Courageous runner Jonjo O’Neill, first year winner, proves a chip out of the old block
Pride is palpable in the soft voice of Jonjo O’Neill junior as he talks about the privilege of becoming the last jumping jockey to win the first year of the race.
“Getting the first one is what you dream of when you are a kid,” he says Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview to mark the victory of the aptly named Champ in the Ascot Howden Long Walk Hurdle.
“It doesn’t change your everyday life or anything – you still want to win every race – but the big races on the peak days are the ones you most want to win.”
What is less well known is that the severity of the injury the jockey overcame just to be able to factor in for the ride on the champion coached by Nicky Henderson three weekends ago.
That’s enough to make legendary father Jonjo O’Neill wince in sympathy, a champion jockey whose own saddle-fighting career has been marred by injuries.
Used to injuring himself, O’Neill junior’s pain threshold by his own admission increased with each heavy fall. Even that, however, did not prepare him for instant agony when Morning Spirit, trained by his father, failed to take off at a fence in Aintree on October 24 and threw the young runner straight into the grass. .
“It was the worst yet,” conceded O’Neill who was in winning action at Wetherby yesterday. Even more painful, he continued, was the thought of all the great races he would miss while on the sidelines.
The prognosis was bad omen – he had torn the AC ligament [acromioclavicular], which holds his right collarbone together.
“They got torn off and I no longer have the ligaments. Once they’re gone, you can do without them – just bone on bone, ”he explained. “The first surgeon said I would be away for at least six to eight weeks. Next I saw Richard Evans, who treated rugby player Alun Wyn Jones when he was injured at the start of the Lions tour of South Africa.
“He said there was no reason I couldn’t be back sooner if the injury was handled carefully. I came back in three and a half weeks. I won at Springwell Bay for my dad. in Market Rasen (Nov 18) on the first day of my return and I got the virus – it wasn’t going to stop me.
“The shoulder was sore – and I was selective about what I was driving – but I probably wouldn’t have been able to get on Champ if I had waited the full six to eight weeks.
“I would help Dad in the mornings while I was away, an extra pair of eyes to help place the horses, and I would go to Oaksey House (Injured Jockeys Fund Rehabilitation Center) in the afternoon to work on my recovery. They were brilliant.
It’s a routine that had become all too familiar to O’Neill as the 2019-20 conditional champion reveals he has yet to complete a full season without a serious injury.
His first calamity came two weeks before the 2021 Cheltenham Festival when he was effectively run over by a riderless horse in Leicester – then punched in the face by a chasing horse while lying on the grass.
Despite a broken eye socket, O’Neill made it to Cheltenham thanks to the ingenuity of the BHA medical team, led by Dr Jerry Hill, who developed a special face protector and the runner passed all tests for concussion and Covid imaginable.
And while O’Neill was proud to finish fourth on the Soaring Glory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, his main motivation was the Midlands National ride at the end of the week aboard Time To Get Up for his father.
His persistence was justified when the horse owned by JP McManus, under pressure throughout Uttoxeter’s demanding straight, lived up to his name and hit the front in the shadow of the winning post.
But any hope O’Neill had of an injury-free run came to an abrupt end in Worcester in the middle of the summer when he broke his left scapula after his horse sprawled on the landing .
Yet, typically, he didn’t regret his luck. Instead, he helped his father and mother Jacqui run the daily Jackdaws Castle, the stables in the Cotswolds where the family trained the previous Gold Cup and Grand National winners.
“I’m there as much as I can because it’s a family business,” says O’Neill junior. “They support me so I help them as much as I can. I’m very bored – I couldn’t sit on the couch all afternoon watching the races on TV. Even when I ride I will try to stop after the race – a lot of people don’t realize that it takes a lot of effort just to get the horses to the track in the first place.
Such a work ethic has certainly endowed O’Neill junior to the likes of the aforementioned McManus whose extended chain is overseen by Sir AP McCoy, the 20-time champion jockey, and race director Frank Berry. They regard the young rider as a soul mate and the jockey’s most notable victories at Cheltenham, Punchestown and Uttoxeter have been for McManus in his iconic green and gold silks.
And their collective faith was justified when they chose O’Neill as Champ’s partner, named in honor of McCoy’s stupendous feats, at Ascot when Nico de Boinville chose to ride Henderson’s Buzz while Aidan Coleman, a another regular McManus pilot, was suspended.
And the McManus team resisted the temptation to switch riders when Buzz injured himself on the eve of the three-mile race – a noticeable ordeal for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
What O’Neill Junior remembers most about that milestone day is instructive – the lack of relationship pressure, the exhilaration of winning a freshman race, and a chance to return McManus’ loyalty.
Today his goal is to achieve further great racing success while helping his family develop an exciting crop of young horses at Jackdaws Castle. “We have a lot of beautiful horses that will be horses for the next year,” he said. “We’re looking for the next stars – hopefully we get one or two – but they’re hard to find.”
Yet Jonjo O’Neill junior continues his work knowing that he made the right decision by giving up a promising rugby career to become a rider. “Look how big these boys are now. I’m not sure I would have lived up to it, ”he remarks with a smile that is even more telling now that he’s a first year jockey.