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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

May 2023 Blog

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

This had been a month of farewells, which cast a shadow over a little of the sunshine.

May is when riding out becomes quieter as the horses holiday in the fields and jobs in which to lose oneself increase, like strimming, mowing, pressure washing stables and washing rugs. Cut grass permanently perfumes the air – the countryside lush with a vibrant greenness. As the bluebells purpling the woodland faded, the grass became dotted with little sunbursts of golden dandelions, the delicate buttons of daisies and cow parsley unfurled its white lace.

Between the Flags

On 30th April, there was a yard day out to the local point-to-point at Andoversford. There were many spectators who dodged the predicted rain, but sadly only had small fields to watch. We wandered round the many stalls as a burger van wafted the scent of sputtering fat. We were further tempted by the cake stall and stacks of brownies, as well as the sugar rush from cubed fudge in many flavours. The dog show had been held before our arrival but many of the participants were still milling around by their owners’ ankles, noses quivering and tails swaying.

Our amateur Jack Wilmott (pictured above) rode Mrs O’Neill’s horse, The Composeur in the Veteran and Novice Riders Mens’ Open. The Boss used to train three in the race: Not At All, Steady The Ship, who went to the sales last autumn, and ‘Compy’, who has been retained for the younger lads to learn on. In fact, earlier in the day, the Members’ Race had also been won by Mister Dick, who once won a hurdle race as Stratford for the Boss before being given away as a ‘pointer.

Jack trailblazed on Compy, who ran well to finish second to Steady The Ship, and we cheered them into the second spot. Pointing is so different to under Rules, but the best aspects include its friendliness and entertaining races.

The First Winners

After the King’s Coronation weekend, we sent out our first winner in Judicial Law at Worcester, where we often tick off that number one for the season. Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea was his adoring groom…and it set us up for a few more.

Jockey Richie McLernon bounced back from that awful leg injury by doing what he does best: riding winners. He even won on Crossing The Bar, which was the horse he’d had the fall off originally. He made the long drive up to Hexham worth it by winning on the mare All The Glory – her first success and the first for her owner, Will Kinsey (pictured).

Other winners over hurdles included Gwennie May Boy, Soldierofthestorm and the amazingly plucky Blue Shark, who won his sixth race out of seven starts, whilst La Domaniale won over fences at Aintree.

Summertime winners are great – obviously they don’t carry the prestige of winter ones but they put us firmly on the board and enable us to tot a few up before the autumn arrives.

Always biting: Blue Shark at Southwell

Friendships and Farewells

‘Friends are the family we choose for ourselves’ are the sugary, sentimental words printed on keyrings, tea towels and magnets, or stitched onto chintzy scatter cushions. Whimsical, but also very true: throughout the years, racing has given me a lot of friends.

I never worked with Jessica Gulrich but she’d been at Nigel Twiston-Davies at least nine years and was a big part of the yard. We met through mutual friends, former colleagues and at racecourses, eventually becoming firm friends. Chats at the races grew into meeting up out of work.

Jess was great at rallying the troops to go out for pub meals, dog walks, quizzes, Racing Welfare fundraisers, happy hacks and, last summer, a 5K sponsored walk round the Cotswold Farm Park. She’s cheery and bubbly and a true lover of horses. As a groom during her years in the Cotswolds, she looked after the successful Ballyoptic, who won a Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at the big Aintree meeting in 2016, a Totepool Silver Trophy and a Charlie Hall Chase in ’19, plus Cogry who won nine races in total.

On April 28th, I joined Jess’ colleagues and her boss down the Black Horse in Naunton to wish her goodbye over drinks. It was a lovely couple of hours, chatting combined with laughter, jokes mingling with the latest news as our glasses chinked ice cubes. I was transported back at least a decade, some of the people were different but the essence was the same: a welly-booter down the local straight after morning stables.

People started to peel away; Fay Shulton yawned, saying she had to leave for the Chepstow evening meeting by 3pm. In the carpark, it was a sad farewell, and the hugs were snug. One thing must have made it easier for Jess: taking home three ex-racehorses in Saver, Cogry and Templehills and her spaniel Dexi. I am grateful to know all these people but it’s saddening that every season, a couple more leave racing.

Craig Wylie also left David Pipe’s. He originally started working for David’s father Martin in 1995 and for many seasons shared the travelling with Bob Hodge. Tall, slim and with haircuts varying from straggly to closely cropped, I saw Craig all around the country from Ffos Las to Goodwood and Fontwell to Cartmel and every destination in between. Craig always said hello and even though he was quiet, he was very amusing and I’ll never forget him saddling and leading up wearing his long shorts at those hot summer meetings. He’s off back to Scotland, to Hawick and I wish him lots of luck for the future.

Then…jockey William Kennedy retired on the eve of the final day of the season. The winter before last, he’d given a heartfelt and very frank interview about not getting many rides and that two winners were not sustainable for a career. Will was brave to speak out and last season was a similar struggle so he chose to retire. A former Champion Conditional who was associated with the talented Time For Rupert, Will had ridden plenty of winners for my Boss, including a treble in March 2015. I first led him up on the Thursday of Cheltenham Festival week in 2013 when we were at the less glamourous Towcester: he came out to saddle, saying he was always pleased to put on ‘the green and gold’ of JP McManus’. A couple of seasons later, in January 2015, he won at Kempton on Lost Legend (pictured below) – the yard had been going through a quiet spell and we had a double that day, one at Warwick and ‘my’ Lost Legend, who Will did not give up on and they won in a photo finish.

I wish Will a lot of luck. He’d definitely make a great presenter on the TV and a pundit at the races for his all knowledge. Plus, he’s such a dapper dresser. No one is smarter; even as a jockey, he’d match the colour of his goggles to the owners’ silks. Good luck Will.

It’s not just people that we wave goodbye to, but horses too. Arrivederci, nicknamed Lucky, went off to his new home in Kent, where he’ll be retrained to, hopefully, become an eventer. He’d won a bumper and two hurdles but never reached his potential over fences. Yet, this is the beginning of his new start and I cannot wait to follow his progress.

It’s always bittersweet when a favourite gets rehomed – it’s brilliant that they have a future but it’s sad too. I’ll never forget Lucky and the great days we shared. He was a lovely ride at home, one who I rode well into my pregnancy last year; he always flicked his toes out in trot and kept his ears pricked forwards in happiness. I loved Lucky to look at – a tall, narrow French-bred with a delicate head, dark doe eyes and long ears. Over the last five years, his coloured slowly changed from an iron grey to white, splattered with lovely grey dapples. Lucky is one I won’t forget.

Saying these farewells isn’t easy but time always marches on. For every person who leaves racing or retires, an opportunity is opened up for some new faces. At this time of the year, there are many sales so young stock are filling up those empty stables. The air is filled with possibility and new beginnings.

Colleague Spotlight

Aaron Sutherland starts his day by riding out and then spends the rest of the time in the office. Any day can be a mixture of combing through the racing calendar as well as Human Resources, Complaints or PR, or on a racecourse or at the sales. He’s a very versatile team member, often driving the lorry and saddling runners. Yet this native Dubliner was not always horsey and it wasn't until the first big lockdown, that he spent his time learning to ride. He transferred these skills onto racehorses and started to ride out. Two years ago, he came to work at Jackdaws Castle as the Race Planning Manager. Since riding out daily, his riding progressed quickly and he rides work regularly. He loves a work party, celebration or an evening in town or down the pub with his friends.

Photo Credit: Diane Volpe Photography

Aaron, 26, lives outside Cheltenham in Andoversford, still in a house share with the jockey Jonjo O’Neill Junior and often borrows Vinnie the dachshund. He is an enthusiastic, cheerful, chirpy person who loves a chat and adding to the banter in the string. As well as riding, he cycled a lot during the lockdowns, and last summer, participated in the Great Racing Welfare Cycle with a team from work.

Did you have a horsey childhood? Not whatsoever. As a kid, I once went trekking in Wexford when I was on holiday.

Why did you move to the UK? I’m here nearly four years now, time flies when you’re having fun, eh? I moved over here for a job in the Operations Department at Cheltenham Racecourse. Before that, I worked at Leopardstown Racecourse and my plan was to get some experience at a UK track before moving back to Ireland to a higher position but I’m still here four years later. I was at Cheltenham for two years before moving to Jonjo’s.

Why did you come to work at Jonjo’s? My two housemates worked for the Boss and most of my friends worked there too. I couldn’t ride when I moved here and always had in the back of my mind that it would be a cool thing to do. I also thought that it would be a handy way to make a bit of cash on the side on a Saturday morning when I was working Monday to Friday at Cheltenham.

I had the odd riding lesson at Bourton Vale Equestrian Centre but Covid came along. Lockdown hit and I was furloughed, and had much more time on my hands. A few days a week, I went down to ex-jockey Jason MaGuire’s, helping him by cutting his grass and other odds and ends. That quickly progressed to mucking out along with other yard duties. He even got me riding out, trotting around the roads.

Then came along Patman Du Charmil, the trusty retired racehorse. Jojo was very generous in letting me learn how to ride on her pride and joy, which was her first son but is now her second son since she’s since had a real baby.

Along with some hacks to the local chilli farm and lots more lessons, I started to be more accustomed to this riding craic. AJ O’Neill also had a ‘pointer that he was given by Sir and Lady Broughton called Monbeg Gold, which I helped to bring back in to work. Jojo and I had some lovely adventures riding around Slade, exploring the different bridle paths.

One summer, I had also given a hand at the store sales for Jonjo, arranging the horses to be pulled out and ready to be trotted up so we could maximise the amount we saw in one day.

I suppose a combination of all of this led to Jonjo and Jacqui offering me a job. It’s been a steep learning curve but I love learning from some amazing people. Jonjo has a wealth of people with years and years of experience behind them, from everyone in the office to riders and yard staff to the maintenance team. Everyone is a cog on a gear who all contribute to the horses winning.

Describe your role in the office: As Race Planning Manager, myself, Jonj and Jonjo all liaise on races for each individual horse. Once their race is picked, we inform the owners so they can plan their diaries. I will go racing and represent Jonjo, liaising with owners. I get involved with the vet too as we need to know the meds, withdrawals and how long a horse is going to be off. I could be doing anything from making breakfast to ordering parts for a tractor. All this after riding out a couple of lots each morning.

Every day is different and you don’t really know what you’re going to face when you drive through those front gates. However, after putting on my boots, I check in with head lad Johnny Kavanagh in the medical room. His favourite choice of cigarette, Silk Cut Purple, will be hanging out of his mouth, and then I usually have a rough idea of how my day is going to be.

Favourite racehorse: I loved riding Time To Get Up, who was an utter gentleman.

Favourite racecourse: In Ireland, Leopardstown because it’s the best dual-purpose track and has Grade 1s and Group 1s. What more could you ask for? In the UK, it’s Ascot for the same reasons but also the lunch is the best I have had yet.

What do you love about racing? It’s such a unique sport, we get to ride the athletes at home every day. How many people in a F1 team can say they have driven the team car?

Favourite jockey: Ryan Moore – he’s pure class. Less is more with him, which is what I love: the mystery and skill too.

If you didn’t work in racing, then what is your dream job? An A and E Consultant.

Favourite meal: Steak.

Favourite drink: Guinness (but it tastes different over here).

Favourite snack: A plain Cadbury’s chocolate bar.

Favourite holiday destination: New York.

Other hobbies: Hanging out with Vinnie and playing squash.

Which celebrity would you love to take on a date? Margot Robbie.

Ideal night out: A good meal then to a bar with live music.

Favourite movie: Inception.

Favourite music: The Coronas.

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