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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

May 2024 Blog

Updated: Jun 3

May arrived with many horses and humans alike starting their holidays. Not that it meant the yard was quieter…it was as busy as ever and we sent out our first ten winners of the new season.

Summertime Joy

Early summer is a beautiful time of the year with an avalanche of flora, as well as an upturn in the weather. The undulations of the Cotswold hills turned Crayola green as weeks of rain collided with sunshine. Different colours then burst onto this canvas of lushness, like blobs of oil paint; Summertime is the artist readying its brush.

On the days I check the fields, it’s easy to absorb this onslaught of nature. Bluebell season was upon us with the purpley clusters growing in the hedgerows, verges and woods. Forget-me-nots added pockets of sky-blue as dandelions opened up their jolly sunniness and cow parsley unfurled into a lacey white, growing tallest against thick, tough nettles. Trees reached their new leaves into the early sunshine and pale blossom, tinged with pink, fell like inaccurately tossed confetti. Cowslips resembled the elasticated legs of tiny bloomers decorated with yellow bows. Delicate daisies, downy dandelion puffs and golden pools of buttercups added to the hues.

Amid this, as if a George Stubbs’ painting had come alive, are the equine holidaymakers on their stilt legs, which are seemingly at odds with their bellies fattening like piglets. Their summer coats glossy and tails swaying like flags in a lazy breeze to flick flies away. The air thrums with the first bees and birdsong only relents at nighttime. I love finding the horses sunbathing, lying flat out in a crush of grass, twitching and flickering ears the only signs of a tickling fly.


Sunny Days

In jobs gone by, I remember the summer months as quiet; weeks of sunshine, chores, sunbathing and attending the odd meeting at Worcester and Newton Abbot. Nowadays, we still have about sixty horses in training, which means the riders have as many as four or five lots, at least one person going to check the horses living out in the fields and others off to the races or sales.

During afternoon stables, the team breaks off into different groups – some stay in the yard headed by head lads Johnny Kavanaugh and Georgia Plumb to do the horses and a jeep-load goes off to look after the horses in the pens and the fields. Other colleagues create pockets of resistance against the onslaught of undergrowth with whining strimmers and grumbling mowers. In the yard, pressure washes drone, preparing for painting.  Head lad Alan Berry is back on his summer job of mowing, a baseball cap shading his eyes and arms getting a farmer’s tan.


Rugs

My favourite task is to wash all the rugs that are no longer needed. The dirty rugs were stored in an empty stable, stinking of stale urine and encrusted poo, covered in stains and hairs. The washing machine trundled and sloshed its way through many 40˚cycles, taking two rugs at a time or four lightweight sheets. On sunny days, I hung up the rugs outside to start drip-drying before moving them inside to continue to dry.  After being warmed by the sun, the rugs smelt of that familiar scent of crispy and clean with a faint perfume of non-bio liquid and traces of wildflowers and cut grass.

I also wash the brushes and grooming kit bags, all the sweaty Polypads from the tack room – basically anything that doesn’t move!


A Few Changes

The new order, the yard going under the joint license of Jonjo and AJ O’Neill, has got off to a successful start. The talented Wilful (Willie) was the first winner for this new season, making the long journey to Hexham worth it and we steadily tallied up more, including Trapista winning twice and hardworking conditional Ben Macey winning on Time For A Pint at Warwick. To my delight, Mammies Boy’s win at Huntingdon made it a first success` for this season for the pens. When Collectors Item won at Uttoxeter, it gave his devoted groom Megan Petrie a lot of satisfaction because ‘Colin’ is one of her favourites and last season had been a disappointing one overall.

All the stables passes, which are our BHA identification cards to get into the racecourse stables, were renewed and renamed as Jonjo and AJ O’Neill. It was a great opportunity to also renew as many photographs as possible and many colleagues had their new ones snapped against a plain office wall. Apparently, Ionut Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Ungureanu’s new photo is a lot more Crimewatch than passport.

There’s been lots of deliberations over a logo, new branding and the colour of our future uniform. Rumour has it one suggestion has been brown, much to our horror. ‘Imagine leading up in brown,’ exclaimed our head of travelling Alex Howitt. ‘We’d look like turds.’ I couldn’t agree more!


Bartlemy Point-to-Point

On our annual trip back to Ireland to see family, we went to Bartlemy Point-to-Point, in rural County Cork. Bartlemy was on a hillside with decent viewing, the green countryside rising and falling about us. ‘Pointing is very different over there, a lot more of a commercial enterprise. All the races bar one were maidens, with many winners going through the sale ring soon after. There wasn’t the same race format with ladies’, mens’ or members’ as over here and no tents selling tweeds and embroidered Argentinian dog collars. Just three long trestle tables selling candy, fizzy drinks, tacky toys and, randomly, silly string. Plus, a pink and white ice cream van offering a vast menu of 99s.

The social aspect, however, is the same, just without the picnics. My husband Joe has done many a sale in the past so he saw a few familiar faces and his brother-in-law Mike O’Donovan chatted to many locals. In the crowd was the former jockey, Adrain Maguire, of Barton Bank and Viking Flagship fame, grey-haired but still of the same stockiness. He cheered on his son, Finny Maguire, who rode a double. It was a great afternoon out.


Colleague Spotlight

‘I was always sporty but horses took up most of my time so I chose to stick with horses,’ explains Kayanna Pilgrim, explaining the options she had when still at school. It is debatable if horses chose Kayanna or she chose them!

Ever since Kayanna, who is often known as Kay, started here in November 2023, she has been a great member of the team. Her friendly nature and positive attitude are infectious. She’s a talented rider too – one that takes every good day with every bad day with her signature huge smile.  Kayanna’s route into working in racing is a fascinating one, and she’s the first employee here to come through the amazing Riding A Dream Academy, which supports youngsters from diverse backgrounds and urban riding schools to get jobs in the British racing industry.

In March, in honour of International Women’s Day, Kayanna, 17, and I did a little skit about how she was a new recruit in racing. She shone as star of the show. Kay’s riding is improving daily and she’s competent at the races. In fact, she led up Jonjo’s final winner as a sole trainer in Cawthorne Banker at Kempton.

Kayanna is from Leicester but, when she was younger, she travelled back and forth to the Caribbean with her family, including Dad Ken and Mum Pattrice. In fact, it was due to a family member in cousin Kamani that taught Kay to ride cross country, through which she caught the riding bug that got her into racing. Though she doesn’t own her own horse, at home, she has a pet bunny rabbit called Coco.


Did you have a horsey childhood? I loved horses but didn’t have a horsey childhood because I lived in the city.


How did you get into horses? Through watching movies and being inspired by a show called Heartland on Netflix, then I got into a small pony club called the Urban Equestrian Academy.


How did you get into racing? One day at the Urban Equestrian Academy, we were introduced to the Riding A Dream Academy, where my love for horses grew even stronger. Through the Academy, I attended the British Racing School’s twelve-week foundation course.


How did you come to work for O’Neill Racing? At the BRS, both my instructors recommended Jonjo O’Neill, and I happily and willingly came here.


What’s your best day in racing so far? Leading up my first winner: Tap N Go Leo at Catterick Racecourse.


Racing hero: Khadijah Mellor (pictured with Kayanna at Aintree's Grand National meeting), who is lovely and is such an inspiration to all girls who want be jockeys or just work in racing. She is always willing to support others and encourages others to follow their dreams.


Best aspect to the job: Working with horses every day and then finally seeing them do well.


Worst aspect to the job: Horses getting injured.


Favourite Racecourse: I really liked Ascot and Aintree but I already expected then to be of a high standard, whereas I was surprised at how well-kept Kempton was and how the atmosphere was really buzzing.


Favourite jockey: Richie McLernon, who is a gentleman and is always positive and encouraging.


Favourite ride: I love a lot of the horses but my favourites are The Long Walk, Doeshefitthebill, Wellington Arch and Boston Boy.


Hopes/dreams for the future: To pass my driving test, to try working in a Flat yard and travel the world working with horses.


Favourite meal: A Chinese takeaway.

Favourite drink: Boba (Bubble) tea, in particularly peach or berry flavour.

Favourite snack: Haribo Golden Bears and chocolate.

Favourite music: Old R&B.

Ideal day off: To have an early breakfast, a nap, do a deep clean, make some dinner and then relax.

Favourite holiday destination: Antiqua.

Favourite film: All the Disney movies.

Favourite book: Black Beauty.

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