The man who rode Irish heroine Dawn Run to her greatest triumph in 1986 also saddled Synchronised, the last gasp-victor in 2012 under the incomparable AP McCoy.
Yet 40 years ago O’Neill won his first Gold Cup when he partnered Alverton – trained in Ryedale by Peter Easterby – to victory in a race that was run during a snowstorm.
“They’re all special, but you never forget the first one,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview to mark the milestone.
As modest and humble now as he was in the Seventies and early Eighties and the occasions when he had as many injuries as winners, O’Neill – who hails from County Cork – had become champion jockey in 1977-78 with a then record 149 winners.
At least a third of these winners came courtesy of the aforementioned Easterby, a farmer-cum-trainer who was an early admirer of the Irishman’s horsemanship and bravery.
“Jonjo is the strongest jockey I’ve ever seen,” observed the Great Habton trainer at the time. “He is also, by some way, the most masterful finisher in the game. Time and time again he won races that lesser riders would have lost.”
The Cheltenham Festival had been less kind with O’Neill having just one triumph there to his name prior to the 1979 Gold Cup.
On the eve of the race the Tony Dickinson-trained King George winner Gay Spartan, the chief hope of Yorkshire, was withdrawn with lameness and Night Nurse, Easterby’s dual Champion Hurdle winner, was tipped to prevail under Graham Thorner.
However, O’Neill was not lacking confidence.
“Yes, I think he will win,” he told Night Nurse’s rider in a pre-race canter.
Easterby had always been flexible over riding arrangements, which is why the aforementioned Thorner was in the saddle when Alverton – a fragile horse who had already been nursed back to fitness from potentially career-ending leg injuries – won the 1978 Arkle Trophy over two miles.
As the tape went up, and Cheltenham’s iconic Cleeve Hill became shrouded in snow, it was the sheepskin-nosebanded Tied Cottage who set a searching pace under Tommy Carberry.
Sir Peter O’Sullevan, commentating for the BBC, found the right words to describe the occasion. “The visibility is bad out in the country,” he observed before informing viewers: “It looks like they all jumped the first ditch successfully.”
That was the seventh fence and already Tied Cottage was, according to O’Sullevan, “virtually out of sight” of the pursuers who included Alverton and horses like Aldaniti, who would finish a remote third before winning the 1981 Grand National after jockey Bob Champion beat cancer.
On the final circuit Tied Cottage’s lead was almost unassailable as Night Nurse lost touch on heavy ground – Easterby still rues not switching this great horse to larger obstacles immediately after his second Champion Hurdle win in 1977.
On the run to the fourth last O’Neill remembers shouting at Phil Blacker on Royal Mail: “We’d better get after him or we’ll never catch him”.
Then the third last and Royal Mail is beaten as Alverton sets off in pursuit of the leader.
So to the penultimate fence and O’Neill, two lengths down, pulls Alverton wide in case Tied Cottage pays the price for his tearaway tactics. It was a fortuitous move.
At the last Tied Cottage falters, and crumples on landing to gasps from the crowd while still holding a slender lead, and O’Neill conjures the leap of his life out of Alverton.
Landing running, he avoids the long-time leader and wins by 25 lengths from the leg-weary Royal Mail. Alverton’s 12th success, it showed that O’Neill belonged at Cheltenham after several near-misses.
“He took off a stride before I expected and stretched himself to the limit,” reflected O’Neill, who believes this year’s Gold Cup will go to defending champion Native River or dual Festival winner Presenting Percy because of the importance that he attaches to course form at the track.
“I thought he was sure to land on top of the fence because he was so tired, but he stretched out as only he could. He was a lovely horse to ride and a proper jumper.
“He went on any ground; soft, heavy, good. He was very genuine, really. That was the key to him. He was so genuine and honest. Looking back I thought we we had a chance of catching Tommy (Carberry) on Tied Cottage.
“Tommy always said he would have won if his horse had stood up, but I think we would have won. Your man was stopping on the leader – but I was glad to see him fall.”
Having grown up in awe of the exploits of triple Gold Cup winner Arkle, this was a win to savour. “A boyhood dream. You never think you’re going to do it, but you can’t stop dreaming,” said O’Neill, 66, who is particularly proud of his son Jonjo junior’s progress as a conditional jockey. “The first win is always special, very special. It takes all the pressure off. You’ve ticked one (race) off that you desperately want.”
O’Neill also compared Easterby to the late Paddy Mullins, who masterminded Dawn Run, still the only horse to have won both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup.
“He was a genius... he and Paddy were very similar with their horses. They were just natural. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but they knew how to get them fit on the day.”
The canny Easterby had bought the dam of Alverton for £700 from her Northallerton breeder Bill Pratt and then sent her to Midsummer Night II, a Cambridgeshire winner on the Flat.
The result of the mating was Alverton who was sold as a three-year-old to Stanhope Joel. When he passed away the light pink and green colours of the battle-scarred horse passed to his daughters Soina Thomson-Jones and Dana Brudenell-Bruce.
Despite the reservations of the owners, the champion lined up in the following month’s Grand National and paid the ultimate price at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit when he suffered a broken neck.
Cantering at the time, the horse just did not take off and distraught and disconsolate connections still believe Alverton suffered a fatal heart attack as he took off at the iconic fence.
To this day, Jonjo O’Neill believes he would have beaten Rubstic, the eventual winner. It hurts. Even now, it is only small consolation that Alverton died doing what he did best of all – jumping.
THE LAST FIVE YORKSHIRE-TRAINED WINNERS AT CHELTENHAM
SUCCESS for Yorkshire-trained horses at the Cheltenham Festival has proved elusive in recent years because of the competitive racing. The last five local victories are as follows:
* Divers: The grey won the novice handicap chase in 2011 under Graham Lee. The last Festival winner to be saddled by the great Ferdy Murphy, it was a dream win for David Parry and the horse’s syndicate of owners.
* Cape Tribulation: This versatile dual-purpose horse won the three-mile Pertemps Handicap Hurdle in 2012 under Denis O’Regan for the late Malcolm Jefferson, who proudly led the victor into the winner’s enclosure.
* Attaglance: Also trained by Jefferson, the horse took the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle in 2012 under Harry Haynes. Like Cape Tribulation, Attaglance also won at Aintree.
* Countrywide Flame: The North’s rare run of success in 2012 continued in the Grade One Triumph Hurdle with victory for this top-class hurdler trained by John Quinn and ridden by Dougie Costello.
* Hawk High: This victory in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle in 2014 for trainer Tim Easterby and owner Trevor Hemmings also provided Brian Hughes, the North’s leading jockey, with a first Festival success.