Neither O'Neill nor his patron, John Fretwell, could have dared hope for more when they teamed up at the yearling sales last autumn. Having invested heavily in an estate near Newark, Fretwell had advertised for a trainer in the Racing Post. From over 80 applicants, he clearly chose well. But it is a wonder that O'Neill retained sufficient optimism even to send his CV, never mind to believe that he had been appointed.
Five years ago, during his first spring as a trainer, some wiseguy rang O'Neill and told him that he had bought him one of the Derby favourites out of Ballydoyle. The press bought the hoax, too, but they found it easier to laugh off than the ambitious young Irishman.
For the next couple of seasons, O'Neill quietly demonstrated authentic talent from sparse opportunities, winning three Group races and denied the Ribblesdale Stakes by just over a length. He had assembled 27 horses in Newmarket when his main patron abruptly removed eight from his care. O'Neill's baby daughter was in hospital at the time, believed critically ill.
At least her recovery enabled O'Neill and his wife to place their sense of betrayal in due perspective. Even so, they were entitled to wonder whether a perceptive and industrious education with Sir Mark Prescott, John Gosden and Robert Collet could ever pay off in such a brutal environment. "You learn more sinking than when you're swimming," O'Neill reflected yesterday. "It is soul-destroying to be kicked when you are down, but I had to get back up and pick up the pieces. We both showed great resilience, Melissa and I - and we have come out the other side."
He finally seems to have found a worthy ally in Fretwell, who started out as a hairdresser - funnily enough, so did Michael Tabor - and eventually made a fortune as a wholesaler. Having sold his business, he bought no fewer than 40 yearlings, sending 10 to his longtime allies, Bryan and now Ed McMahon, and the rest to Averham Park. "He adores the game," O'Neill said. "He has been a racehorse owner for 30 years and it's a pleasure to be dealing with someone who understands the business."
None of the yearlings cost more than 40,000 guineas. The idea was to recycle that investment, and sure enough buyers have now begun to arrive from Hong Kong and elsewhere. One of the hallmarks was duly soundness.
"They had to be well-made, athletic, and correct," O'Neill said. "Not necessarily perfect, but with trainable limbs. And thank God out of the 40 we bought between us - John, his son Paul, Bryan and myself - only two are useless." The quickest is Always Hopeful, who may head for the Prix Robert Papin if Newbury remains firm. But perhaps the most exciting is Silent Times. O'Neill said: "He was a bugger to break, he was head-shy, and he was a bit troublesome in the stalls. But that is one of the great benefits of this place. We have replicated the best of Newmarket, including the all-weather gallops on Warren Hill and Cambridge Road, but without the extra cost."
He considered the heaviest cost of all, however, to be less tangible. "It used to drive me bananas with so many horses on top of each other there, passing illnesses around. Of course we have had horses with dirty noses or coughing here, but we can isolate them. We have acres of land, we can turn them out, we have a swimming pool and lovely, airy barns."
O'Neill is still only 35, and the boxes Fretwell has left for other owners will not stand vacant for long. "Everything he said he would do, he has done," O'Neill said happily. "And everything I said I would try to do, I'm doing."
HYPERION'S SELECTIONS FOR TONIGHT'S OTHER MEETING: WORCESTER: 6.35 Kimono Royal 7.05 Dunkerron 7.35 Nazimabad 8.10 Burning Truth 8.40 High Drama (nb) 9.10 Anko