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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

September 2021 Diary

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

September is a peculiar month, sitting at the backend of summer but often too warm to be classed properly as autumnal. The yard was busy but days spread out and sparse of runners. I seldom ponder that I’d have little or nothing to write about for my blog but I did wonder if September was going to be a short blog, representing the drag of the month that would eventually give way to October, autumn and proper jump racing.

I was wrong. September was as fast and furious as any other month! With broken ankles, winners and partying, I could not have made it up even if I’d needed to…

A cold swept through the yard like a plague, tracked back to all the staff who attended the Feastival Festival for a wild evening! There was much dancing, drinking and smaller staff sitting on the shoulders of the tallest to see the live bands. I avoided being ill until I drove Perfect City (Perf) Flat racing to Haydock, accompanied by a coughing, spluttering and hoarse Kea Taylor. Three days later, I too was coughing, spluttering and my voice was hoarse and husky for days. It was not a pleasant bug, which had spread through yards in the Cotswolds and even reached Lambourn. Though resulting in a few rough days and some sick leave on the yard, it didn’t escape us that it could have been worse, it could have been Covid-19.

On the 1st, whilst I was spending a few gorgeous days in Cornwall, the yard sent out a treble. Generation Gap and Pens Man both won at Uttoxeter and Quartz Du Rheu won at Worcester. Groom Megan Petrie had a tough decision when having to choose between Gen Gap and Quartzy but either way, she picked a winner and led up ‘Quartzy’. She was driven by Georgia Plumb and Kea Taylor, who tagged along on her afternoon off for moral support and to help.

The celebration was postponed for three nights until the staff social at the Coach And Horses, also known as Ali Baba’s, in Bourton-on-the-Water on the Saturday night. It was a cross between a post-season celebration and a pre-season party and ran typically to form, as Jonjo and Jacqui never fail to throw a fun party. All the staff were bussed to the Cotswold country pub masquerading as an Indian restaurant, and the food was delicious and plentiful. There were gallons of booze, ensuing an atmosphere as bubbly as the poured prosecco. After catching the bus back home, the party continued in the Cloth Cap Café, the staff social space, but I slunk away, having a 10K run the next day.

Staff Social September 2021

One Monday morning, Head of Travelling, Harrison Day, took a tumble off Minella At Dawn; he said his foot was hurting and waited to be picked up by the jeep. I was asked to go to Worcester races, which I did willingly, driving Priory Wood and Write It Down and groom Alex Howitt. I had the best day, seeing a lot of racing friends whom I hadn’t seen for a while. During the afternoon, Harrison messaged me saying he’d broken his ankle and would have to have surgery!

It took nearly two weeks to have the operation, after which Harrison stayed at home in Cheltenham to recuperate. He was very frustrated but messaged often, entertaining us all as he usually does in person.

September meant the annual visit of Tom O’Neill, eldest son of the boss, who assisted the maintenance men in starting to resurface the short gallop. Tom, 37, lives near Carlisle, was cheerily working very long hours, perfectly timing his visit with the staff social! There were two dumper trucks and a digger working up the five furlongs, like yellow mechanical dinosaurs. They also created a new pathway through the woods to divert the string from walking down the gallops, felling trees and accidentally chopping through the fibreoptic cable, which resulted in no internet for a few days.

The office was inconvieneced by the lack of internet but not as much as the younger staff who live on site. Phones returned solely to their original purpose of calls but the signal being pretty non-existent, everyone was stuck in the technological dark ages of the Nineties.

One mid-morning, whilst the tarmac was being renewed, an acrid tarry scent carried over onto the second yard as I tacked up. I mumbled, ‘It smells of roadworks.’ Canadian Kim Zimmich sniffed theatrically and throatily drawled, ‘It smells like sexy builders.’ She then marched her tack away to her next lot, girth buckles tinkling.

Two of Tom’s assistants, Madalin ‘Doc’ Radu and Florin Alin Radu jointly earned the accolade of Employee of the Month for all the overtime they put in whilst working on the path and the short gallop. (I’m sure Tom would have earnt it too had he not returned home!) Florin had worked here in the past and returned recently from working in the Netherlands. From Romanian, his English is excellent, he is cheery and a great worker – he will work equally hard renewing the gallops as he does mucking out, haying and odd jobs. Doc has been here over six years and has held many roles within Jackdaws Castle, including yardie, driver, learning to ride, and eventually found his niche in the maintenance team.

On the 10th, I was very excited to drive Edinburgh Castle, nicknamed Eddie, and Lauren Hay to Epsom Downs, a course I’d never been to. I love going to new racecourses, especially amazing ones. The stable yard took a little while to find, with Lauren helping to navigate, but we got there in plenty of time – the brick stable yard was sunk slightly, the doors painted emerald and the air was one of quiet calm. There was so much history, from the plaques pinned outside the stables of every Derby winner (it wasn’t hard to find the ‘Millionaires’ Row’ of where Aidan O’Brien stables Coolmore’s colts during June) to bronze statues and that famous circular winner’s enclosure.

Eddie ran in the Jump Jockeys’ Derby, under Tom Scudamore and finished sixth – he ran well, kept galloping and wasn’t disgraced back on the Flat after a few placings over hurdles. It was one of the friendliest racecourses I had been to – everyone was really helpful and I loved chatting to the staff on the Flat, though being the Jump Jockeys’ Derby meant there were a lot of people from National Hunt yards.

The twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers was poignant. A lot my colleagues didn’t understand the impact, they were too young to remember – a few were babies but most hadn’t been born.

It remains alive in my memory. I was working for Robin Dickin, near Stratford-upon-Avon and, at lunchtime, hearing about something occurring in New York on the old Heart FM, I switched on my chunk of a television (no remote control) to numbly watch the news, seeing the plumes of grey smoke and the collapse of those skyscrapers. All the staff gathered around at the start of evening stables, disbelieving and horrified. I also remember the minute’s silence we held along with the nation, the three old chasers – Wrens Island, Channarlie and Mister Kingston – standing, statue-still, as though they too knew that the impact on the world was massive.

Those of us who remembered September 11th included head lad Johnny Kavanaugh who at the time was still a jockey and was attending a charity golf day, head lad Alan Berry who was raking a walker at home when his dad came to tell him and Saturday work-rider Steph Bell who was still at school and a week earlier had been up on one of the Twin Towers when holidaying in New York.

I led up my first winner of the season on 21st, when Pens Man won his second chase in a row, this time under our Conditional Kevin Brogan. Kev rode a great race and Pens Man, a rich chesnut with large white socks and a big white stripe, won really well. He’s owned by the Girls On Lockdown, an all-female syndicate created last summer when there was little else to do but buy a share in a racehorse! It was our second winner of the two-day meeting at Warwick, so the sun shone down on us in more ways than one.

All the stable staff were relieved that the burger van – free with a voucher – was still present instead of the canteen. The food was so much better, with skin-on fries and a good range of food. It was the same at Worcester on the 24th, where the second-floor canteen was shut and dark, and a complimentary burger van continued to feed us from by the side of the track. It too offered food far superior to the canteen ever offered. Hopefully, both scram vans will stay. The sun was really warm, it was like being on the Mediterranean and Bob Hodge, head of travelling to David Pipe’s, made his way, as usual at the summer jump meetings, across the paddock to the ice cream van.

Pagero (nicknamed Paggy, Padge or Padgy, depending on who is addressing him!) did me proud when winning over hurdles by just under a length. Jonjo Jnr gave him a great ride and Paggy, who isn’t the easiest to ride at home or in a race, always dances and shakes his head eagerly when the jockey gets legged up. I led him up because he lives down the pens, which is where the horses I look after live. He is a little star – small in stature and a buzzy sort; he’s a yard legend. He’s got a lovely character, is an easy horse to do and never does anything wrong. After the race, I was told to go to the dope box, which is back over at the stables. I’ve never travelled over that expanse of grass so fast as when being propelled by an excited, thrilled Paggy. His legs went like pistons, his ears pricked, mane flying and eyes bright, he walked at such a tempo, it could have been a canter; his sweat stinging my arms. After a hose off, we both cooled off walking in a quiet row of the stables, in the shade but with the golden rays of being a winner remaining.

Photo Credit: Nigel Kirby Photography

Over a hundred and thirty racing yards opened their gates in celebration of the inaugeral National Racehorse Week, to portray the love and care that go into these horses day in, day out. Bunting was strung and the public wondered around yards, whilst staff and trainers gave demonstrations and talks. Social media buzzed with positive posts about racing and racehorses: a welcome change to recent times. Racing proved its dedication towards its horses.

September was, indeed, a crazy month, resulting in our twenty-third winner of the campaign and me standing up to become a temporary Head of Travelling. Many motorway miles took me to the races, a sunny day at Donny sales, bringing back Lot 91 (Generation Gap) when he didn’t meet his reserve – and I loved it. Roll on October and mend soon Harrison, but not too quickly!

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