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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

November 2020 Diary

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

On Halloween, I had a great day at Wetherby when ‘my’ Arrivederci won first time out – it was the first winner I’d led up this season too. I nickname him Lucky, because he is as grey as a ghost and very beautiful, with the biggest darkest eyes.

I learn with these horses every day and I’d been riding Lucky at home and thought he was too quiet. Yet, in the paddock he towed me round like I was a nuisance at his side! When he won under Johnny Burke, I was delighted. It was even better that Sir and Lady Broughton, his owners, were there to cheer us into the winner’s enclosure. Johnny said Lucky had grown up so much since last season so that’s all it was: growing up, not being quiet!

The next day Lingfield was rained off so I had a day off!

Occasionally, I hear of horses from the past. Yet, many years have gone by since I’d heard anything of Upton Adventure, bar seeing one of her offspring running at Maisemore point-to-point about three years ago. She won me five races over two winters when I was the weekend helper during my A-Levels at Matt and Nicki Sheppard’s. She was known as Rita, a sturdy black mare with a distinctive white marking on her face. Later on, she was Champion pointer and retired having won 26 of her 51 starts, all in ‘points. It would’ve been more wins had foot-and-mouth not fallen in the third year of her reign. She was a heroine to those who knew her, to her owner Mr Peter Corbett and especially Nicki. I’d never forgotten her and was delighted to hear she’s still alive and well. I was sent a link to a photo that trainer Sarah-Jayne Davies had put on her Facebook and it was unmistakably Rita, aged 27 and happy in her retirement. It was heart-warming stuff!

Upton Adventure winning in 2000

Now aged 27.

The employee of the month went jointly to our new conditionals Kevin Brogan and Philip Armson, who’ve both ridden their first winners for us. On October 18th, Phil, 20, won a Ffos Las bumper on Rabski and on the 23rd, Kev won at Cheltenham on Tegerek. In the last month, the boys have ridden lots more winners, picking up plenty of rides for other yards. Phil’s dad has a permit so he was brought up riding ponies and then rode successfully in ‘points, riding 15 winners. Phil’s win on Rabski was on his first ride for the boss and he’s recently had two winners for his dad, so hopefully there will be more to come.

Kev, 20, came here from Gordon Elliott’s and has worked really hard. He’s a former pupil of RACE and also worked for Ted Walsh. He’s getting a lot of outside rides, as well as a high-profile win on Unowhatimeanharry in a Pertemps Qualifier at Aintree. He’s from Kill, County Kildare and had four winners back home and, so far, has clocked up ten here.

On November 6th, I took the four-box with ‘my’ bumper runner Gulliver Collenges to Fontwell. He has such a kind and quiet nature; it was like taking a seasoned handicapper. He’s pretty smart looking too, with a bright bay coat, long white stripe between his eyes and a pink nose. I’d shortened his name to Gully but his head lad called him Oliver, so that’s stuck instead. He ran well, finishing third.

The journey home was trouble free until the Fosse Way at Cirencester which was closed. I knew that Hannah Worgan, head of travelling to Ben Pauling, was behind me so it was up to me to get us back on track. Satnavs are rubbish in such situations as they simply reroute down tiny lanes. I continued straight, through beautiful Bibury and eventually got back on the Cheltenham road. I lost Hannah when they turned down the back lanes to their yard and I missed the comforting presence of her headlights following me!

On the 9th, I had an easy trip up to Carlisle with Destin D’ajonc early on a Monday morning. I hadn’t had much to do with the big gelding before and he was a perfect gentleman. The ground had gone too soft but I’d go all round the country with a horse that well-behaved. At Hereford the next day, Jay Bisson and I had a lovely day. The horses did not exactly run well but what made it for us were the food vouchers – one for breakfast and another for lunch! It was really nice to receive hot food, especially for free.

I’d had a bit of a battle with rats. Down the pens, holes had appeared in the sheds, dug into the dirt floor. Even at Slade, the satellite yard where I keep my horse and look after any in quarantine, they’d been sleeping in the barrow of clean straw I had left ready for the morning, jumping out with a rustle to startle me. As a final insult, one sauntered past down the pens, nonchalantly and not scared, as if we were chums! Maintenance man Federico Bazan was summoned as he holds the vermin control license.

On the 13th, I was getting feed for the fields from the feed room when my dog Daisy was eagerly staring behind the electrolyte buckets. I moved a couple, out shot a rat, Daisy in determined pursuit. They ended up in a stalemate by the fridges until I moved another bucket and they continued towards the mounting block and towers of white buckets. Daisy caught it and, with a couple of vicious shakes, she did what terriers are bred for. Her eyes sparkled, tail wagging and she wore a broken dewclaw like a battle scar with much pride. Later, she was prowling round Slade as if she’d found a new purpose!

Ironically, Gin the ginger yard cat, was curled on top of a pallet of feed, yellow lozenge eyes looking suitably unimpressed as all this unfolded.

Having a shoot locally means that birdlife is very abundant; pheasants and partridge being the most prolific. Pheasants are the worst around the racehorses when we’re on a lot walking and trotting around the estate. They flap, clamorous, squawk and send many of the string whipping round.

Last winter, my rounds doing the fields were enhanced by Philip the fat, friendly pheasant. He’d chase the jeep and come close, but not close enough to touch and he’d follow me when I fed the horses. Sadly, after early January, I never saw Philip again so the guns or a fox had got him; the odds weren’t in his favour. Yet, I’ve never forgotten him, especially his glowing feathers of many browns, chestnuts, golds, like autumnal leaves.

I was reminded of Philip when I was mucking out a field shelter; sheltering warmly in a deep straw bank was a cock pheasant, who’d obviously spent a safe night there. I mucked out quickly, avoiding going too close and he just watched me with shiny beady eyes.

I took Lithic to Wetherby on the 14th when Sarah Peacock, head of travelling to Tom George, ran up to me. It transpired that our head of travelling Harrison Day had written in the grime on her lorry door “I’m A Twit” (for the sake of keeping this suitable for all, I’ve changed a vowel!) and not noticing, Sarah had driven all the way home. I told her to write “I’m A Bigger Twit” on Harrison’s door at the next opportunity. Later on, despite the dark, I noticed that I had been blind to another four-letter word had been etched into my passenger door, so I feel the start of a lorry-writing war!

Incidentally, Lithic finished second – Kevin gave him a great spin but Lithic is highly frustrating! Earlier on, Ludo Gaubusseau, head of travelling to Donald McCain, was watching a bird of prey swoop and soar above the lorry park. I watched too – it had a distinctive tail and a flame colour. I googled on my phone and, amazingly, it was a red kite.

On the 19th, Carys’ Commodity won his second race this season – he is really knuckling down to be a good hurdler. He is adored by his groom Lauren Hay, whose dad and step-mum own. Lauren gets all protective of him and when she’d been jocked off early in the week, she’d mustered all the courage to speak to the assistant trainer, insisting on riding him again, every day, without fail. And it works because he won really well!

I took Quarenta to Ascot on the 20th – I love Ascot and, despite the coronavirus regulations, it was great to be there. There was no hike up to take the colour bag to the weighing room – the sales ring had been converted into a colour bag drop with bench-sets for every race. It was a great idea.

Q is looked after by yardie John Dina but he sadly couldn’t go as he doesn’t drive. I jumped at the chance to go, having an affinity with Q. I led him up when he “finished second” in a Lingfield bumper and was awarded the race four days later due to the dark conditions and I led him up when he won over fences at Fontwell last season. He’s a beautiful shiny black and is another well-mannered dream to take racing.

I didn’t expect much as I’m not the luckiest round Ascot, but when Q battled to beat Wandrin Star, I was as delighted as if it had been my own winner! He was covered in kickback but I hugged him and Jonjo Junior regardless. They had been awesome and Jonj gave him such a peachy ride. I was proud to lead him into the circle winner’s enclosure, away from the placed horses. We then had a photo taken next to his owners. I’ve only led up two winners this season and they’ve both been in Sir and Lady Broughton’s green and red colours. We were in the dope box so it was very dark and rainy when we left, yet I felt totally sunny! I was sorry that John had missed out on leading up an Ascot winner, but I was delighted as it was my first there.

I had ridden Q the day before but I’d thought he was fat! So once again, I’ve proved to be an awfully bad judge of a horse’s readiness to race!

The next day, after Lucky’s win at Wetherby, I was nervous and worried about him running again. It was the Betfair Chase Day at Haydock, but obviously a lot less buzzing without crowds. I got to wear a Betfair coat as it was a televised race. He’d been in fine form at home however he dragged me about the paddock (even worse than previously!) but it wasn’t to be. He stepped at the second to last flight when just making his move and fell. He got up straight away and only had a couple of cuts. The main thing was that he was coming home safely.

Colleague Spotlight

Head lad Alan Berry, 37, is a huge part of Jonjo O’Neill Racing and is very much respected. Back in January 2002, when a carpentry apprenticeship back in his native Kildare fell through, ‘Berry’ (as he’s known) came over to Jackdaws Castle. His dad is former champion jockey Frank Berry who is racing manager to JP McManus and his older brother Fran was a Royal Ascot winning jockey.

With such a racing pedigree, Berry naturally became an amateur jockey. He rode sixty-four winners, including winners at the Festival on Butler’s Cabin and Sunnyhillboy and a Grade 1 bumper winner on Refinement at Punchestown. He also won a Horse & Hound Cup on Knife Edge and finished second in an Aintree Foxhunter’s. In addition, he won bumpers on subsequent Irish National-winner Shutthefrontdoor, one of which was Listed, and a bumper round Market Rasen on Don’t Push It. In fact, he looked after and rode Don’t Push It at home; a big and bolshy horse which Berry could handle masterfully. In 2013, Berry fractured his vertebrae in a fall in Ireland and retired from race-riding.

Berry also ran the satellite yard, Slade Barn, for six years before being drafted up to the main yard to run second yard four years ago. He’s been implicit in modernising the yard’s daily routine and creating positive changes for the staff. For instance, working one weekend in three instead of every other weekend and changing the mucking out regime from staff doing their first lots to the same three stables daily – not only to be more efficient but increasing their pride and enjoyment in their work.

Berry is usually the first to initiate a new team member by sending them into the office for ‘a bag of air’, ‘tartan paint’ or, his favourite, ‘a bucket of steam’. It’s always harmless humour but is a great way of welcoming people.

Berry enjoys a pint, a party, days out to the Cotswold Wildlife Park with Eva and Lisa, reading, history, especially the Second World War, pranks and practical jokes. He is a fine horseman, great at treating injuries, answering questions and tells a great story.

Berry lives on site with wife Lisa, whom he met when she worked here a few years ago, 5-year-old daughter Eva and Border terrier Bruce.

What’s your ideal day off?

A few pints in the Plough with the lads or spending time with Eva and Lisa.

What’s your best day’s racing?

Winning on Refinement – Punchestown is my home track and I spent my younger days there.

What are your favourite racehorses?

Don’t Push It, Bob Hall, Minella Rocco and nowadays, Ashfield Paddy and Punches Cross.

Favourite Drink:


Favourite meal:

Gammon, egg and chips.

Which is your favourite pub?

The Plough at Ford or any that lets me in!

What’s the best advice you can give?

Stay in school, get an education before coming into racing.

Parading a retired Don't Push It at Sandown with AP McCoy

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