuckle was the first chapter, followed by the epic Constitution Hill and that was just the start of a brilliant four days.
Of course, our third in the Ultima was overshadowed by those other results, and was way out of the league of Gold Cup-winner Galopin Des Champs but everyone was delighted. ‘Minnie’ ran a brilliant race, especially as he’s still a novice. He practically jumped the last in front and was just outstayed. He was so genuine, sticking his head down and battling.
I had a fabulous day out in the sunshine, catching up with a few friends, and loved leading up a horse who made me very proud. Our head of travelling Alex Howitt had never been to the Festival before so I loved seeing her amazement at the ‘roar’ before the first race, the cheers that rolled like fog over the stable yard from the packed stands. Also, I won’t forget hugging Corach Rambler’s groom Jaimie Duff as she waited for her fantastic winner to come back; she had tears tumbling down her cheeks and an expression of shock and exhilaration. Tiny little nuggets in a wonderful week.
Back in the autumn, I picked up four horses from near junction twenty-nine of the M6, all belonging to the executors of the late Trevor Hemmings’. Mick Meagher, who runs the yard, has been racing manager for many, many years. Cloth Cap and Iron Bridge were familiar friends and there were also two youngsters. One was subsequently named Big Ambitions and the other was a point-to-point Flat race winner called Cedar Row.
On arriving back home, Georgia bounced up to the lorry, flicking through the passports. ‘Clothy…Bridgey…a Shantou and Cheddar Row.’
I giggled. ‘Don’t you mean Cedar?’ Georgia laughed too, before taking the passports to the office. I was reminded of this when ‘Cheddar’ won at Warwick over hurdles on the 12th (pictured).
In accordance to laws and regulations, every horse has to have a passport, a small book issued by one of the various governing bodies, such as Wetherby’s, HRI or the Irish Turf Club or France Galop. The plastic covers are colour-coordinated to their year of birth (presently, there are a lot of cream ones for four-year-olds and purple ones for five-year-olds) and they are often dotted with stickers from the sales and other yards will often label the spine with the horse’s name.
No horse is ever travelled without their passport; even on shorter journeys to the vet’s, the passport will then remain alongside the horse for the duration of their stay. Amongst many things, the pages of a passport portray a horse’s official name, breeding and ancestry, age, sex, studbook number, microchip number, markings and whorls that are as unique as fingerprints, records of vaccinations and authorisation that signs them out of the human food chain.
Before microchips became compulsory, passports would be given to the BHA to be manually checked, especially the pages of detailing the vaccines. Every time a horse was first on a racecourse, the BHA would check that all their distinguishing features tallied up to the official ones. I also remember if your runner ended up in the dope box, you’d have to go and grab the passport to be inspected.
Now, the passports stay in the lorries and the horses are identified with the beep and zap of a scanner. All of their information flashes up in a blink. Now, even the vaccination records are all recorded remotely.
Jonjo O’Neill Racing is very organised and store their numerous passports in gun-metal grey filing cabinets in the office. Each horse has its own file. Before racing, every driver collects a ‘pack’ from the office, diligently prepared by racing secretary Jade Aspell the day before. Inside are the horses’ passports, the stable passes (the BHA stable staff IDs) and information about every runner, including owners, colours, tack, destination and race times. Yet, we always use the Racing Post app for a lot of the information and since covid, National Hunt declarations are aligned with Flat ones and are done forty-eight hours in advance, not twenty-four. It’s much easier for organising staff, lorries and equipment. As a racing groom in times of 24-hour decs, it was always difficult to plan weekends off with only a day’s notice.
The two-box that broke down on the M1 in December is still in the Swindon garage, awaiting the delivery of one part, like a puzzle without the final piece. In the meantime, we hire another two-box off Ken Gamble International Horse Transporters Limited and have another on permanent hire from Bloomfields Horseboxes. Our own are dark grey, adorned with a stickers of the Boss on Dawn Run, the statue at Cheltenham Racecourse. The Bloomfield’s one is bright yellow and black, akin to a New York taxi. In fact, it’s even called the Horse Taxi and stands out much more than the usual grey ones.
Although the end of the season isn’t far away, those horseboxes will still be in constant use. The Festival maybe ticked off, but Aintree is next on the agenda. I cannot wait!