National torment at an end for O'Neill

Trainer of Don't Push It reflects on Aintree victory that he never expected to happen
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The Independent Online

Two days before his 58th birthday, and badly short of sleep, Jonjo O'Neill stood in a Cotswold field yesterday morning, trying to comprehend his new fulfilment. He had, after all, long ago resolved that his serial Grand National torments should not corrode the perspectives he had discovered in still tougher battlefields. Now that he had finally gone and won the bloody thing, however, he could make fresh sense of his perseverance, for so many years, with animals that wrecked his body, and vexed his soul.

The trainer of Don't Push It had been uniquely qualified to understand Tony McCoy's desperate quest for a first National winner. His own record in the race, as a champion jockey, was execrable. "I didn't have seven falls," he protested now. "I pulled one up!"

The nadir was Alverton, in 1979. "He was after winning the Gold Cup, he had 10st 12lb, and he was in a hack canter going to Becher's second time," O'Neill said. "They reckoned he broke his neck, but I think he had a heart attack before the fence: he never took off, just ran smack into it. I was fairly sick then, all right. I nearly packed the game in."

Since taking up training, moreover, he has shared all manner of misfortunes with McCoy and their mutual employer, JP McManus – most infamously when Clan Royal was carried out by loose horses when leading at Becher's second time, in 2005. "And when that happens, you think to yourself: 'Look, it's just not going to happen.' I think [McCoy] was fairly upset after that. I said to him: 'Listen, it's just a horse race.' And that's kind of the way we went into this race. Probably the expectation wasn't there. We built a National fence here every year bar this one. But the two horses we took up were way better than Clan Royal."

On Thursday morning, the pair had a momentous telephone conversation. Should McCoy ride Don't Push It, or Can't Buy Time? McCoy had no idea and told O'Neill to toss a coin. O'Neill pretended to do so, and told him to ride Don't Push It. "You would hate to put a fella off riding a National winner," he said. "But my instinct was that he was the class horse."

He gestured towards the horse, grazing in the paddock he shares with half a dozen sheep. Who could say what residual images or aches resonated in the big, brave brute? What O'Neill does know is that the sheep, and isolated stabling, had changed the horse's outlook. "We took him out here a year or so ago," he said. "And he's grand now, he just switches off. He was just a nuisance up in the yard, he'd weave around, drive the other horses mad. He annoyed me one morning and I just said 'let's try him out in the field'. And it's just changed his tune. To be fair, he's always been a good horse. I remember being really disappointed the day he was beaten in a novice chase at Cheltenham – by Denman!"

Now Don't Push It has likewise had his name engraved in steeplechasing's roll of honour, alongside the subsequent Gold Cup winner. And, as O'Neill acknowledged, it might now be his that endures longest. "You ask anyone what was the first race they remember seeing, it's never the Gold Cup or the Champion Hurdle, it's always the National," he said. "I was delivering bread with a chap called Johnny McCarthy. I was so small, I could fit under the racks. He used to give me a sixpence. We stopped at a shop in Fermoy and you could hardly see the picture for all the snowflakes. That was Ayala, Pat Buckley [1963]. And I remember thinking that you'd love to go and see the National one day – never mind be involved in it."

So he hardly needs telling how important Saturday was. But nor, equally, how trivial. He remembered lying in a Basle hospital, signing a consent chit for the amputation of a leg, should an operation on a gangrenous fracture go wrong. Or being told, two months after he quit riding in 1986, that he had lymphatic cancer.

"To be honest, I never really thought I had it, even in hospital," he said. "One fella in the ward had half his stomach cut away. Another was hoping to make it to Christmas, to see his grandkids. And there was me telling the doctors not to be wasting my time, I'd just changed my career. When they told me the test results, it was a right kick in the balls. It was like yesterday, when your whole world comes alive – your whole world disappeared. But while it's bad in one way, it makes you respect life, big time. You have to say to yourself: 'There are great times ahead.' And there are, you know.

"There have been times we didn't have the horses here. You do get disillusioned. But when you're in the shit, and down on your own, there's only one person who can help you – and that's yourself. If you keep trying, you have a chance. If you don't, you have none."