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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

Summer Diary 2020 - Part 1

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

May 7th – The Employee of the Month went to…me! I have always been a supporter of this award as it is very positive. In fact, I had asked Jacqui O’Neill two years ago to reinstate it after it had lapsed. I have often seen the staff feel proud and chuffed after receiving it. I was given the reward for staying behind when many of my colleagues were furloughed to wash all the rugs, Polypads, brushes – a huge mountain of equipment accumulated as so many of the horses went out in a day.

I had also helped out in the office, did jobs, wrote a lot of the nomination for the Lycetts Team Champion Award with former colleague Amber Cartlidge and PA Clare Bowring. A couple of photos and a small interview was put up on the online newsletter. It meant a lot to gain a bit of recognition and I had to ignore my husband Joe’s comment that there weren’t many staff members to choose from! OK, I also had to admit that it had taken me a solid seven and a half years but I was pleased nonetheless, and enjoyed the bottle of champagne I won!

In the same issue of the e-newsletter, AJ O’Neill created a drone video to commemorate the keyworkers of the NHS. He mowed the initials into the grass and took exceptional footage, spanning around the Jackdaws Castle estate. From up high, it resembled a patchwork quilt of striped greens, brown corduroy and dark grey ribbons of the tarmac roads. As well as being amateur jockey, assistant trainer and a degree student, AJ is very talented with all aspects of drones and computers.

8th May – For the 75th VE Day celebrations, Jonjo and Jacqui held a social-distancing barbeque up at the helipad. There was lots of food and a fridge overflowing with food and drink, music and sunshine too. I regretted not thinking to bring a few meters of my wedding bunting to drape over the fencing.


19th May – I completed my COVID-19 Racing Industry Participant Information via BHA. There was no racing scheduled but it was important to be ready.

The Lockdown enabled even more summer jobs to be completed than usual. The “compound” is an area in the estate that is a dump. To one side is a bonfire, piles of hardcore, two lorry containers now used for storage, traffic cones, rusting broken forks, white plastic railing, white plastic garden chairs, old signage, tyres of all sizes…

There are stacks of non-slip rubber tiles, stable matting, mountains of stones, bleeze blocks, rubble and earth. A huge rotting muck heap. There is parked machinery and four rusty, retired vehicles: two yard jeeps, Alan Berry’s former runabout of an ancient Peugeot 205, and the previous sweeper.

Down the track is a glade, where mounds of old gallop surface have been pushed back into the ditches. There’s a tangle of nettles and brambles, flowering cow parsley losing its froth; a rotting chicken coop, discarded rubber buckets and tall towers of pallets. There is a ring of tall trees giving cool shade. The peace only broken by the commotion of Daisy chasing a rabbit.

There were stocktakes of everything, including the horses’ medicals, tack in the tack room and in head lad Johnny Kavanagh’s “secret tack cupboard”, uniform, etc. I typed up many of these final lists. Down the ‘garages’ where everything and anything is stored, I boxed up the uniform in neatly arranged rows, labelled per contents and size. By now, the other shelves were unrecognisable – belongings stored in labelled suitcases; many other items recycled, sold via eBay; the floors swept of dust.

Johnny’s “secret” tack cupboard is in the back of the lower drying room. I only gained access a couple of seasons ago

to make up extra bridles for the owners’ day parade. It was not quite the mystery we’d all thought – no doorway to Narnia, no Fritzl-esque captives. It simply contained all sorts of tack: shiny silver bits, bungees, more snaffles, draw reins, girths, bridles, new cross nose bands…all dangling off lots of hooks, including on the back of the door. Now I get the key and go in fairly often – to hand out replacements and new tack parts throughout the season. Last year, I bought plastic stackable boxes from Hobby Craft, replacing the many plastic bags from various saddleries. A jumble of leather and plastic now collated neatly, and every item easily found from all the laminated labels. All the new and spare rein stops are stored in an old Celebrations tub.

June 10th – Hughie, the boss’ little brown Jack Russell terrier, celebrated his 11th birthday. He is always round and about, loves walks but age has whitened his muzzle.

March Is On sunbathing!

My favourite job during Lockdown was marching round the fields to take photographs of the holidaying horses to be sent off to their owners. My own little terrier Daisy would set off, a list of horses in which fields and my phone. It was perfect, going around, seeped in sunshine and taking lovely photos, enjoying all the early summer greenness, cloudless skies and wildflowers.

When riding out commenced again, Jade Aspell, the racing secretary, regularly brought in homemade gooey chocolate brownies and richly decadent tiffin. And, continuing the tradition introduced last season, AJ had to supply a cake for falling off On The Bandwagon. He brought in a Colin the Caterpillar cake from the local BP garage. After a food shop, I would buy the big cookies to share. Lockdown Life was far from unpleasant – it was just sad not to be able to go on holidays or for the yardmen not to be able to go home to their families in Romania.

The Lycetts Team Champion Award 2020

Back in February, Amber started the process of our nomination by putting an anonymous staff questionnaire in the feed room. There was reluctance at first but a lot of useful information was gleaned from the responses, but it must be said that the odd member of staff must have having a really bad day!

As soon as Aintree was cancelled, I stopped riding out and sat in the owners’ suite tapping away at a laptop, trying to write everything up. We had not done overly well for the past two years but now I had the time. When the realisation dawned that it was all do with our company policies, I got the staff handbook (whoever reads that?) and worked my way through alongside Amber and with input from Clare. It took writer’s block and realisation that somethings were actually policies, and thinking of their implementation and outcomes. I got really into it and loved writing it. The deadline was extended. Amber and I added photos and captions – probably the most fun bit. The end document was over 18 000 words, so I’d basically done the Master’s degree I always dream about doing!

Monday 25th May – Our yard and team was awarded a Gold Star and delightfully shortlisted into the final four (over 40 horses’ category). It was a massive team achievement and I felt very proud of everyone.

Friday 29th May – Due to coronavirus halting the yard visits, the Lycetts judges arranged a Zoom call. We had virtually gathered members of the team, including the boss, Jacqui and AJ to represent the O’Neill family and higher management, Joe to talk on recruitment and I as the writer of our nomination, Jade to show the office role and Katie Stubbs, all the way from Shap where she was at home on furlough! The judges were all welcoming and empathetic, but it was still a very nerve-wracking experience – one that must nearly mimic a job interview. There was a lot of laughter though, and it was a really positive experience.

Friday 12th June – There was another Zoom meeting called but with all the shortlisted yards. I had rushed through my yard jobs and gone home to shower before coming back up to the office. We were all armed with glasses of wine. To begin with, the judges handed out Certificates of Excellence, which we gained one for Reward and Recognition. (See above for Employee of the Month!) It was great when Roger Charlton won Best Newcomer because our Matty Gill was there whilst furloughed from here. There was then an Innovation Award, won by Jo Foster for modernising her team’s working week, moving away from the conventional hours and giving a thoroughly personal approach.

Anyway, Dan Kubler won the overall (for the yard with less than 40 horses) – they too are a small but innovative team, with a big emphasis of self-development and education. And staggeringly, we won the overall for the over 40 horses’ category. I was massively proud, and it came to light later, that we had shown a great diversity in our team whilst on the Zoom and interacted really well. I even got quote from the night of the NTF’s webpage, “We are utterly delighted. The team’s contributions helped me so much with the nomination and we will have a big celebration when we can all be together.” Well, we had a little one that night over delivered fish and chips and several bottles of fizz.

And, of course, we’ll have a true one when we have our social space/coffee room to open. The team won £4000 pounds to put towards something everyone would benefit from. Using the questionnaires and verbally asking people, it came to a decision that a social space would be great – one to have the coffee in at break time and to watch the racing in later on in the day.

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