They say that blood is thicker than water, and it’s certainly true that in the introspective world of racing, successful partnerships are often built around family units. There’s many a training business which has been handed on from father to son, as the likes of David Pipe, Jonathan Geake and Andrew Balding would attest. Sustaining that business through a younger generation still requires the same verve and talent that created it in the first instance mind.
Here in the midst of Gloucestershire is one family partnership that continues to achieve great success year after year without any song and dance, in which both leading proponents can call themselves champions.
I’m referring of course to the O’Neills – Jonjo Snr and son of the same name.
Jonjo Snr is a legend in his own lifetime; twice champion jockey, and inspiration to a generation of riders since for his ability to motivate a horse to greater things; winner of 901 races spanning 16 years from 1970-86, closed out by that unforgettable ride on Dawn Run in the 1986 Gold Cup, the first rider ever to ride 149 winners in a season in the UK. There are so many superlatives one can muster about the self-effacing Jonjo Snr, and most of them have been written by better scribes than I.
It’s still an O’Neill ambition to wrest the Champion Trainer mantle from the current incumbents, and it would take a brave man to bet against it. After all, triumph and distaster are uncomfortable bedfellows, and viruses are not restricted to humans even despite this year's pandemic.
But hoving into view this past 20 months is the eldest son of Jonjo’s second wife Jacqui, a Gloucestershire girl and lynchpin of the state-of-the-art training centre that is Jackdaws Castle. Jonjo Jnr, crowned Champion Conditional last season with 61 winners, is a product of UK pony racing and a contemporary of the likes of Connor Brace and Harry Cobden.
The two together have gelled into a formidable team, and today’s 13l winner, His Dream at Perth is just the most recent in a stream of winners this season, carrying on where they left off at the curtailment of the season back in March.
Still just 22, Jonjo Jnr is also a product of Newick House at Cheltenham College, which also nurtured Tom Scudamore to grow some racing wings under racing enthusiast housemaster Martin Stovold, formerly of the Yes No Wait Sorries syndicate, run by the king of Ravenswell Farm, Chris Coley. And whilst College wouldn’t present itself as a stepping stone to a racing career, it has a track record of nurturing sporting talent. Ollie Thorley, currently playing for Gloucester Rugby in the Premiership, is the youngest player in the league and a former pupil too. Several others are making their way in the sport too in a variety of roles, including AJ, Jonjo’s younger brother.
It would be fair to expect the Jackdaws team to be relentlessly focused on the midwinter season and the assault on Cheltenham and Aintree. Yet a characteristic of recent seasons, repeated again this time around, is a summer campaign to get winners on the board. This has resulted in a steady stream of winners for the yard, ensuring Jonjo Jnr maintains a 19% strike rate and a place in the top ten jockeys in the UK.
In maintaining his momentum as a fully fledged professional, Jonjo can rely on a steady stream of rides from Jackdaws, ably supported by some peachy rides from the Tizzard yard in Dorset. This included a first Gold Cup ride in Elegant Lord this March. But he’s already a Festival winner, in the Martin Pipe of 2019.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that Jonjo Jnr has been touted as a candidate for the vacant post as retained rider for the godfather of the sport – J P McManus, the eponymous owner of Jackdaws Castle. Whilst the vacancy might have come a year or two too soon, the rumours are an illustration of the esteem in which this fledgling rider is held across the sport at large.
Injury permitting, it looks like the O’Neill reputation can safely filter down to the next generation.