Jonjo O'Neill, he of the crinkled, perpetually smiling eyes, is in a particularly devilish mood as he contemplates the Cheltenham Festival, and specifically a question which asks him to assess the importance of triumph keeping pace with expectation. His response is not exactly what may have been anticipated. "It's very important," he stresses, "because if I don't have winners at Cheltenham I'll be out of here."
"Here" is not just any horse-racing establishment. It is Jackdaws Castle, 500 acres of it, deep in the Cotswolds, and the most fabulously appointed National Hunt training stables in the land, so much so that it really ought to feature prominently in the World's Great Hotels in a special section allocated to five-star luxury for our four-legged friends, with its swimming-pool, three solariums and therapy rooms.
"There's always pressure on you to have winners," O'Neill explains. "You put it on yourself mainly, don't you? But if I don't have winners, then I won't be getting the horses, so how do you think I'm going to pay for the rent on this place? I have to have winners."
Surely it is inconceivable that owners - and by that we refer principally to his landlord, the enigmatic and guarded J P McManus, who reportedly paid £4 million for this equine pile - could lose faith in an icon of the Turf, a man who won two National Hunt jockeys' championships, and whose associa-tion with the 1986 Gold Cup-winning mare Dawn Run and 1980 Champion Hurdler Sea Pigeon will always be writ large in the sport's chronicles?
Yet, just as a football manager's distinguished playing career does not protect him from the sack, so it is for a racehorse trainer with a riding background. In truth, Jonjo's indomitable character - he is the only man to win 100 races in a British season as a jockey and a trainer - would not allow him seriously to consider such a fate; not even last season. A year ago, the stable had just reopened for business after its inmates had been stricken by that catch-all term, the virus, what the vets prefer to diagnose as "a low-grade bacterial infection". O'Neill had no runners between Christmas and late February.
"It was difficult for everybody, particularly for the owners and staff," he says. "It was just a bloody nightmare, to put it bluntly. It was frustrating at the time, but you have to look at the future and kick on with life. Keep looking back, and you'll never get anywhere." The result was, however, that, so far adrift were his horses in their preparation when he opened up for business again that he failed to add to his Cheltenham Festival tally of 10 winners as a trainer.
This season, there is no such dirt in the carburettors of his 90-plus fleet. He is approaching a century of winners for the fourth time in five seasons. That is not to say that the build-up has been without mishap. Lingo, among the favourites for the Champion Hurdle, had to be put down after a freak gallops accident. "It was very difficult. He was a great fav-ourite in the yard," says O'Neill. "A lovely little horse. Everything was going right for him. It just wasn't to be, unfortunately. But when you have livestock, you get deadstock, as they say."
Next week O'Neill, 53, seeks a balancing of fortunes with his Festival team of 15. They include the undefeated Black Jack Ketchum, about whom he is particularly enthusiastic, Refinement and the McManus-owned Olaso. But many eyes will be scrutinising Iris's Gift, conqueror of Baracouda in the 2004 World Hurdle and the O'Neill contender for the Gold Cup.
The grey's participation, let alone his chance of winning, is the subject of considerable conjecture. O'Neill claims the nine-year-old is the classiest contender in the race, "a real machine", albeit that despite intensive schooling there is still a touch of the bog-standard comprehensive about some of his jumping. What we do know is that he did not win a steeple-chase until last September, and was error-prone when following up with two victories. He fell last time out at the racecourse and has also hit the turf in a recent schooling session.
Not an auspicious preparation. It has been contended that his owner, Bob Lester, a former coalman, minder to O'Neill and now landlord of The Red Cow in Nantwich, has persuaded the trainer to persist with attempting to convert Iris's Gift into a chaser. Lester rebuts that, and O'Neill's bullishness gives the lie to that suggestion, too, when you raise the issue: if Iris Gift doesn't win, then who will?
"He will win the Gold Cup," asserts his trainer. And second? "Positively second: Beef Or Salmon." He adds: "The going won't bother him. He's won on good ground and won on heavy. If he puts in a clear round of jumping he's got a live chance."
O'Neill, who served his Flat apprenticeship with Michael Connolly at The Curragh and moved to England as a jump jockey attached to Gordon Richards' yard in 1973, comprehends only too well the precarious nature of the National Hunt code. They ought to call him the Titanium Man, so numerous have been the plates inserted in his battered body.
He almost lost a leg in 1980, following a fall at Bangor, when a plate in his right leg moved and caused infection. He received treatment in four hospitals - in Wales, England and Switzerland - to repair that shattered limb rather than consider amputation, although even that would have been preferable to the pain, "which was gradually weakening me mentally and physically".
He may have imagined that the agonies he underwent over so many months, during which time Sea Pigeon triumphed again at Cheltenham in the hands of John Francome, would be the nadir of his life's experiences. If so, he was wrong. Later, he contracted lymphatic cancer. You suspect it was not just the treatment he received which enabled this redoubtable character to pull through that ordeal as well. In comparison with those periods in his life, most of the trials of everyday existence are, for O'Neill, no more than trifling irritants.
He readily jests at the lifestyles of today's jockeys compared with his generation. Even the mighty Tony McCoy, with whom O'Neill bears comparison as a master in the saddle and who he now employs through McManus, does not escape the humorous barbs.
It was in April 2004 that O'Neill inveigled McCoy away from Martin Pipe, with whom he had secured nine jockeys' championships. The lure was partly financial, but mostly the prospect of partnering the best horses. "He wasn't much good. But we've sorted him out a bit now. Since he joined us, we've made a man of him," says O'Neill, heavy on the sarcasm, as he breaks into laughter.
He does so, you suspect, because he is not entirely at ease under interrogation, but primarily because he learnt long ago that life was not designed to be regarded too seriously; not, anyway, when you have emerged from the darknesses into which he was pitched.
But how does McCoy compare with the élite of other generations? "He's very good, different class," O'Neill adds. "He knows everything; he knows pace, he knows pedigrees... you name it, he knows it. He's got a great clock in his head. He's an outstanding rider. One of the best we'll ever see."
Leaving McCoy out of it, you would have to debate into the small hours to convince O'Neill that today's horsemen compare favourably with those of yester-year. But then the job description has changed. "We had no mobile phones then [to book rides], and we had no agents, we had to look for our own rides," he says. "We had to go and ride out and work in the yards. That's how it's changed. Now they just pull up in a flash car, get on a bloody horse and away they go. It's a great life, isn't it?"
He pauses, before adding, with a mischievous smile: "If only the lads today got a bit fitter, they'd be as good as we were. They're all partying. We never drank or smoked. We went straight home to bed. They don't go home now."
In reality, of course, jump jockeys now are as hardy, and as disciplined, as they were when O'Neill was in the saddle in the Seventies and early Eighties. They will certainly need to be when the action begins under the spectacular backdrop of Cleeve Hill on Tuesday.
If you wonder what memories it will stir when he arrives, maybe of Sea Pigeon jousting with Monksfield, he disappoints you. "Of course you remember the good days. You'll never forget those. But you don't want to be dwelling on them," O'Neill maintains. "You have to kick on and try to make sure there are more days to savour."
There will be many who can still recollect his inspired riding of Sea Pigeon, Dawn Run and Alverton who will cry hallelujah if he does.
LIFE & TIMES
BORN: 13 April 1952, Castletownroche, County Cork.
CAREER AS JOCKEY: rode 901 winners 1969-87, including the then record of 149 in 1977-78; champion jockey '77-78, '79-80; won Gold Cup on Alverton (1979) and Dawn Run (1986), Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon (1980) and Dawn Run (1984).
CAREER AS TRAINER: started in Penrith, Cumbria 1990; installed in David Nicholson's stables at Jackdaws Castle, Gloucestershire, 2001; more than 600 winners.
HIGHLIGHTS: first to win 100 races in a season as jockey and trainer, 2001-02 (113 winners); Dawn Run is the only horse to win Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.Reuse content