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  • Jo O'Neill

October 2022 Blog

Updated: Nov 2

It’s that time of year again. The trees vigorously started to shrug off their colours of summer, their luscious green, changing into their orangey-red attire of autumn. The scenery is beautiful, interlaced with tendrils of bonfire smoke, rather than the summery scents of cut grass. There has yet to be a frost and temperatures remain mild. The newspapers have hinted at snow in a fortnight but surely not. Last week, there was an average of 16˚ and lots of rain…


Out and about again

After staying on the yard over August and the majority of September, I went racing again – to Worcester on the 23rd, Market Rasen the following day and Bangor on the 28th.

Arrivederci


At Worcester, I was delighted to spend the day with my favourite Arrivederci, who I call Lucky. It was a sunny day and I enjoyed getting the horses ready with my colleagues. Lucky now lives down the pens and is being trained from the field, so he required a vast shampooing and his tail rubbed over with a Vanish bar. It worked – the muddy patches disappeared and he was pretty white. Lucky was third (we don’t need to say it was only out of three runners!) and since then the form has turned out well. Found On, the winner, followed up with another win at Cheltenham and Twig was narrowly beaten there too. We were lengths behind but it was Lucky’s first time over fences so hopefully he learnt a lot.

At Market Rasen, as we were packing up, assistant trainer AJ O’Neill bought Fred Mirea and I pick ‘n’ mix in a pizza box. This resembled a vivid puzzle of candy in every colour and shape, including imitation Percy Pigs, jellybeans, snakes, cola bottles and many Halloween sweets like skulls and spiders. And they lasted all the way home and into the next day too.

It was a lovely surprise at Bangor when Princess Anne walked into the paddock to support the charity race day being held for local riding for the disabled charities. No wonder there was a heavy police presence! She scrutinised the runners in the paddock, in which we had Pens Man. Sadly, we didn’t have the Royal approval as he didn’t win turn out and then was brought down at the first!

HRH Princess Anne looking at Pens Man at Bangor


Since then, the ‘proper’ National Hunt has started. Chepstow, at the start of October, is always seen as the first rung of the jumps ladder. The sky was haunted by foreboding grey clouds that opened as I went to get the saddle for Holly. My hair stuck to my forehead, cold tiny rivulets trickled when no one wants water to go, my boots splish-splashed through the lorry park that had become a lake and droplets ricocheted sideways, drumming off the lines of lorries. Holly finished third following up on Collector’s Item’s win. It was another good day, apart from the weather.

Cheltenham and Aintree followed, where I was honoured to take yard favourite Cloth Cap, nicknamed Clothy, for the Veterans’ chase. He’d pulled up in the last two Grand Nationals but he’s still a star, having won a ‘Hennessy’ in 2020. He is a grumpy character, only putting up with me at feed times and glaring at me the rest of the time. He won the best-turned-out, which I put down to him being a legend, not necessarily my plaiting. He ran well enough, on ground that was too soft for him. To be honest, sometimes the results don’t matter – just being at the top tracks like Aintree is amazing. They’re quieter and not as bustling as the big meetings but the prestige is still there.


Photo Credit: Jutal Roxy


My favourite part of the job

It might be clear from the above paragraphs that what I love the most about this job is going racing. I love loading up the equipment, the horses and my colleagues – basically, everyone and everything needed for a day’s racing – and driving up towards the main gates. I always play a radio station – Radio 2 at certain times of the day, or Virgin Radio on the DAB in the smaller lorries or Absolute Country on an app. The chatter and songs become the backdrop to our journeys.


I love days out – some are bad, some are sad, some are easily forgotten, but the majority are good days, surrounded by great people and lovely horses. Winners are always the best; driving them is great and leading them up is always a fabulous feeling. There’s nothing better than leading up a horse you’ve looked after since an unraced youngster as he climbs up through the ranks of bumper, hurdle and chase. The whole day is exciting – the twang of the tannoys and then ramble of the commentary, the horses’ hoofbeats and the rainbow of the jockeys coming out to get legged up. The hollers and screams from winning connections, of the frenzied crowd and of the winners being announced.

From behind the scenes in the stables to out front on the track, the people make up the structure of a race day. The heads of travelling who drive miles daily, who are professional to the minute and help everyone out. They’re all friends and winners proceed a volley of congratulations. On other days, there may be commiserations or even humour, if a jockey had to push or scrub a lazy horse for three miles. I have known many of the BHA staff for years and they are also there to help us out and a horse going into the dope box often means time for a catchup. When I take the colours to the weighing room, if its early enough, I might drop the bag into the changing room. I chance seeing one of the team of valets, who are usually sorting through the jockeys’ gear, polishing boots, placing out clean towels or tights; lines of safety pins stabbed into their tops or perusing the Racing Post.

All the different yards are represented by their individual sponsors and different coloured coats. We are as identifiable as different schools by their uniforms. Royal blue for Donald McCain’s, Black for David Pipe’s, navy for us…but we’re still one big, huge team.

Another aspect I enjoy about racing is turning out the horses, meaning how I enjoy plaiting them up and doing quarter marks. In the warmer months, we wash them all over but in the winter, it often is too cold (unless they live out, then we have to shampoo them). A plaited black mane resembles shiny blackberries along a horse’s neck. The plaited tails also look tidy, especially a chesnut’s who has a mixture of colours like autumnal trees, ginger, orange, flaxen and russet, all in one braid. There are all sorts of handy hints that we use to help turning out the horses - baby oil to create shiny patches around the eyes and glossy noses, talc whitens leg markings, hair gel sticks down pesky punky hairs and detangler help a tail to flow. All these products, accompanied by the snip of scissors, make the stable yard smilar to a Toni & Guy hair salon!

Alex Howitt is now the head of travelling; she turns out the horses to a high standard and loves driving miles around the country. It can be a hard job, often made more difficult by weather, being late or lines of traffic. Yet, Alex

has made a great start alongside lots of winners and I wish her lots of luck for the seasons ahead.


The Jackdaws Castle Bake Off 2022

On October 10th, I organised the second Jackdaws Castle Bake Off, with our favourite owner the Honourable Mrs Lizzie Wills and her friend and professional baker, Tanya Dancer. I made jugs of tropical fruit punch and a large group of staff trooped up. Some brandished their bakes shyly and others more brazenly.

There were six plates of wonderful offerings, all bar one following the theme of animal cupcakes. The judges started tasting as the staff apprehensively sipped on the punch, the volume of their chatter raising. Crumbs and paper cases littered the tables as the judges cut through delicious sponges and wonderful decorating.

Dayna Jones, in honour of being Welsh and the lads baaaa-ing at her, had created marshmallow sheep and a slightly phallic one we won’t elaborate on. Having shot off to Bourton-on-the-Water Co-op at lunch, AJ and his team baked a selection of chocolate cupcakes; no animals bar a horse drawn on in icing but some sugar paper daisies, a hurley and sliotar, a rubber duck and quite a few squiggles. I’d made fox cupcakes out of seriously sweet fondant icing, of which I was very proud. Leah Burnett had made gorgeous little owls and hedgehogs. Verity Peers and Aleks Pawlowska teamed up to make a wonderful zoo of cupcakes, including a flamingo, giraffe, zebra, lion and crocodile. Tirana Jakupi and Jack Wilmot made a farmyard of marshmallow sheep and pigs.

Everyone had put in a lot of effort and time into their cupcakes and the judges had a blast, if not a sugar rush. The Best Decorated went to Aleks and Verity because their cupcakes were all individual designs and beautifully done, Dayna won the bottle of prosecco for the most Fun Design – hopefully for her herd of sheep, AJ and team won the Best Taste for their richly dark chocolate flavour and Leah won the trophy for Star Baker for hers. It was a lovely evening and I thank the judges and competitors for giving up much of an evening and making it fun.

Leah the Star Baker


With cupcakes behind us and busy days ahead of us, the yard will concentrate on sending out winners.


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