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  • Jo O'Neill

November 2022 Blog

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

This month has really pelted us with a concoction of weather, as well as good days and bad at the races. The epitome of a November in National Hunt racing, I suppose!


Relentless Rain

At Ludlow on November 3rd, the lovely sunny weather we’d had earlier in the afternoon for Itso Fury’s win and Dollar Bae’s second then tumbled into torrential, slanting rain for Locks Corner’s race. ‘Locksy’ finished second, running a blinder so despite getting sodden, it was a lovely day out. Plus, it set a precedent for the rest of the month of battering storms and welly boot weather.

During many evening stables, down the pens that resembled more of a quagmire, I had to shelter in the feed shed with my little terrier Daisy or in an empty field shelter, sat in the clean straw. The rain swelled up over the guttering and fell in sheets, beating down on the roofs like a hundred hammers knocking in nails – mesmerising to watch but always, at some point, I had to step out in it to start working again. After a couple of weeks, Daisy, a hater of rain, started staying at home, curled up on a bed. I didn’t blame her.

The rain has pushed us to the limit. Gateways turned into bogs. The track through the woods to the short gallop became a swamp. All the coats hung up in the drying rooms emitted a fusty, damp odour, never quite drying around the collars and cuffs. Hats were the most difficult to dry, the chinstraps still clammy the next morning. Gloves turned into crispy second skins. Relentless rain is definitely the most challenging condition to work in. If we forget about snow that is, let's not even think about snow yet…


Who needs Cheltenham when you have Southwell?

On the 11th, I was sent to Southwell with Sermando, who is a yard character, a lovely liver chestnut, who in full training is a quiet ride but when fresh, he’s wicked and merrily drops people. At the races, he’s always quiet to handle and stands statue-still to plait.

Southwell coincided with the first day of the Open meeting at Cheltenham and we might have been far from the glamour of there but in the stable yard at the Nottinghamshire track, there was a carnival atmosphere. George Little, second travelling to Ben Pauling, was in the stable next door to me and permit holder Kate Hazard was on the other side. Leigh Pollard was overseeing her runners and we chatted during the race. Andrea Kelly from Tim Vaughn’s called out a cheery hello, and head of travelling to Donald McCain Ludo Gaubusseau was in good form. We all caught up on the latest news, had a laugh; I'm not sure why everyone was on good form but we were.

Also, Semando finished third, which was an OK run. He's lazy and made jockey Kevin Brogan work for a place. He certainly wasn't blowing that much – the horse, not Kevin. Kevin definitely worked the hardest of the pair.


Canteens

The standard of stable staff canteens at racecourses differs considerably. Wetherby has delicious meals with side salads and coleslaw, and fat scones as oozing with jam and cream as a Cornish cream tea. Catterick is worthy of a country pub with a large menu and golden chunky chips, alongside a vast array of homemade cakes and bakes. Ascot is delicious and free – in fact, we receive two vouchers, one for breakfast and one for lunch. It is a big canteen with plenty of seating and a relaxing area full of comfy, squashy sofas and the racing showing on a large TV. Last summer, York too was similarly amazing with their choice quality and deliciousness. Ludlow offers a full roast dinner but sadly Hereford, despite a refurbished canteen, is a shadow of its former self. During the covid pandemic, Worcester and Warwick closed their canteens and provided burger vans instead, which were great but now these are gone and the actual canteens have reopened. Sandown is another delicious canteen, which I look forward to visiting.

Delicious meals from York, Sandown and, my favourite, Catterick


I struggle sometimes because I'm a vegetarian. Last month, after going racing a lot over couple of weeks, I actually got tired of another jacket potato with cheesy beans as there was nothing else to choose from. Sometimes, there's no side salad, or the cheese in a toasty is shiny and congealed or the pasta bake is mushy but it's hard to complain when all these meals are provided free of charge. A few years back, it was only at Cheltenham Racecourse where stable staff received a voucher but now the majority of racecourses have them. Not having to pay is such a positive and have bought stable staff in line with owners and the jockeys, both whose meals are provided for free.

Yet, I wish a few more of the portions were generous. We’re stable staff so we're always hungry – plus now it's cold and raining so we need subsistence. A tiny spoonful of veggie stew with six potato wedges or a gloop of curry on a few chips makes my stomach gnaw, the hunger barely sated. Our own head of travelling Alex Howitt agreed, saying that her chicken nuggets and chips at Uttoxter was more like a child’s portion.


A Magical Winner

The day before at Exeter, our runners had been unsuccessful so on the 15th, when the first two at Hereford ran below par, I was beginning to blame my driving. Was I the jinx? The bad luck charm? I was delighted – we all were – when Magic Seven won the bumper in former Paddy Power-winning colours of Christopher Johnston. Magic is a sweet horse with gorgeous looks, who we’d all queue up to ride at home. He won really well under Jonjo Junior and there were big smiles in the winner’s enclosure, especially from groom Isabelle Nowicki, whom we call Izzy.

Earlier on, I told Izzy she had to plait Magic on her own as I had to plait up the other two runners. After being a bit apprehensive, Izzy then plaited up brilliantly and deserved to win the best turned out; Magic did look the pick of the paddock. Magic was then the first winner Izzy had led up. I was proud of her and pleased she’d learnt a lot.

Simon White, head of travelling to Henry Daly, had a winner with the ‘gamble’ Braganza Boy.

Sarah Peacock, head of travelling to Tom George, led up the winner Jobesgreen Lad in the handicap chase. I had driven the bumper winner. We made a victorious, proud trio, colour bags in hand, laughing a lot. Julia Batho, head of travelling to Paul Nicholls, asked to join us as they’d had a winner too. Sarah, with a grin, pointed out they have winners every day. ‘As do you, Simon,’ she added with another grin, adding that actually me and her deserve our winners the most.

Even at the smaller, midweek meetings, winners are what we thrive on. And I do love the people around me at the races – through rain and shine, they're always upbeat and laughing and smiling.


Finding a perspective

On the 18th, we had three runners at Ascot. I led up Broughshane, nicknamed Shaney, in the first, the maiden hurdle. It was his first ever time on a racecourse since winning a point-to-point in Ireland and he behaved impeccably whilst being shampooed and plaited. Yet, like a naughty child he took a keen hold, jumped two before swerving violently right and running out. He then had a great time charging round Ascot with another loose one before being eventually caught at what was the furthest point from the stable yard. He frogmarched me back, a sweating, excited half a ton of racehorse on grass that felt slick underfoot. Shaney was thankfully unharmed.

'Shaney'

Garry Clermont ran in the next and put the first race misdemeanours into perspective when he fell, slipped and was fatally injured. My heart went out to his groom John Dina who really loves his horses. It's always sobering to carry the empty bridle back, half trying to cover it under the unused sweat rug. It’s racing and we all know it but we all still wish days like that never happened.

The last runner Halifax finished fourth. He's a bit of a playboy, pulling like a train around the paddock but didn't seem to work terribly hard in the actual race. He was very fresh to lead back down to the stables afterwards for his lad Cain Rees and then rocked the lorry all the way home in his enthusiasm to get back to his stable.


Colleague Spotlight

Ionut Gabriel Ungureanu, nicknamed Gabby, has been here just over five years and is one of our team of dedicated yardies as well as a driver of the two-boxes. He drives the sweeper and swims horses - so is very useful! Gabby has the knack of loading difficult horses - the rest of us can be waving brooms, criss-crossing lunge lines and creating clicking noises and the horse refuses to budge, hooves stubbornly glued to the ground. Then, Gabby turns up and the horse will suddenly run up the ramp!

His home is in the countryside near to Curtea de Arges, Romania. After studying to become a highly qualified assistant vet at an environmental university, he assisted two veterinary surgeons. Before that, Gabby was the driver for a recycling facility and also an area manager for wood fuel factory. Gabby enjoys returning home every summer and owned a donkey called Marcel there before he sold him this summer.

Gabby, 35, speaks excellent English and is a clear communicator, often acting as a translator for his fellow Romanians. He looks after Biowave Go, Saint Davy, Nitwit, Locks Corner and Rock Of The Nation. He loves going racing and seeing different parts of the country, which has included going up to Scotland on overnights – Perth twice and Musselburgh once. ‘I've seen more of England than Romania,’ says Gabby, adding how he especially loved seeing Stonehenge on the way to Wincanton. ‘Maybe I'll go there one day,’ he chuckles.

Why did you come to the UK? I wanted a change and to see a bit of the world.

How did you come to work at Jackdaws Castle? Through a work agency.

What's your favourite part of this job? Winding up my fellow workers, especially the girls.

Favourite horse: I always loved As You Like. Now I like Biowave Go.

Favourite racecourse: Newton Abbot.

What's the worst aspect working in racing? When you try your best and work hard but some people don't do the same.

Favourite movie: The 1995 version of Pride And Prejudice.

Who's your ideal date? A younger version of Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde- someone who's silly and smart. I like blondes the best.

Where in the world would you like most visit? I'd love to go to the pyramids in Egypt.

Other interests: UFOs, mysteries and conspiracy theories. I watch documentaries and historical dramas. I collect colognes and cheap watches because I can’t afford the expensive ones!

Gabby and his latest favourite Biowave Go

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