How could the boy have known, as he crawled through the van, that he was about to be summoned to a lifetime of triumph and trauma?
For young Jonjo O'Neill it was just another Saturday, exploiting his lack of inches for a few pennies every week, sliding between the rails and pulling out the loaves. Johnny McCarthy, the driver, was a greyhound man. He wanted to go to the dogs in Cork in the evening, and it would always be a big round on Saturday. But the next order was for a pub in Fermoy, and there was a crowd crammed round a television.
Johnny hoisted him on to his shoulders. Ten-year-old O'Neill peered across the heads and through the cigarette smoke and saw a snowy black and white screen. The 1963 Grand National. It was won by Ayala: part-owned by the hairdresser, Teasy-Weasy Raymond, and ridden by Pat Buckley. Nineteen years old. "That'll be me, one day," O'Neill promised himself.
In the event, O'Neill notoriously failed to get round in the National – and for a long time he seemed to have misread his destiny as a trainer, as well. Then came Don't Push It, in 2010, "the day of a lifetime" for O'Neill, Tony McCoy and their mutual employer, J P McManus.
After last year's heartbreak, O'Neill brings two runners to seek fresh redress from Aintree. "The only plus for Sunnyhillboy is that they've made it 90 yards shorter this time, and last year he would have won with 90 yards to go," he says. "He's in grand form. But to go back and repeat it, it's a long shot, isn't it? Lost Glory is fresh and well, and the only reason he hasn't been out for a while is the ground. He's kept on improving, and to me he's no outsider."
Whatever whimsy he exudes or invites, it would be a grievous misjudgement to miscalculate the ambition of a man who has saddled at least one winner at each of the last eight Cheltenham Festivals. "You can pay a lot of money to get better horses and they might be no good," he acknowledges. "But I'd love to be champion trainer. I've been champion jockey twice, and I've been lucky enough to win a lot of the big races. But if it doesn't happen… Well, it's like the National. You're not going to give up after not getting round three or four times, are you? You keep trying."
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