Jonjo hopes to create more happy memories

Cheltenham specialist O'Neill ready to peak at another Festival, he tells Chris McGrath

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The mare looked beaten. Two rivals in full cry had swept past her at the second last. But she would not submit. Nobody can say what brute instinct urged Dawn Run against an adversity measurable only by men, against some wooden post at Cheltenham. Nobody, perhaps, except Jonjo O'Neill – and not just because he alone could sense her great chest swelling anew for the final, immortal moments of the 1986 Gold Cup.

For the little man would himself soon be conjuring some giant, animal spirit to salvage the odds against him on another green hill. The gradient, this time, was far steeper; and the willpower instead harnessed to an enfeebled, stricken physique. So indomitable were his strivings, however, that you doubt Dawn Run could possibly have found all that courage in her own heart.

As he began a new career, training in Cumbria, O'Neill had lost his hair to chemotherapy and was wearing a red bobble hat. "I bought myself an old Land Rover," he recalls. "And I'd drive up the fells, as far as it could go, before they set off cantering. Then I'd get out and walk uphill until I hit the ground. That was why I had the red hat, with a white pompom. If I conked out, they wouldn't gallop on top of me – they'd see me against the grass. Every day, I'd mark the last step. And every day I would move the marker, that little bit farther. Once or twice I was really wrecked. But I feckin' grabbed the grass to get me an inch further. I'd turn round then and look at the little villages below, and think: 'A lot of buggers down there couldn't get this far.' And that's what kept me going. Just a thick Irishman, like, but I said to myself: 'I will get farther. Even if it's an inch. I will bloody beat this.'"

It is a vignette that reproves a patronising tendency in racing to depict O'Neill as practically elfin; as some twinkle-eyed, inscrutable sprite. The cadences of his speech, it is true, tell of a gentle, self-deprecating nature. But only the most ferrous of souls would count himself only halfway down, when brought to his knees.

As dual champion jockey, after all, he once lay in a Swiss clinic listening to a surgeon debating the amputation of a leg. And though he did not know it at the time, he was already debilitated by cancer when he rode Dawn Run back into the pandemonium and flying trilbies. "The crowd went mad and she nearly got pushed into the weighing room, instead of the winner's enclosure," he says. "It lives in the memory – for me, too. Because at the time you're wired up as well, aren't you?"

Many who witnessed those scenes will be back at Cheltenham next week, and the knowledge of what he endured afterwards would guarantee similar tumult should O'Neill – nowadays based just down the road – saddle a Gold Cup winner of his own on Friday. Synchronised is rated the most feasible alternative to Long Run and Kauto Star, after surprising even his trainer at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. But O'Neill will also be bringing back a triple Festival winner in Albertas Run, not to mention the next simmering talents he reliably brings to the boil in March.

"You have to take your time with them and it's hard to get it right," he says. "It's what everyone works for, the whole year. If the horses run disappointing the yard is flat, like letting the air out of a balloon. But when it comes together, we all of us get a great kick."

Among 18 Festival winners O'Neill remembers with particular satisfaction Front Line, in the 1995 National Hunt Chase. He holds out an imaginary football. "Three days before his hind leg blew up like that. We couldn't give him any medication, so close to the race, so Jacqui [his wife] stayed up all night, walking him every hour. It came down a fair bit, so we put him on the wagon anyway. All that vibrating on the way down seemed to help, so we went ahead and ran. I told [his rider] John Berry: 'This is a right old monkey. When he hits the front, he'll pull up. Whatever you do, don't get there before the last.' And I'm watching the race and he takes it up at the last – first time round. And he goes farther and farther clear. He won by a distance. I couldn't believe my eyes." The familiar, wry smile. "I'll have to start walking them all through the night. That must be the trick to it."

Six years later Front Line's owner, JP McManus, bought the sumptuous Jackdaws Castle estate and installed O'Neill; soon he would also sign up AP McCoy. In 2010, the triumvirate famously redressed an unrequited craving when Don't Push It won the Grand National.

"What AP has done will never be done again," O'Neill says. "And he's the same man on a Monday as on a Saturday, which is very unusual. Francome and Dunwoody were great at producing a horse, but this fella is so hard. He'll ride anything. I'd take him on at riding pigs, any day. But that would be about it."

The reference is to O'Neill's unorthodox apprenticeship in his Co Cork boyhood, when he would ride pigs round the little yard behind his parents' grocery. His father was "a hard man in hard times – but fair, too, and brilliant with any kind of animal".

Auspiciously, his very first involvement at Cheltenham was in the Gold Cup, leading up Titus Oates in 1972. "Frank Berry won it on Glencaraig Lady," he remembers. "For my mate to win it, a young fellow, on a mare..." He shakes his head. "It was a fantastic day."

Little could he suspect that another Gold Cup, another mare, would some day secure his own place in steeplechasing lore. "All Ireland thought Dawn Run was going to win," he says. "All Ireland knew she was going to win. But I'd ridden her a school at Gowran Park, and said never mind being favourite – she shouldn't even be running. She was desperate, all but refused."

They had another session, round Punchestown, and O'Neill discovered the key. The mare had to be given her head. Unfortunately, there were several front-runners in the field that year. "So my biggest problem was getting to the first fence first," O'Neill said. "It's not that far, and we were flying. She caught the top, went down on her nose. She got away with it, but we were going some lick all the way round. Down to the water, I was trying to give her a breather – but she missed the bleedin' water, didn't she? Three out, I could hear the boys behind us. Two out, I gave her a slap down the neck. She had to ping it. She did – and they came by as if I was standing still. I thought I was beat then, sat up on her. But halfway to the last she heard the crowd, pricked her ears, and I felt her fill her lungs. The other two weren't getting away, so I felt if we jumped the last we still had a squeak. I didn't dare ask her again, but she flew it. I knew then we would get up."

That summer, at 34, O'Neill was told he had an incurable disease. He had been pretending to himself that his chronic fatigue must trace to a bad fall at Kelso, during the winter. But he didn't tell anyone. It was a young man's game. He didn't want people to hear that he was fading.

The ordeal to come "put the manners into you". Even a Gold Cup is only a horserace, after all. But competition, he feels, has its own dignity. "Otherwise you'd think: 'I daren't go out there, in case I get a cold; or go over that fence, in case I get a fall and break my arm.'"

And something of that same innate purpose, presumably, won him the race they told him was already lost. "It got me out the other side, definitely," he agrees. "It helped I was very fit, having only just stopped riding. But the treatments were rough. Every three weeks you'd get blasted. The first week, you'd be over the toilet the whole time, with nothing to bring up, just retching – horrible it was. The second week would get a bit better, and the third you'd be flying. But then they'd blast you again. I was very lucky in the people looking after me. I told them: 'You told me you couldn't cure me, you pack of liars'."

Mick Easterby, the Yorkshire trainer, met him at the races one day. "What's that bloody treatment like then, lad?" he asked. O'Neill told him. "Not as bad as training horses, then," replied Easterby. "I have bad days every day. You only have one week a month."

As a trainer, certainly, O'Neill learnt much then. "Everything works better if you can calm down and take your time," he says. "Shouting and roaring isn't going to help. And there's nothing like racing for that. When you're riding, you think you've got this job cracked – and the next thing you've cracked is your bloody arm. Same with training. We all think our horses are the best, every trainer does. Because we're competitive. But horses will soon put the manners into you, as well."

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Kingscroft (3.30 Wolverhampton) Wheels came off at the end of a prolific campaign last term, but has slipped down the weights and returns on his last winning mark. Jockey bookings suggest first choice of in-form stable.

Next Best

Ballyfoy (2.40 Sandown) Has found his form for his new stable, running well tried in blinkers over hurdles during the week. Returns to fences off a very good mark and the stiff finish will suit.

One to Watch

Mighty Mambo (Lawney Hill) was beaten a long way when fourth at Wincanton on Thursday, but is now eligible for handicaps and kept on to promise more over farther.

Where the money's going

Irish raider Toner D'Oudairies is 10-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for the Martin Pipe Conditionals' Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham next week.

Cheltenham countdown: 3 days to go

My top fancy for the Festival: Paul Struthers, the Professional Jockeys' Association chief executive

What A Friend is great each-way value at 12-1 in the betting "without the big two" in the Gold Cup. He has his quirks, but ran a cracker at Newbury. If both Long Run and Kauto Star turn up on Friday, he only needs to be in the first five to get a return.