The Grand National: Jonjo O'Neill's desire undimmed despite the darkest days

Trainer has had horror year, losing the brilliant Synchronised at last year's National and his jockey, JT McNamara, to injury at last month's Cheltenham. But, he tells Chris McGrath, the show goes on

There he was, back on his feet, jumping the Canal Turn with his ears pricked. Relief coursed through his trainer. The previous month, Jonjo O'Neill had saddled Synchronised to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup – and nobody knew the stakes better, in bringing him next to Aintree. In 2010, it was O'Neill who had satisfied Tony McCoy's craving for a first Grand National, with Don't Push It. But he also remembered the tears he had shed, in his own riding days, over another Gold Cup winner in 1979. And now Synchronised had himself come down at the same fence as Alverton, Becher's Brook. What a comfort, then, to see him happily loose among the herd two fences later.

O'Neill was down beside the track, gazing at a big screen, having gone down to check on horse and rider when Synchronised unseated McCoy on the way to the start. Now he could concentrate on his other runner, Sunnyhillboy. He watched with growing excitement as Richie McLernon drove his mount clear halfway up the run-in, only for a grey shadow to begin closing them down. Yards to go now: would the post come in time? The crowd gasped as Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy flashed past together. From O'Neill's vantage, it was impossible to tell. He thought Richie might just have held out, but would certainly settle for a dead-heat.

Here was the announcement. Second. Poor Richie. Still O'Neill lingered by the track, waiting for Synchronised to trot up among the stragglers. The odd time he had got loose on the gallops, back home in the Cotswolds, he would always find his way back to his stall. "That's how cute the horse was," O'Neill remembers now, 51 weeks on.

Only there was still no sign of Synchronised. Initially mystified, O'Neill decided someone must have caught him and that he was being led back. Better go and catch up with J P McManus, his employer and the owner of both horses; tell young Richie that this was a moment for congratulation, not commiseration. But just as he entered the unsaddling enclosure, someone put a hand on his shoulder. He turned. One of the vets. A look on his face.

"I'm sorry, Jonjo. But you've lost Synchronised."

In an instant, his disappointment over the result of the photo became grotesque. "I could have gone through the floor," he says. "Because it was the last thing in your head, that anything could be wrong. That last picture in my head, him with his ears pricked. And I thought: 'Jesus, it can't get any worse than this.'"

Alas, if only that were true.

Even then, O'Neill could soon put things in context – thinking back to the days when he had staggered daily up a hill, in his fight against cancer, sprawling breathless and grabbing handfuls of grass to haul himself one yard farther than the previous morning. But his perspectives, at 60, have now been corrected anew. And, this time, he can only stand helplessly by.

Pending some miracle, yet possible, his touch remains the last felt upon his limbs by John Thomas McNamara. It was O'Neill who hoisted his friend into the saddle on Galaxy Rock at Cheltenham last month, O'Neill who has been tormented by irrational guilt as he visits the paralysed jockey in a Bristol hospital. He finds himself talking about McNamara almost as though reading one of his horses. "His eye was good last night," he says. The poor fellow is trying to talk now, making infinitesimal increments towards the bigger targets: the day, for instance, the doctors approve his transfer to Ireland, somewhere closer to home.

"We're all hurt over it, we're all sick," O'Neill says. "You're thinking all kinds of things, trying to blame yourself: should I have done this, should I have done that? Was it the wrong race? But they'd been fourth in it before, the two of them, and we were all looking forward to it." He shakes his head sadly. "Your life is mapped out for you," he shrugs.

Once again, though, you suspect he knows different. That's why he fervently commends the fortitude of McNamara's wife, as she prepares the life awaiting them and their young children. And that's also why he renews his own courage. "You do find yourself saying: 'You've thrown the kitchen sink at me this time, boss.' You do. But life goes on. Whether we like it or not, it'll get dark tonight and it'll get bright tomorrow."

So you never lose the fight? Not even when something like this comes along, something to make even the loss of Synchronised seem trivial? "No," he says. "Jeez, no. You never give up. Never. If you give up the fight, you might as well curl up and die, like. No, I'd never do that. And he'll be the same, John Thomas."

His friend's predicament haunts the whole conversation. As such, even those militants who profess outrage over the risks facing his horses on Saturday – Sunnyhillboy returns, alongside the poignantly named Lost Glory – should extend something of their compassion to O'Neill. What rebuke might they conscionably make, as he remembers being driven down to pay his last respects to Synchronised? Or to the two young women, equally, who had long devoted such love and toil to the horse, every day of every season?

"I was in a daze, really," O'Neill recalls. "Somebody took us down in a jeep, to see where he was. Anyway it didn't make any difference, the poor old devil. Gabriela and Carol were there, too. And they went off to the box and cried their eyes out. You're trying to keep everyone together, but you're not much use to anyone at that stage. You can't say: 'Never mind, we'll go out and find another.' Because it's like losing part of the family."

O'Neill is duly provoked by the condemnation of those who witness one race a year. Some even concluded that Synchronised should never have run, after discarding McCoy and ambling round loose. "But that only told me the wellbeing of the horse," O'Neill insists. "If I was a punter – and I'm not – I would have gone and doubled the amount on him. Because he was only telling you how well he was. He was bursting at the seams. He just couldn't wait to get going, like. And he was loving it, jumping great, everything was going grand. People talk about Becher's like it's a tiger trap. But it's not like that at all. And if it was, we wouldn't be involved in it. We're only doing this because we love the game, because we love these horses. Why else would you be getting up to feed them at four every morning, digging the snow away from their doors?

"Anyway that's how it was, and it was horrible. It's part of the game and you don't want to be involved [when it happens] but if there's no danger, there's no sport. The horses do love it. The horse is taking you there, he's mad for it. If he doesn't want to do it, you can't make him. He'll pull himself up, or refuse. We wouldn't be doing this, if we weren't clear in our conscience. But if people hate, they don't want to understand. And that's the problem we have.

"So much that happens in life is horrific, the things people do to each other, you can't even get your head around it. This horse had a great life, he was well looked after, everyone loved him. And you look at poor old John Thomas…"

And there's the rub, for man or beast. Perhaps you are never more alive than when most in peril. Instinct can take you to that margin. And, marvellously, it can sometimes endure even after it has taken you past it. "You cannot beat Nature," O'Neill says. "It's instinct, for horses to do these things. They're herd animals, they love competing with each other. When they're loose in the wild, they're competing. They're like people, they all have different personalities. Some will be delicate, everything has to be right; some will be streetfighters, going round like Mike Tyson. As a trainer, that's where I get my kick out of it – the personalities of the horses. But I think it is the same with people. Some will go into hospital and just curl up and die. Some will see that little bit of light in the distance, and climb and climb and climb."

Again, nobody needs to mention McNamara by name. As a rider himself, of course, O'Neill did finally reach the limit of endurance. Or, again, so he thought. He'd had one smash too many, woke blearily from concussion to see white uniforms round his bed yet again. That, he resolved, was enough. "And two months later I was back in hospital with the cancer," he says. "But the more knocks you get, the more you want to show 'em. Some people maybe are not made the same way. Maybe I'm just thick and ignorant. But I can't help it. That's my nature. The more you get kicked in the bollocks, the more determined you are to prove a point. Sure you have bad days, dark days. But you don't have a choice. Those are the cards you're dealt, so work with them. That's all you can do."

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