It wasn't so very long ago that Jonjo O'Neill Junior was nurturing his talent in pony races at places like Andoversford. Today, he's a fully fledged professional rider, in the top rank, and his endeavour got its just reward when Champ finally found his best metier in the Howden Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. This was a first Grade I winner for the young rider charged with the onerous duty of riding for one of the top yards in the country.
The staying division is turning into an intriguing distance, with former winners of the Grade I in March, Paisley Park and Lisnager Oscar beaten behind Champ, and Thyme Hill, last year's winner, 1 3/4l back in second. Has Champ found the genre of race at which he can excel? It looks highly likely he will remain over hurdles, for sure for this season, but thereafter too, and why not, having catapulted to favouritism for March after this afternoon's performance. The winner of the RSA Chase in 2020 looks able to excel over the smaller obstacles.
It turned into a pretty good afternoon for the team at Jackdaws Castle, with Palmer's Hill winning the valuable 0-150 Handicap Chase for the same Owner-Trainer-Rider combination, and for a long tome, a memorable treble seemed on the cards as Cloth Cap jumped for fun around Ascot, leading until late on, when his welter weight anchored him. He eventually cried enough and refused the last, having run his race by then.
Like any aspiring rider, the younger O'Neill yearns to ride big winners. His tally of big races is growing steadily, but hasn't yet converted to Festival honours beyond winning the Martin Pipe Conditionals race in 2019. However, Jonjo Senior is a master at coaxing a superlative performance from an under-rated horse, and he is as likely as any other trainer that his son rides for to deliver come the Spring.
For the time being, today was about re-asserting that upward momentum, halted through injury earlier this autumn, and giving a welcome profile to a rider on the up.
Going for Sunday April 3 - Good (Thursday)
6m SE Cheltenham, nr junction of A40 and A436 (Exit 11A, M5)