Jonjo O’Neill continues his family tradition of producing racing winners

Jonjo O'Neill junior is the son of legendary jockey Jonjo O'Neill.
Jonjo O'Neill junior is the son of legendary jockey Jonjo O'Neill.
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JONJO O’Neill junior is blessed to be the son of one of the most famous and fearless men in racing who needs no introduction.

READ MORE - How Jonjo O’Neill and Peter Easterby beat the odds

Jonjo O'Neill is the season's leading conditional jockey.

Jonjo O'Neill is the season's leading conditional jockey.

READ MORE - Bygones on Jonjo O’Neill’s Cheltenham win

Even now, the name ‘Jonjo’ is synonymous with the iron man of racing who refused to yield to crippling injury – and then cancer.

Yet while O’Neill senior is one of the few men to have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup as a jockey and trainer – Dawn Run’s last- gasp win in 1986 preceded Synchronised’s never-say-die win in 2012 under an inspired AP McCoy – his son is keen to make his mark nearly 12 months after his own breakthrough win.

Though O’Neill junior - who has a number of rides at Wetherby today - rides for his father, and top owner JP McManus, it is significant that top trainers like Colin Tizzard are also using this horseman with increasing frequency.

Trainer Jonjo O'Neill is a two-time champion jockey.

Trainer Jonjo O'Neill is a two-time champion jockey.

And the 21-year-old is now well poised to be champion conditional – 40 years after his father won the second of his two jump jockey championships.

Now eight clear of his nearest challenger Connor Brace, O’Neill junior is taking nothing for granted – injuries and suspension have already taken their toll in a campaign that has yielded 37 winners to date.

“It will be tough and not plain sailing, but winning the conditional title is the main aim – and I would be happy at the end of the season if I have done that, while if I get past 50 winners that would also be good,” he said.

“There are three or four that could put their names in the hat for it, but then you need competition to get better.

“The likes of Connor Brace and Ben Jones are clipping at my heels, but I hope I’ve got good ammunition and will get a few winners with dad and Colin Tizzard –although most of the others have good claims left, so it will be a very even race.”

Like his father, O’Neill has been phlegmatic when it comes to adversity, including a fractured jaw sustained in a heavy fall at Southwell and then a lengthy suspension for taking the wrong course at Wetherby in October when, in the low-lying sun, he inadvertently bypassed the third last flight on John Quinn’s Project Bluebook.

“My year has gone quite well, even though I’ve been off for a few months with bans and a broken jaw,” he reflected over Christmas.

“I rode my first big winner in the Lanzarote (Big Time Dancer) for Jennie Candlish a year ago this weekend then I had my first Cheltenham winner on Early Doors in the Martin Pipe for Joseph O’Brien, and I won my first Graded race on Annie Mc at Newbury for dad – which was special.

“I’ve also had my first treble and first Punchestown Festival winner – so it has in many ways been a breakthrough year, I suppose.”

As well as his father who also saddled 2010 Grand National hero Don’t Push It, O’Neill junior respects the guidance and counsel of other former jockeys – including Guiseley-born Dominic Elsworth who used to ride for Sue and Harvey Smith.

He said: “Carl Llewellyn and Dominic Elsworth are my jockey coaches, and Dom is my brother-in-law, so that helps. Both are very good. If I had a problem as well I would give AP (McCoy) a ring or talk to him at the races.

“Barry Geraghty is very good to me, and Richie McLernon has been like my older brother for the past 10 years. I try to surround myself with good people that know what they are talking about and have plenty of experience, because it will only help my career.”

Despite growing up in a household where racing was part of day-to-day life, pursuing a career in the sport is something that has come later to O’Neill than some of his contemporaries.

The jockey, who also won on david Pipe’s Duc De Beauchene at Cheltenham in November, said: “Mum and dad never pushed us either way, because they know how hard it is. I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie, and the only kick I can get is from riding horses quickly – I wanted to be a jockey from the age of 13 or 14.

“I was pretty restless when I was 16, because Sean (Bowen) and Harry (Cobden) – who I grew up at pony club with – started getting conditional licences.

“I had to sit and suffer and watch them on television doing well and I was sat at school starting my A-Levels in French, politics, business studies and sports science – but I think I was better off for it, and it has stood me in good stead in the long term.”

Being the son of such a high-profile former rider comes with an added pressure – but the meticulously polite O’Neill junior, as softly spoken as his father, sees it as an advantage in helping him reach the heights and goals he has set out.

He added: “I don’t think it puts pressure on me at all – it’s something to aim towards. I feel lucky and privileged that I have the same name as dad.

“We are very similar in a lot of ways and on the same wavelength, but I am my own man and I want to establish myself as a jockey.

“He rode 149 winners in a season.

“There are not many jockeys that do that now, and he did it in the 1970s when there was less racing and no Sunday racing. If I ride more winners in a season than he did then that would be a personal achievement.

“I’d say the proudest moment that I hope I have is when I pass the total number of winners he has ridden.

“I think I’d like to just go past that, so I’m not just known as Jonjo O’Neill’s son.”