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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

Summer 2020 – Part 2

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

July 1st – I have never been excited to go to Southwell before, but I couldn’t wait. My last days off the yard, going racing, had been the Friday of the Festival and Midland Grand National Day. They seemed a lifetime ago. I had previously completed the online course and there was an online BHA questionnaire to be done prior to it; both were incredibly simple.

There was a pitstop before the lorry park where we parked up and had health questions, temperature checks and our stable passes zapped. A luminous green wrist band was handed over when our all-clear was granted: green for go. We unloaded in masks but could go unmasked inside the stables. I’d bought a flowery mask in a Cath Kidson print instead of the BHA issued black one. There were a few jokes about gimp masks, words were muffled, and it was easy to feel smothered in the heat, but it was OK to wear them, especially if it meant we were racing again!

There was no declaring of the runners as this was now done online by the office, and a colour bag drop instead of taking it inside the weighing room. The rest resembled Tesco – one-way systems, hand sanitisers were everywhere and, most excitingly, was the free packed lunch and nine race card!

I led up Tidal Watch (Tiddle) in the second, a chase. Lauren Hay led up Extreme Force in the eight. Spray-painted onto the grass of the paddock were large Ts and Js, for trainers and jockeys to stand on at the self-distancing two meters.

We had no winner, but the number one fact of the day was it was truly lovely to be back around my racing friends. Obviously, we could not hug in greeting, but it was lovely to chat, laugh and simply be around them. I had missed them.

July 4th – The local pub, the Plough Inn at Ford, opened – their sandwich boards were back out on the roadside. By the early evening, there were a few of our staff cars parked up at the bottom of the short gallop!

July 6th – We had our first winner of the season. At Uttoxeter, Perfect City won his first race over hurdles, having come over from France with fair Flat form. ‘Perf’ is looked after by Lauren and is owned by her step-mum Mrs Fitri Hay. Despite diving at the last, Perf won well and gave us a good fun day. There was no trophy presentation, so we did our own back in the stable yard. “Don’t drop it,” I told Lauren, imagining the large vase smashing. It was odd to have a winner when jubilant smiles were hidden behind masks, there was quietness instead of clapping and no feel of ceremony or celebration but, nevertheless, it was good to tick off the first winner of the season.

July 7th – At Newton Abbot, Nick Healy and I had a good day in the Devonshire sunshine. Itoldyoutobackit (which is a great name but is known as Ginge at home) came second in the juvenile hurdle, his first run after being somewhat awkward to load into the stalls onto the Flat. Later on, His Dream finished fourth, also over hurdles. The one thing that was sorely missed was the ice cream van!

July 12th – The evening before, Barry Geraghty announced his retirement. He was forever a gent and always an amazing jockey. Sadly, I never led him up on a winner, but I did drive and was on-hand when he won the Topham on Eastlake. That was another awesome ride, and his broad grin mirrored our own on the walk back amid the cheering crowds.

Barry has always been up there with the best – from Moscow Flyer to five winners at this year’s Festival, and every big winner in-between. He would always weigh out early when we had driven a runner on our own. A couple of seasons ago, he’d done just that at Sandown and after I’d legged him up whilst leading up, having already abandoned the paddock sheets on the privet hedge and snatching up my sweat rug that I’d earlier discarded, Barry observed ruefully, “They’re getting their money’s worth out of you today.” He said it with a grin and that grin will be missed within racing.

July 18th – We had our first Flat winner in ages when Imperial Command won over a mile at Haydock. He’s nicknamed Pumba back home, because he was so plump as a yearling when coming here after being broken in. I ‘do’ him but as I was away, he was taken by Harrison Day (head of travelling) and Rachel McMahon. He is physically fragile, but quite talented which is a frustrating mixture.

Photo Credit: Haydock Racecourse

July 22nd – Despite being away from work on annual leave, it’s always lovely to receive news that one of my favourites had arrived back in the yard, especially when that particular horse was Minella Rocco. In fact, I received one email and three Facebook messages, all informing me that he had arrived.


Rachel McMahon, 24, came here last September. She had previously studied for a degree in Equine Business at Maynooth University and, after graduation, moved to London to partake in the 2019 BHA Graduation Program and divided her time between the Stewarding and Disciplinary Departments. Rach spent one day a week on various racecourses where she was based in the weighing room.

From Limerick, Rach became involved in racing through helping her father train ponies at home for pony racing and ‘flapping’. She rode her first winner aged eleven. Rach began working at Martinstown at sixteen and continued to work there for four years, caring for a multitude of horses including Istabraq, Don’t Push It and Binocular. She spent a summer in Wales working for Rebecca Curtis before returning home to complete her degree. She then rode out for Gordon Elliot before uni lectures.

Rachel’s first winner

Rach has made fast progress since starting here, driving to the races alone and, last winter, introduced ‘Wine Wednesdays’ throughout the hostels. Back in March, she led up her first winner when Darsi In The Park won at Uttoxeter and she cannot wait to lead up a winner for JP McManus. I gave Rach a short interrogation:

What is your favourite horse?

In the yard, it would have to be the beautiful Minella Rocco. He’s been a terrific horse down through the years and it was fantastic to see him getting a new lease of life when he went hunter chasing last season.

Outside of work, it is my own pony The Green Monkey who I have had a lot of fun with in Ireland before I moved to the UK last year.

What is your favourite meal?

Tagliatelle carbonara.

What is your favourite drink?

Mimosa (Prosecco and orange juice.)

What has been your most memorable day here?

Getting to lead up Great Field on the Friday of the Festival. I had known him in Martinstown since he was a young horse. It was a proud day for me to get the opportunity to go to the Festival with him and lead up there in the “green and gold”.

A day out at the Cheltenham Festival

What are your aspirations for the future?

With racehorses, I would love to be involved with a Grade 1 winner. Career-wise, I hope to go further within the industry to work towards a pupil assistant/assistant trainer position.

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