Racing: O'Neill's Pickett ready to strike

O'Neill has an above-average overall strike-rate of 24 per cent and an extraordinary one of 28 per cent with two-year-olds. At Newmarket on Friday night Under My Thumb became his 16th juvenile winner of the season, from a team of just 40. He has had more success this term than in four previous seasons with a licence put together. And on Tuesday, in the Molecomb Stakes, it will be time to step into the spotlight.

"We've put together a lovely bunch of horses," said O'Neill, "but we've been taking little steps.

"We missed Royal Ascot, intentionally. They'd won their maidens, but they weren't quite ready for the big stage. But now, their time has come. This week will be our first visit to a meeting like this with live chances and, without being cocky, that's what they are. We wouldn't be taking them if they weren't."

O'Neill is not employing the first person plural in the royal sense, and the pronoun's usage gives a clue to why his career has skyrocketed. The talent has clearly always been there; now he has been given the opportunity to demonstrate it, through his association with the owner John Fretwell, at whose Averham Park stables, near Southwell, he has been based since late last year.

Fretwell, no bad judge seemingly, picked him out from a list of 72 applicants for the job on his private estate.

Before taking out a licence in Newmarket, O'Neill was an assistant to John Gosden and Sir Mark Prescott, as well as learning his trade in France and America. "The facilities where I am now are as good as anything in Newmarket," he said. "But the difference is they're private, which means healthy. If your horses are healthy, you have a head start."

Wet weather permitting, O'Neill and Fretwell, and journeyman jockey Graham Gibbons, will start their week at Newbury today with Silent Times. Then it is off to war against the big guns with Pickett in Tuesday's Group Three five-furlong contest, and then Always Hopeful in the Group Two six-furlong Richmond Stakes on Friday.

Pickett bolted in at Hamilton nine days ago. "He's pretty smart," said O'Neill. "He has speed, but more than that, he can sit and then quicken. They'll go like the clappers and he can travel in behind. Downhill will be no problem; he won at Ripon, and if you do that you can gallop down the side of a house."

Always Hopeful's latest run was a creditable fifth, beaten less than two lengths under nine stone, in the Weatherbys Super Sprint. "It wasn't ideal to run him there, but it was a lot of money and we gave it a go," said O'Neill. "As it was, he ran a great race under that weight. He's ready for the step up to six furlongs."

O'Neill, advised by the experienced eye of Fretwell's former trainer, the now-retired Bryan McMahon, put in the miles at the yearling sales last year, and whatever glory is achieved this glorious week, there may be better to come.

"We worked hard," said O'Neill. "None of the ones we bought cost more than 40,000 guineas and only two have turned out to be useless. And we've got two really smart ones, better than any who have run to date, yet to race."

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