AS a fearless jump jockey, Jonjo O’Neill will always be associated with two of Yorkshire’s most iconic horses. His Cheltenham Gold Cup win on Peter Easterby’s ill-fated Alverton was eclipsed by a Champion Hurdle – and Ebor – win on sublime Sea Pigeon.
As a top trainer who battled back from cancer to earn the patronage of JP McManus, O’Neill will always be the man who provided the record-breaking AP McCoy with two of the 20-times champion jockey’s greatest moments in the saddle – Don’t Push It’s Grand National triumph and Synchronised’s last-gasp Gold Cup win.
Yet nothing, says the quietly-spoken 63-year-old, compares with the drama of a pulsating Cheltenham Gold Cup 30 years ago when the magical mare Dawn Run became the first (and only) horse to have won steeplechasing’s blue riband race in addition to a Champion Hurdle landed two years previously.
A thrilling race that saw Dawn Run deny two Yorkshire warriors – the luckless Wayward Lad and defending champion Forgive ‘N’ Forget – in the final two strides, it is forever associated with the late Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s mesmerising commentary: “And the mare’s beginning to get up!” – one of the great calls in sports broadcasting.
As grown men tossed their trilbies in the air amid raucous scenes of delirium which eclipsed the reception afforded to the legendary three-time Gold Cup winner Arkle in the 1960s or Dawn Run’s Champion Hurdle triumph in 1984, the characteristically understated O’Sullevan made an even more pertinent observation: “Surely the greatest moment in the career of the great former champion Jonjo O’Neill.”
“He was right,” O’Neill told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “I’d experienced nothing like it – and I think it was one of my final wins because I retired shortly afterwards. What a way to go out. It will never leave me. It was fantastic, great to be part of it.”
The injury-prone O’Neill, who caught the racing public’s imagination when riding an unlikely 149 winners in 1977-78 while based in Yorkshire and Cumbria, was accustomed to the adulation afforded to Dawn Run – the aftermath of the Champion Hurdle win was overshadowed by the jockey’s battle through the crowds to weigh in with his saddle intact. If he had let go of his iron grip, the horse would have been disqualified.
Yet the build-up to the horse’s date with destiny was no less dramatic thanks to a cast-list headed by Dawn Run’s trainer, Paddy Mullins, a giant of Irish racing, and outspoken owner Charmian Hill, 68, who was dubbed the ‘galloping granny’ because she was actually in the saddle for the mare’s first three races before her riding licence was rescinded on health grounds.
Ireland was agog. After a successful chasing debut in the 1984-85 season, Dawn Run was on the injury sidelines and her comeback win at Punchestown in December 1985 was as big a story as boxer Barry McGuigan’s world title win earlier that year.
It was also assumed that the trainer’s son, Tony, would ride the horse. That was until horse and rider came to grief in their Gold Cup prep race moments after the BBC’s Julian Wilson, who was calling the race, lauded Dawn Run “cruising, coasting into the lead. It’s two years since she’s been beaten”.
Talk about the commentator’s curse.
Cue a story to eclipse any other in the annals of Irish sport as the aforementioned Hill, a lady used to getting her own way, overruled Mullins, and his paternal loyalties towards his son, and called up County Cork-born O’Neill with the whole of Ireland divided by this conflict of loyalties.
“I schooled her at Gowran Park and she wasn’t great,” disclosed O’Neill. “She was very moody. She just didn’t want to do her job. I wasn’t too impressed with her jumping. When I schooled her at Punchestown later on, she was a bit better. That gave me enough confidence.”
As the 11 runners went to post, O’Neill knew his fate would be settled early on. “She did like to be in front and she did like to have things her own way,” he said. “There were three or four front-runners so I knew the first fence would be crucial. Fortunately, she took it well. As a two-mile Champion Hurdler, you would have thought that you would have to drop her in to conserve her energy but that wasn’t her. I knew not to argue with her!”
Duelling for the lead with Run And Skip, a mistake at the water jump saw Dawn Run – a bull of a horse backed into favouritism on a tide of Irish patriotism – drop back to second and another error soon followed – this, after all, was only the mare’s fifth race over fences.
In the meantime, the multiple Grade One-winner Wayward Lad, a stalwart of the Dickinson family’s Harewood stables, and Forgive ‘N’ Forget, trained at Malton by Jimmy Fitzgerald, were travelling with ominous ease.
Dawn Run and Run And Skip were joined by the pursuing pair at the second last – all four combatants jumped the fence in unison – before the dramatic denouement. First Wayward Lad, the veteran ridden by Wetherby’s Graham Bradley, surged clear. Then Mark Dwyer’s Forgive ‘N’ Forget appeared to gain a second wind before O’Neill conjured a spine-tingling surge to the line from Dawn Run.
As a leg-weary Wayward Lad, paying the price for no prep run, veered left to the far running rail, O’Neill sensed victory. “She had been able to fill her lungs going to the last,” he recalled. “I could see ‘Brad’ on Wayward Lad. I had ridden the Dickinson horse the year before and didn’t think he quite got the three-and-a-quarter-mile trip. When he went to get the running rail, I knew he was tiring and Dawn Run just filled her lungs and got her head back in front just in time.”
As O’Neill collected his prize, he lifted the aforementioned Tony Mullins onto his shoulders in acknowledgement of the latter’s role with Dawn Run who – tragically – suffered a fatal fall three months later in France.
By then, O’Neill had suffered one fall too many at Ayr and was preparing for the second greatest race of his life – a battle to overcome cancer of the lymph glands. He admits that he had felt “weary” throughout the 1985-86 season and that the disease was probably taking hold as he rode an adrenaline-filled Gold Cup.
“Winning the Gold Cup is truly wonderful,” added Jonjo O’Neill, whose best chance of a Cheltenham Festival winner next week rests with the classy former World Hurdle winner More Of That in the RSA Chase.
“As a rider, it’s up to you and you are in control. Training a winner of a Gold Cup is different. It’s a big team effort. It’s only your name up on the roll of honour. When it’s going right, it’s the best game in the world. But there will never be another day like Dawn Run’s triumph.”