Jonjo O'Neill: King of McManus's castle delights in the ride of a lifetime

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If Rigsby of Rising Damp fame was the most parsimonious landlord there ever was, then JP McManus is surely the most generous. Or so reckons his tenant Jonjo O'Neill. And as I stride with O'Neill around Jackdaws Castle, the magnificent 400-acre complex in the Cotswolds that makes a mockery of the word "yard", I can see what he means.

It was he who persuaded an initially reluctant McManus to buy Jackdaws Castle, and from that piece of arm-twisting during a race meeting at Sandown Park four years ago it is O'Neill who benefits most. McManus stumped up for the place sight unseen except for a brief visit years earlier when David Nicholson was trainer-in-residence, has rarely visited since, and has not once said no when O'Neill has asked him to stick his hand further into his capacious pocket.

It might be a different O'Neill, an Ulsterman, whom McManus and his partner John Magnier, the so-called Coolmore Mafia, would like to manage a certain investment of theirs in the Manchester area, but in Gloucestershire it is Jonjo who holds the reins.

"JP owns the place but he talks to me as if I do," says O'Neill, the broad Co Cork accent undiminished by all these years across the water. "It can't be a good investment for him. Can't be. There's no money in jump racing. But it's not a business thing for him. He just has a passion for jump racing. All he wants is for his horses to be safe and comfortable. He's a great man. And for me it's the opportunity of a lifetime."

The next stage in this lifetime's opportunity is the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival. Cheltenham is the closest racecourse to Jackdaws Castle and the closest to O'Neill's heart. And in Intersky Falcon, co-owned by Alan Shearer - "a fierce, nice fella" - in Keen Leader, in Rhinestone Cowboy, he has three horses to set the Festival alight.

But could it be, I venture, that Rhinestone Cowboy's chances in the Champion Hurdle are reduced by the decision of his owner, Magnier, to have an amateur jockey, his son and heir, in the saddle. Indeed, could it be that Magnier Snr is guilty of the same myopic nepotism with which Sir Alex Ferguson, his adversary in the Rock Of Gibraltar affair, stands accused? By all accounts Magnier thinks there is something fishy about payments made by Manchester United to Jason Ferguson's company. It would be ironic, rather than fishy, if his own sporting interests were ill-served by his faith in his son, as he reckons Fergie's have been.

But O'Neill is having none of this. "He [JP Magnier] is a very nice rider. If you or me had a son that was capable of riding as good as him, and had a horse like Rhinestone Cowboy, wouldn't you love to have your son riding at Cheltenham, or anywhere for that matter?

"I don't have a problem with it at all. He's a smashing rider. Rhinestone Cowboy ran very disappointingly for us at Leopardstown, but at least he [JP] knew the horse was wrong that day, and didn't knock him about. Apart from that he's had three wins on the horse. Four rides and three wins. I wish I had a record like that."

OK, so what of the animus between Magnier, McManus and Ferguson? Is O'Neill worried that, despite Fergie's appeal for restraint, he might find his Coolmore-owned horses targeted at Cheltenham by militant United fans?

He shrugs. "I know nothing about that. It's one of those business things. I don't know anything about football, and anyway I have a bad leg so Sir Alex can't have me."

He chuckles heartily. Chuckles are never far away in a conversation with this hugely engaging little man, although I wonder whether he sometimes deploys them as a diversion when the topic is veering too close to the rails of controversy.

He is certainly no stranger to controversy, and is well aware of the rumour, which he cheerfully - and sometimes not-so-cheerfully - denies, that his favourites are sometimes deliberately held up to extract longer odds next time out. The same rumour has dogged lots of trainers over the years. For my own part, I'm happy to rely on the judgment of Sir Peter O'Sullevan, who has written: "What attracted me to Jonjo was his integrity. He is a sweet man. When he has a winner, I have a little holiday in my heart."

Still, this sweet man, as well as deploying the tactical chuckle, is also capable of the old-fashioned stonewall. On the day I visit Jackdaws Castle, the news has broken that Barry Geraghty is to ride Keen Leader in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, in preference to O'Neill's stable jockey, Liam Cooper. Even though Geraghty, a Grand National winner, is the more accomplished jockey, this is a surprise. O'Neill sets great store by loyalty, and Cooper was a humble stable lad at the operation he ran near Penrith in Cumbria before moving south.

So what's with the decision to bump Cooper? Did it come from the owner? "Erm, I think we'd better give that a miss," the trainer says. "I don't want to upset anybody. I just hope the horse is fit and well, that's the main thing."

Indeed, just as Cheltenham is the main event. O'Neill first went as a stable lad himself, in 1971. "It was like walking on air just to be there," he recalls. "I had watched it on a black-and-white television when Arkle was winning, and I was bitten by the bug straightaway. To then get there riding was a bit special."

Most special of all was his 1986 Gold Cup win on Dawn Run, the only horse to complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double. "The whole of Ireland knew she was going to win that day," he says. "She didn't look like winning for a while, but then she just lifted the stands, the hats went flying, it was a marvellous day, Afterwards, walking through the parade ring into the new enclosure, God, it was unbelievable. The weight and the power of people, it was like an ocean wave."

Has any competitor in any sport ever run the gamut of emotions more dramatically than O'Neill did in 1986? Six weeks after that epic Gold Cup win, still considered one of the best rides in Cheltenham if not National Hunt history, his career as a jockey was over.

Hospitalised following a fall in the Scottish Champion Hurdle, ironically from a horse called No Harm Done, he found himself working harder than ever to recover. Over the years he had broken most of his bones, but this time he struggled to rediscover the will to get back on board. Moreover, he had been getting increasingly tired after races. It was time, he decided, to quit the saddle and start training. But a few weeks after his retirement, the real reason for the tiredness was diagnosed: he had cancer.

Festooning the walls in the Jackdaws Castle operations room are photographs of O'Neill enjoying the best moments of his racing career. Poignantly, alongside the one of him beaming on Dawn Run, just after the Gold Cup win, there is one of him, the following year, beaming at the opening of the Dawn Run public house in Cheltenham. The difference is that in 1986 he had a full head of hair and in 1987, following treatment for his illness, he had none.

There were tribulations still to come even after he had beaten the cancer. As he likes to put it, the bank manager "disappeared" when he tried to get his Cumbria yard started, but start it he did, and quickly found that there is more satisfaction in training a winner than in riding one.

"Ah, Jesus, yes," he says. "As a rider you just hop on, hop off, sort of style. It was great riding Dawn Run in the Gold Cup, of course it was, but training is such a massive joint effort, and when you train a winner it's like finding the final piece of the jigsaw. Cheltenham and Liverpool are what it's all about, there's no doubt about that, but you get such a kick out of winning a little race somewhere. You sit in a quiet corner, on your own, and you don't even smile but you're so delighted, thinking, 'It was magic to get a win out of that horse'. It's brilliant. I suppose it's like a racing-car driver getting through a tight gap. You just get such a nice buzz out of it."

O'Neill's staunch intention is to become only the second man, after the great Fred Winter, to become champion National Hunt trainer after being champion jockey. He still has plenty of ground to make up on the likes of Martin Pipe and Paul Nicholls, but with Jackdaws Castle the way he wants it - McManus having shelled out for five all-weather gallops, an indoor school the size of an aeroplane hangar, a warm-water swimming-pool and three solariums - the foundations are in place.

All of which is a long way from the village shop in Castletownroche which his parents ran. It was not a racing family but it was racing country; the first recorded steeplechase took place in 1752 from Buttevant to Doneraile just down the road. Before he was old enough to shave, O'Neill knew his destiny.

His riding style was fearless, flamboyant and effective enough to win the Castletownroche donkey derby, for which he pocketed £3. Later, he embarked on a tough apprenticeship at Mick Connolly's yard on The Curragh. Connolly was a trainer who made Captain Bligh look like a soft touch. One afternoon at Naas, O'Neill rode a horse called Irish Painter. It was tragically killed in a fall at the last. Connolly told the impressionable young jockey that he had killed the horse.

The guilt, I venture, must have stayed with him for years. "Well, the fella's dead so I don't want to slag him. And his wife's still alive and she's lovely. But it was not a very nice thing to say." Three years later, he jumped from the Irish frying pan into the English fire.

Gordon Richards, whose Cumbrian yard he joined, was a boss scarcely less forgiving than Connolly. "I might never have stuck it there except for [stable jockey] Ron Barry," O'Neill says. "He was my hero and we had some great times together. The laughs we had... It's all got very serious since then and I don't know if that's good for the game or not."

After five years with Richards, to the great man's disgust, he went freelance. Which meant that he saw different training methods, of incalculable help when he took up training himself.

"Everybody does it different but everybody trains winners. They fed differently, at different times, walked and trotted at different times, it was fascinating. But then I became more or less stable jockey to Peter Easterby. He was a great man to ride for. You never got a bollocking but you knew when you'd done wrong. It's a great art, that. I wish I could do it. I try not to give bollockings because you lose somebody their confidence. If they make a complete cock-up you don't have to put them up again, do you?"

The only problem with that philosophy is that the race is still lost. But that's also why the bollocking is fruitless. The time to correct mistakes, as far as O'Neill is concerned, is before the race. And as he shows me around Jackdaws Castle, I see the effort he makes to get things right. Iris's Gift, a gallant runner-up at Cheltenham in last year's Stayers' Hurdle, is even listening to Radio 1; a radio has been rigged up outside his box to get him used to a bit of commotion.

The magic of Cheltenham, says O'Neill, is "very hard to explain". But he tries anyway. "From now on I will be excited every morning. It's the ultimate in jump racing. As soon as you're done with Christmas then like everybody else in this game, all you're interested in is Cheltenham."

In last year's Festival he saddled three winners, although they were not the winners he had anticipated. This year he expects better things from his fancied runners, and, who knows, might even achieve the ultimate: getting Alan Shearer to chuck his hat in the air.

Jonjo O'Neill life and times

1952 Born in Castletownroche, Co Cork.

1977-78 Rides149 winners during the season, a National Hunt record which stood for 11 years before being broken by Peter Scudamore.

1979 Wins the Gold Cup on Alverton.

1980 Wins the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon.

1984 Wins his second Champion Hurdle on the legendary Dawn Run.

1986 O'Neill, on Dawn Run, comes from two lengths down with a hundred yards to go to win his second Gold Cup. Retires at the end of the season, but soon afterwards is diagnosed with cancer.

1990 Having successfully overcome cancer, O'Neill starts training and achieves his first big winner when Gipsy Fiddler wins at Royal Ascot.

2001 Having spent a decade based at Penrith in Cumbria, O'Neill accepts an offer to take over JP McManus's stables at Jackdaws Castle in Gloucestershire.

2001-02 Trains more than 100 winners in a season for the first time in his career.

2002-03 Again has more than 100 winners for the season.

2003 Tops the trainers' table at the Cheltenham Festival with three winners, one on each day of the meeting.