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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

October 2021 Diary

On 25th September, seven of us sweated our way over, under and through the Inflatable 5K round Cheltenham racecourse. AJ O’Neill, Nick Healy, Alex Howitt, Georgia Plumb, Lilly Whale, Joe O’Neill and I went straight after fifth lot. We were buzzing before, conjuring up all competitiveness. AJ left us all in his wake, whilst the other younger ones trail blazed off in front. Lilly got cast attempting one obstacle so I legged her up and over. Joe kept with me at a steady pace and stayed on, gradually overtaking the others and finishing a joint second. Aaron Sutherland-Loughlin, form guru, had advised us to Vaseline our knees – nothing seedy but advice we should have taken. Lilly wore leggings and stuck less to the inflated obstacles than the rest of us. We laughed a lot, cheered, bounced and strung the medals round our necks with the pride of Olympians.

On the 4th October, I held the inaugural Jackdaws Castle Bake Off in the owners’ suite. I strung up jolly bunting, put on a music channel and wore my old waitressing apron. The judges, wearing brand new hot pink aprons, were our favourite owner, the Honourable Mrs Lizzie Wills and her friend (and baker) Tanya Dancer. All cakes and a plateful of brownies, decorated with miniature flags of Lizzie's colours, were carried up the stairs with a mixture of pride and trepidation.

Megan Petrie had made a green cake decorated with a rosette, horseshoe and champagne bottle candles to represent winners’ celebrations. Alex, Lilly and Nick (chief mixer apparently) created a three-tiered masterpiece of chocolate and orange sponge, Victoria sponge and topped with a Guinness sponge and shamrock. The middle tier represented the four big winners from last season, with replicas of their heads sculptured from icing, all exact to their colours and markings and that number cloths. There was also blue sky, white rails and a winning post. Lilly sighed, ‘It was the most stressful three days making our cake.’

Tirana Jakupi, Mia Pitman and Chloe Cullen made two tiers smothered in green buttercream, sugar paper flowers and almonds, over which a figurine of a horse and rider cantered - impressive for the first cake they had ever baked. Shannon Bishop and Kea Taylor made a Madeira sponge, topped by an impressive ‘fence’ made from icing and Matchmakers, complete with white rails and orange take-off boards.

Lizzie and Tanya tasted each one and discussed the winners. Racing secretary Jade Aspell won Best Taste for her brownies, Shannon and Kea won Best Decorated and Alex, Lilly and Nick won the big bottles of prosecco and the Star Baker aprons for their impressive creation. Tirana, Mia and Chloe won the booby prize of a bag of flour to encourage them to practice baking for next year. It was a fun hour of no soggy bottoms, excess sugar and smiling colleagues that I was really proud of. That all put so much effort into their baking. Thank you to our judges Lizzie and Tanya - here's to next year and the cupcake theme.

I've been doing lots of driving to the races and other places, whilst Head of Travelling Harrison Day is recovering from a broken ankle. I took youngsters to Noel and Tash Fehily in a convoy with Chris Jones’ transport and I bought two back home. Going there, I passed a massive long barrow and on the way home, I went through Avebury and its standing stone circle. I was back driving through this mystical Wiltshire countryside again on the 14th when on route to Wincanton. Every large hump was a possible long barrow and yardie Ionut Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Ungureau was intrigued to pass Stonehenge.

As well as seeing lots of different places, I have loved seeing my racing friends more frequently. I love the horses and the sport but the people are amazing too.

On the 7th at Exeter, I was with Opine and we were stabled next to my best friend, Hannah Dean, Head of Travelling to Ben Pauling. Her colleague was plaiting their runner so I cheekily asked Hannah if she would plait Opine’s mane, which she did whilst I plaited his tail. Then after saddling her own runner, she helped saddle mine, oiled his hooves, legged up my jockey and then collected my colour bag. By then, we were chuckling that Hannah had done the majority of my work!

This does portray how much we rely on one another and how we support each other through good days and bad. However, I pointed out that maybe my presence had been too overwhelming for Hannah who, at the next meeting at Exeter, happened to be stabled right at the other end of the stable yard!

The next day at Chepstow was a sad day. I led up my Ready And Able in the second last race – he had been a long-term inmate down the pens and I had given him the nickname Ted, because he looked like an oversized teddy bear. He finished last and after recovering from being overheated, he was seriously lame behind. After consultation by two vets, the decision was made that it was kinder to put Ted down. I gave him a hug and said farewell.

I will miss Ted for his quirky character. Every Sunday morning, he’d roll in the mud and with a squeal, go haring around the field, tail stuck up in the air. Despite knowing which pen he lived in, he’d sometimes explore the neighbouring pens when bringing himself in from the field in the evenings. His own pen was a disgraceful mess - it was shocking how one horse could create that much disarray but he was always sweet and kind.


The death of owner Trevor Hemmings was a sad loss to racing. His green, yellow and white colours have been a huge part of National Hunt racing for decades. Amongst many victories, he had three Grand National winners, a festival three timer with Albertas Run and one of his three Hennessy Ladbrokes winners was our Cloth Cap last year.

I led up my first winner for Trevor Hemmings in an Aintree bumper, in October 2006; Super Nick trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies. He came and said well done to me in the winner's enclosure, that iconic figure topped by a sage cloth cap. I felt so delighted to have led up a winner for such a big owner and won't ever forget to meeting him. Since coming to Jonjo's, I've led up a few more winners for him, including ‘Clothy’ twice at Catterick and Kelso and Theme Tune at Carlisle.

The horses will continue to run under the Executors of the Late Trevor Hemmings but, I expect, will eventually peter out. Similarly with the late David Johnson's blue green and white and Raymond Mould’s emerald and white stars - colours that are still missed from racecourses today.

Cloth Cap donning the photographer’s cloth cap in celebration after the Ladbrokes’ Trophy portrayed that Mr Hemmings was present in spirit, like he'll be with the rest of his winners this season.

The fifth National Racing Staff Week took place between the 16th and the 23rd. At Kempton on the Sunday, all staff were given a bag of sweets – a lovely touch. There was a golden ticket the day before at racecourses, hidden Willy Wonka-style and with a prize of £100 high street voucher, and free packets of Polo mints handed out at Exeter. It was a great continuation of the initiative that was previously held in summertime. Even though some racecourses didn't recognise the week, the ones that did were generous and social media was full of enlightening posts, bubbling with staff appreciation.

This month, we steadily clocked up a few winners. The yard was delighted to give our Bake Off judge Lizzie Wills a winner on the 16th at Ffos Las – File Illico won really well under Jonjo Junior.

Lizzie Wills collecting her prize.

Photo Credit: Ffos Las Racecourse

At Exeter, An Tailliur won again. He has a lovely attitude and did us all proud. To win five in a row is awesome! The Devonshire fog had crept its way up

Haldon Hill, becoming thicker as the afternoon progressed until the paddock was grey in the murkiness and the final fence was a dark wedge. Everything was slick and cold with damp and mizzly rain that fell relentlessly. We didn’t see where An Tailliur was all the way round, as the big screen was just a smokey blur. It wasn’t until the rumble of hoofbeats and the crack of whips whizzed past that we knew our little grey, whose coat is as dappled as the fog that camouflaged him, was winning.

Quartz De Ruhr also won again, this time up at Carlisle and again led up by his doting groom Megan. On the 21st, Orrisdale (Orri) was unlucky when, three lengths clear, he fell at the last at Newton Abbot meanwhile Kilbrook won first time over fences at Carlisle. This racecourse has been very lucky for Megan – that was her second visit there in a week and her second winner.

This win delighted me as he resides down the pens; the mud, fresh air and daytime grass obviously a huge positive to him. I wasn’t there in person, I was in the opposite direction down South on my second visit to Devon in a week; this time the fog stayed away and the sun shone. As daylight slid into darkness somewhere up the M5, a golden harvest moon hung huge and vast in the starry sky.

Clothy and Grand Annual-winner Sky Pirate both ran really well at the Showcase, finishing fourth and second respectively. I loved being at Cheltenham, amongst the crowds that were back cheering and milling around in their tweedy finery. Most days, there is no better place to be.

Colleague Spotlight

Clare Bowring is part of the team that works in the office in the role of PA and Events Manager. She is a day-to-day PA for Jacqui O’Neill, liaises with owners and organises a lot of important things like the staff Christmas party and other socials throughout the year. ‘I oversee the logistics and planning for all owner events at Jackdaws,’ says Clare. ‘Every day is different, which I really enjoy.’

After studying at university and before coming to work here in July 2019, Clare has added many different roles to her career, including floristry. However, in her present job, she’s busier with computer screens and A4 paper than petals and stems. She was originally from St Peter Port in Guernsey but now lives on the mainland in Ledbury, Herefordshire. She married husband Tom in May 2018 and they have a mischievous black and tan Jack Russell called Indy.

Did you have a horsey childhood? My father was the horsey influence, he was Master of the Hunt, ran the local pony club and guided my three siblings through years of three-day eventing. He gave me the racing bug and that was such a lovely thing to share with him, getting my first Cheltenham membership etc. He always admired Jonjo so he would have been chuffed to know I now work for him.

Do you ever go racing? Every now and then through work which is lovely. I have Cheltenham membership so cannot wait to get back there with the crowds.

Favourite horse here? Limetree Boy.

Favourite winner here? Cloth Cap winning the Ladbrokes’ Trophy, I could barely watch the race for nerves so I ran in and out of the room while Tom shouted updates to me. Watching it back knowing he had won; it really was wonderful to watch.

What are the daily highlights about working for JJO Racing? The location is incredible, whatever the weather. Just driving in each day reminds me how lucky I am. I also get to work with a great team, it’s a very happy place.

Other interests: About eight years ago, I did numerous floristry courses as I have always loved flowers. Since then, I have done flowers for friends’ weddings and events. It is something I would like to do more of in the future.

Hobbies: Cooking, swimming and floristry.

Ideal day off: Going to the beach with Indy. It’s his favourite place, running after waves or his ball. Walking for miles listening to the waves is just so relaxing, even in the rain.

Favourite holiday destination: Oman, it is such a beautiful country. We travelled there for over a week, from the mountains to the desert where Tom proposed, and then on to the coast. It has everything you could want and the people are just the loveliest. I never thought I would go somewhere twice when there’s so many other places to see, but I would definitely go back to Oman.

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