Cheltenham Festival: Jonjo O'Neill talks to Dave Kidd about what it means to train and ride a Festival winner

Cheltenham Festival: Jonjo O'Neill talks to Dave Kidd about what it means to train and ride a Festival winner

“If you ever get the chance to walk the course, you should,” insists O’Neill.

“Come down over the second-last fence and look up the hill at the winning post — it is a long, long way home.

“It’s like trying to crawl into heaven getting to that winning post.”

O’Neill got there first on several occasions.

Most memorably when he piloted Dawn Run to glory as the Irish mare became the only horse to complete the great Festival double of Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup.

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But just weeks after that crowning glory of his riding career in 1986, the two-time champion jockey was told he had cancer, a diagnosis that initially felt like a death sentence.

O’Neill recalled: “On the day of my very last radiotherapy treatment, which would have been two years later, Dawn Run’s statue was being unveiled at Cheltenham by Princess Anne.

“I rushed down there from hospital but got stuck in a traffic jam and didn’t make it. Princess Anne told me I stood her up!”

The damned traffic hasn’t improved on Festival week but it remains the greatest four days of the year for O’Neill, now a leading trainer.


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O’Neill married wife Jacqui at Cheltenham racecourse 22 years ago. And a year later, along came a son, Jonjo junior, who is expected to ride there this week, after a couple of significant successes in his own fledgling career.

O’Neill senior, who trained Gold Cup winner Synchronised and Grand National hero Don’t Push It, has come a long way since selling two pigs to buy his first pony as an 11-year-old kid in rural County Cork.

Now he runs the magnificent Jackdaws Castle yard in the Cotswolds, with 40 staff, more than 100 racehorses and a couple of lively Jack Russells.

It’s the place where Jonjo junior grew to love racing.

After missing eight months with a serious back injury last year, Junior is chomping at the bit to ride at the Festival,  especially after his first Cheltenham success, on Palmers Hill in November, and his biggest win to date, on Big Time Dancer in the Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton in January.

With a Cheltenham legend as a father and having gone to school in the town, there was only ever likely to be one choice when Junior had to pick between potential careers in rugby and racing.

O’Neill junior, who insists his famous name is a help rather than a hindrance, said: “I played rugby to the highest level at school and could have gone on higher but broke my leg hunting in Ireland three years ago.

“Then I had that time to decide rugby, or racing. I was 12 stone, two stone heavier than now.

“I was offered trials at Gloucester RUFC but decided against it. Racing was always at the forefront, I always wanted to be a jockey.

“And when you go to school at Cheltenham, the week of the Festival you see floods of people early in the morning heading to the course and there’s something in the air, that buzz.

“Yeah, when I was choosing, I always had that in mind.”

Jonjo senior admits he gets a ‘kick’ out of watching his son ride – “it takes me back, it’s like I’m riding the race along with him” – and never more so than at Cheltenham.

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Jonjo Junior rode a winner as recently as Friday on Forza Milan

His own first memory of the Festival was listening to commentary of Arkle on a “very snowy black-and-white television” in  a pub as a child.

He first rode there in 1972, when his friend and contemporary Frank Berry scored a surprise Gold Cup victory on Glencarraig Lady. He won the big one himself on Alverton in 1979.

But Dawn Run was the truly special one, winning the Champion Hurdle in 1986 and the Gold Cup two years later.

He said: “All of Ireland seemed to know she was going to win. I think she knew herself, but I wasn’t so sure — the jumping was a bit hairy!

“She was a freak, I was so lucky. It is unlikely any horse will do that double again.”

Yet by the time of that second Gold Cup win  O’Neill was already feeling unwell, without any idea how serious his condition was.

“I came off a horse called No Harm Done in the Scottish Champion Hurdle,” he said. “I just lost my grip on the reins, I wasn’t feeling great.

“I retired and took my licence to start training. A couple of months after, I was diagnosed with cancer. I’d been to see Hugh Barber, my orthopaedic surgeon. He knew things weren’t right. They kept me in hospital, I had a big lump under my arm.  It was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

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Jonjo trains in the hills of Gloucestershire

"Trainer Phonsie O’Brien wrote me a letter saying ‘under no circumstances give in that training licence’. He said ‘every day you are well enough to go round the yard it will give you something to aim at’ and he was right.

“I couldn’t see what good advice that was at the time because you think everything is worse than it is, but I kept the licence, kept a couple of horses, kept the yard going.

“When you get the chemotherapy it would knock you flying for a week or ten days, then you start getting a bit stronger. The training gives you something to go at.”

Jonjo junior had his first Festival ride as a conditional jockey in 2017 and got round twice last year on Dream Berry and Eastlake.

Download the new Sun Racing app today

The brilliant new app, which is free to download ahead of the Cheltenham Festival, features:

  1. Best Odds – our odds comparison tool keeps the bookies honest
  2. Predictor – rank the field by 18 different categories, such as weight, draw, career prize money and jockey wins
  3. Tips & news – get a steer from the best tipsters in the business in our news tab

Head over to the App Store to download it for free.

He said: “It’s a lot different riding at Cheltenham. Normally lads you’re riding with every day, you half look after each other. But not at Cheltenham, it is full on, you are on your own. It’s every man for himself.”

He said: “To win at Cheltenham in November was a great boost. Everyone was there that day too, mum, dad, my friends and JP McManus.

“And the Lanzarote win was definitely the biggest – for an outside trainer, Jennie Candlish, too – which helps me.”

If there’s to be any criticism from his father this week it will be gentle and constructive. Jonjo said: “I just tell him the truth. Not too much criticism, though and plenty of encouragement.

“I enjoy it but his mother might not enjoy it the same way!

“Some riders beat themselves up when they don’t win. But you’ve got to be philosophical. You certainly don’t go to Cheltenham feeling cocky. But people just go bloody mad there. It’s special, it’s a magical place.”

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