We might now be familiar with seeing Gloucestershire-based National Hunt trainer Jonjo O’Neill on the ground rather than in the saddle, but the Irishman had a fruitful career as a jockey.
He rode his first winner in 1970, and in the 1977/78 season, having moved to England, he broke the record for most winners in a season.
But his own eight rides in the Grand National were unfruitful — the furthest he ever got was Valentine’s on the second circuit.
“I was unlucky — I just kept riding the wrong ones,” he says with a chuckle. “It did frustrate me at the time. Everyone wants to win the National. I had some good rides in the race; I was doing really well on Alverton, on whom I won the 1979 Gold Cup — he was cantering going down to Becher’s second time when he fell. It really was the thrill of a lifetime and they were proper jumps in those days.”
He talks with animation about jumping Becher’s when it still had the plunging drop behind, demonstrating with drinks coasters how, because of the angle of the fence, horses automatically head for the left-hand side, where the fence was at its biggest.
“The National is different to anything else. A good ride there is magic,” he says.
Jonjo has now called time on his own riding — with the odd exception.
“I did ride a few years ago, with my two boys,” he remembers. “They were on their ponies and I was on an old racehorse I pulled out of the field. We got down to the jumping field one day and they said, ‘Dad, will you show us how you used to ride in races?’ I said yes. My wife Jacqui had bought me a cowboy saddle and I always used to ride in it then.
“I gave the horse a kick in the belly and popped over the hurdle, and he gave a buck and sent me flying. I was nearly castrated on the way. I landed and was winded, but the boys were killing themselves laughing. I was sore for a week and that was enough riding.”
Don’t miss our exclusive interview with Jonjo O’Neill in this week’s Horse & Hound magazine (12 April 2018) and our full report from the Grand National in the 19 April issue of the magazine, out this Thursday
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