Racing: O'Neill keeps tight hold on Festival aspirations

You would think that beating cancer must make you pretty well immune to anything so trivial as racehorses, but they have certainly been giving it their best shot with Jonjo O'Neill. Four years after JP McManus installed him down the road from Cheltenham at Jackdaws Castle, O'Neill once again approaches the Festival in need of succour.

Last year his Festival was "wiped out", as he said yesterday, by the virus that pitiably reduced one of the most expensive strings in these islands. His hopes for redemption this time round were chiefly vested in Lingo, whose luminous performance at his local course in November qualified him as the best candidate in Britain for the Champion Hurdle. One morning in January, however, Lingo innocently embarked upon an exercise he had completed a thousand times before. Before he had taken half a dozen steps he was so horribly stricken that all present were overwhelmed by a wave of nausea.

"He smashed a hind leg just below the fetlock," O'Neill recalled. "It was just a freak accident, as big a sickener as you can get. But that's life. You're up today, you're down tomorrow. There's nothing you can do about it. Last year was a nightmare for everyone here - the staff, and the owners who were paying the bills only for nothing to happen. I'm just thankful they were patient, that they stood by me. JP never bothers you at all, but he could do with some better ones. Sometimes you feel like throwing in the towel, you're giving him so much bad news."

It is now 20 years since O'Neill crowned his riding career with that indelible Gold Cup success on Dawn Run, only to be told that he would require treatment for lymphatic cancer. For a time, it looked as though the recovery of his health had exhausted his fortunes. In the mid-Nineties, he mustered just 18 winners one season, 17 the next. But he did come up with three Festival winners for McManus while training in Cumbria and, crucially, all could have been backed to run for their lives on the day that mattered.

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising if his soft speech and twinkling eye seem to leave his precise expectations wreathed in banal whimsy. He has saddled seven more Festival winners since arriving in the Cotswolds, and would seem fairly certain to add to that number next week. Opening his gates to the press yesterday, however, he remained studiously unspecific as he paraded his runners round an indoor school that appeared to have borrowed its dimensions from the Albert Hall.

There was no commitment, for instance, over the target of Black Jack Ketchum, even though he has drifted conspicuously in the betting on the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle and instead become hot favourite for the Brit Insurance Novices' Hurdle. "He hasn't been out for a while but he's a handy horse who doesn't take an awful lot of work, so I'm happy to take him there fresh," O'Neill said. "He has a lazy style of racing, but when AP [McCoy] gets hold of him he will always respond."

Things appear to have been complicated by the blossoming of Refinement, who will take an unbeaten record over hurdles into one of the novice races. "She's only little really, but she's gutsy," O'Neill said. "Her jumping was desperate first time, and not much better the next day, but she has got the hang of it as she has gone along. She could miss the first hurdle and lose her confidence, so it's all about getting into a rhythm."

The same applies to Iris's Gift, the clumsy novice who is risking immersion in the Gold Cup. "On his hurdles form he is the class horse in an open year," O'Neill reasoned. "He's an ignorant sort of horse, everyone knows that, but he's a real machine too. If AP can get him jumping and motivated, you never know. It can be done. Dawn Run didn't have much more experience when she won."

From anyone else, the comparison would be blasphemous. But those who cherish the memory of that mare will always indulge O'Neill, never mind his chronic prevarications and the associated air of mischief. As he said himself: "Cheltenham is Cheltenham, and you wouldn't go there too cocky. It's just great to go there with chances."

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