St Johns Spirit keeps up Jonjo O'Neill's charge at top of trainers' table

 

There are landmark victories and landmark victories, and although winner No 91 for the season may not have had the resonance of, say, 4,000 in a career, for Jonjo O'Neill it was a matter of some satisfaction. The success of Johns Spirit in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham took the trainer one step past last year's total, which was his worst for 12 years, and one step nearer an entirely likely best-ever tally come the end of April.

The trainers' title is decided by quality, in the form of prize money, not quantity, and O'Neill is currently top, with earnings nearly twice those of his nearest pursuer, the seven-times champion Paul Nicholls. He is, though, the first to admit that among his charges he has not the strength in depth of those habitually at the top of the leaderboard, and knows that as the campaign gathers pace prestige competition for the best pots will be fiercer from here on in.

But yesterday's Grade Three contest, the most valuable of the weekend when the jumping arm of the sport finally gets the stage to itself, and that at its best-known theatre, was not being sniffed at along the way. "We've had a great start to this season and it's nice when they're running like this," said O'Neill, "but I don't want to start counting any chickens. This is a special race, though, and it's great to have a runner, let alone win it."

The progressive six-year-old Johns Spirit gave the Irishman a second success in the two-and-a-half mile chase, after Exotic Dancer seven years ago, and his rider, Richie McLernon, one of the backroom linchpins at O'Neill's Jackdaws Castle operation, his first, and a career best.

McLernon – who came so close to glory when nosed out on the stable's Sunnyhillboy in last year's Grand National – rode a coolly confident race, sitting well behind the strong gallop set by Easter Meteor and Hidden Cyclone for a circuit before swooping towards the front going to the second-last obstacle. The fall of Easter Meteor at that obstacle left him exposed sooner than ideal, but also badly hampered his chief rival, Colour Squadron. Johns Spirit lost concentration out on his own on the run-in, but his rider's insistence and his own heart were enough to hold Colour Squadron's rally by three-quarters of a length.

"His jumping going up the hill second time was just brilliant," said McLernon. "I was able to fill him up again going down the hill and, fair play to the little horse, though he was idling, he did stick his head out when the other one came."

Exotic Dancer ultimately progressed to the highest level. Johns Spirit, owned by Christopher Johnston, will take the same next step, a return to Cheltenham for a similar handicap next month.

"We'll take it one race at a time," said O'Neill, "but he's certainly better this year than last. He's got stronger physically and more mature mentally; he's much more relaxed at home."

It was, of course, O'Neill who trained Tony McCoy's 4,000th winner, who carried the colours of their boss, JP McManus, owner of Jackdaws Castle. McLernon is usually in the shadow of McCoy on O'Neill-trained horses but yesterday McManus's three runners – including Colour Squadron – were from other stables. McCoy finished eighth on Tap Night.

At this meeting there are often clues to the Festival extravaganza in March, and Royal Irish Hussar, easy winner of the opening juvenile race, was duly installed as favourite for the Triumph Hurdle.

A more pertinent pointer may have come at Punchestown yesterday, with the successful chasing debut of Champagne Fever, now a red-hot favourite for the Arkle Trophy. And back at the Irish track today comes the grey's Willie Mullins stablemate Hurricane Fly, who will be bidding for a world record 17 top-level wins, beating Kauto Star over jumps and John Henry on the Flat.

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