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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

March 2024 Blog

March started with a trip up to Kelso in Scotland with four runners. Head of travelling Alex Howitt and Megan Petrie, Tirana Jakupi and I set off in a brace of two-boxes. Our convoy pit-stopped at Tebay Services before making our way through the rolling ruggedness of the Scottish Borders, full of fields of sheep or forests of pointed firs. The winding of the silver river mimicked the grey tarmac of the road.

After unloading and unpacking, we settled the horses, led them out, gave them a pick of grass before rugging them up against the northern chill, making up their feeds and saying good night. We were staying in the Cross Keys Hotel in the cobbled town centre; the days of staying in the dormitory of the pebble-dashed stable lads’ accommodation long gone. We all crammed into one two-box, our luggage varying between an O'Neills GAA sportsbag, a bag for life and Alex's glitzy pink suitcase, more typical for an Easy Jet flight to a Greek island.

Overnighters used to consist of a night out with a few drinks but this was much quieter – a meal with gins for three of us and a pint of lager for head of Alex. There was much catching up, swapping gossip and stories, interspersed with laughter, many innuendos and jokes.

It was a fun trip but the horses did not run well. Itso Fury finished a pleasing third, but ‘my’ Monbeg Genius was a trailed-off fifth, Anyharminasking could not do better than fifth and Imperial Bede fell at the second. It’s just racing and the main thing was that all the horses came out of it okay.

Marching on

On March 10th, we had a great day at Warwick . Five runners led to another busy day. King Of Tara won like a machine – he’s quite petite, dark bay and not flashy in appearance but he won decisively.

I was there with my Zonda, who I love taking racing. ‘Zondy’ is a gorgeous grey and looks really smart after being plaited up; for a dappled grey, he even keeps reasonably clean! I was proud when he won the best turned out and even more proud when he finished second again. The time before, he ran into one at Wincanton and the same thing happened today. He is very genuine and tries very hard, so much so he went wobbly again after his race. His ears flop drunkenly and his eyes glass over and then his knees buckle; it’s as much as I can do but drag him over to the big containers of water in the pre-parade ring. Lots of people helped to throw bucketfuls of water over Zondy, including the trainer Ben Pauling and his assistant Tom David. We all got soaked, looking like we had been caught in a deluge, feet squelching in the puddles on the grass. He recovered quickly and was none the worse.

A Centenary Year

After weeks of rain, the Cheltenham Festival, in its centenary year, appeared on the horizon as bright as the sun itself. The ground started off as heavy before drying up for the last two days. I took Monbeg Genius (Minnie) on the Tuesday for the Ultima. It’s always amazing to go. The buzzing hoards all in their best outfits of lovely tweeds, hats and the telltale gold buttons of Holland and Cooper coats, the famous Roar and leading up in the busy, hectic paddock. I always feel proud to be with Minnie – he’s shiny, looks amazing plaited and is such a gent. Yet, rather like Kelso, it wasn’t our day and he nearly fell, was tailed off and was pulled up. When nearly falling, he’d over-reached into his near-fore joint. Early prognosis was good as the slice hadn’t gone into the tendon but it was still deep. After veterinary treatment at the course, I dropped Alex and the kit back at the yard and took Minnie on to Valley Equine Hospital, where he stayed for a week.

Through a quiet Festival for us, Crebilly’s excellent second in the Plate on the Thursday was the highlight. ‘Billy’ lives down the pens, so I was extra pleased and proud of him. He was led up by Verity Peers, who had a great day with her first ever Festival lead-up.

Verity and Billy

Photo Credit: Pete Wilson

All in all, it was a fabulous Festival. Galopin Des Champs deserved his second Gold Cup success and it was the cherry on the Willie Mullins’ cake with him winning the Champion Hurdle, having his hundredth Festival win and nine wins in total as well. Rachel Blackmore won the Champion Chase, adding to her list of other top prizes at past Festivals. Some call it Irish Domination but to others, it’s just the turning of the tides. For years, Ireland had to sell their best horses to owners over here who had the money but nowadays, owners take advantage of the higher prize money over there and pick the Irish trainers.

Other Winners

On the Wednesday, Ruler Legend (Roo) won for the first time at Huntingdon. During Festival week, being at the smaller meetings is still fun – watching staff crowd round the TV in the canteen to cheer on their runners at Cheltenham. Roo is a former Flat horse with a kind character. He’s one of ‘mine’ but I couldn’t find childcare so I was unable to go. Yet, he was well looked after by Ionut ‘John’ Dina and I was pleased that Roo had won.

At Uttoxeter for Midland National Day, our horses all ran disappointingly except Regal Blue (pictured) who loved the heavy going and won from the front under Nick Scholfield. It was a great day for groom Chloe Cullen, who looked very proud of him in his Bet 365 winner’s rug and loved having a winner on ITV Racing.

On Monday 18th, I got an outing to Southwell and it was a beautiful sunny day. Spring was definitely in the air as the temperature was warm. I took ‘my’ Fortunate Man, nicknamed Little F Man, who was running over hurdles. He is a lovely kind character and has these big donkey-like ears. I’d missed out on taking him in December when he’d won so it made up for that when he beat Philip Hobbs’ runner by half a length. Sometimes, as a groom, you have a perfect day with a well-behaved horse – and a winner just adds to the perfection!

Little F Man at sunny Southwell

Gloria is Glorious

With only one runner at Newbury on the 23rd, it was a quiet Saturday but a successful one when All The Glory (Gloria) was a shock winner of the EBF Final, a Grade 2 at 25-1. She’d come to live in the new pen just a few days before so credit goes to her former head girl Georgia Plumb but I’ll still tally the win up as one of my own: it was number seven, equalising last season’s total. Gloria looked keen in behind, but cut through the rest of the field to win by nine lengths.

Out in the field, she’d honestly been a bit of a nightmare – standing in the furthest corner, hard to catch, barely following her companion and only letting me grab her at the last minute, losing a few shoes (including on the morning of the race!) and standing in the deepest mud as I tried to pick out her feet, which she waved about all too freely. Yet, I forgave all her little acts of rebellion when she won.

A mention must go to groom Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea, for it was his second EBF Final winner, the first having been three years ago with Annie Mc. Fred obviously has a rapport with the fillies or he’s just been lucky, but hopefully Gloria can emulate, or even better, Annie in the future.


Many mornings, as it’s been getting light increasingly earlier, down the pens, I have seen the same plump cock pheasant who I’ve called Philip. He stalks around, pecking up stray morsels of feed, emitting chirrupy noises. His feathers are a combination of beautiful reds – auburn, gold, chestnut, copper – all shimmering like oil in a puddle. He’s not tame but he’s not afraid either. He especially loves hanging around with Jolymaker (Jolly) and they happily share the mix I scatter for them. He then began coming to Jolly’s pen the odd afternoon as well.

Aintree will be here before we know it and hopefully, we can have a winner there. Racing is a great leveller. It’s like riding on a great big ocean in which the waves change and we never know which type we’ll be riding that day or that week. We could be drowning in a sea of failure or surfing the waves of glory.

Jolly and Philip

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29 mar
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Once again you have given us a wonderful story Jo how you fit everything in to your busy schedule it amazes me. With luck I will see you in Treetown in a couple of weeks time in the meantime stay safe. xx

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30 mar
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I’m not sure I’ll be going but I’ll message if I do. Thank you for your kind words ♥️

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28 mar
Obtuvo 5 de 5 estrellas.

Such a great blog about the every day life in racing yard, including the highs and lows. Thanks

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Chris Clayton
Chris Clayton
28 mar
Obtuvo 5 de 5 estrellas.

Another great insight and especially interesting to hear about how you manage those really long treks, in this case Kelso. Talking of "Philip", we have his twin roaming the field at the end of our garden and together with his entourage of four or five females scavenge anything the other birds spill from our feeder. Keep those blogs coming!

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