Family affair as Jonjo O’Neill junior matches his father

JONJO O’Neill Junior says his breakthrough season exceeded expectations after he was officially crowned champion conditional this week.

Champion conditional: Jonjo O'Neill's title-winning successes included this win on former Gold Cup winner Native River in the Denman Chase at Newbury.

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He accrued 61 winners – despite the season being curtailed by injury, suspension and coronavirus – to lift a title which his legendary father famously won in 1972-73.

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But, more importantly, the 22-year-old also emerged as integral member of trainer Colin Tizzard’s team – a burgeoning alliance that saw him partner former Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Native River to success in Newbury’s Denman Chase when regular rider Richard Johnson was on the injury sidelines.

On the way: Jonjo O'Neill junior and Native River clear the last in the Denman Chase at Newbury.

“I ended on 61 winners and we missed the last six weeks and I missed three months before that, getting banned and injured,” explained O’Neill.

“Had I not missed all that time I’d have had more winners, but my goal was 50 at the beginning of the season and then when I got to 50 I set 75 and then it stopped quickly. I’ve been very lucky this year, but I know you do have to get more competitive each year. I’ve realised that this year.”

O’Neill junior is among many of those feeling the surreal atmosphere due to the unprecedented circumstances. “I got reminded it was Grand National week and it didn’t feel like that at all,” he said. “We did well to get Cheltenham on this year. Any later and we’d have struggled.”

The horseman may have been last of the 11 finishers in the Gold Cup on Elegant Escape for the Tizzards, but just to have a ride in chasing’s blue riband will spur him on still further.

Family fortunes: Trainer Jonjo O'Neill was champion conditional in 1972-73. Now his son, Jonjo junior, has won the accolade.

The jockey also derived great personal satisfaction from being asked to ride the 2018 winner Native River at Newbury – and even more pleasure from winning a high-profile race and vindicating the faith of connections.

“The month of February worked out very well for me. I had a few Saturday winne Champion conditional Jonjo O’Neill’s title-winning successes included this win on former Gold Cup winner Native River in the Denman Chase at Newbury. rs and he was the one that snowballed that effect,” he said. “He’s obviously a very good horse and different to the rest of them.”

Among his other Saturday winners that month were Copperhead in the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot and Mister Malarky in the Betway Handicap Chase at Kempton.

With a thirst for winners, more high-profile successes look certain to follow for a rider who has also made no secret of his ambition to become champion jockey like his father, who won the accolade in 1977-78 and 79-80.

Coincidentally, O’Neill senior, now a respected Gold Cup and Grand National-winning trainer, was the last Northern-based jockey to achieve the feat before Yorkshire’s Brian Hughes this year.

Yet, while it only took 38 winners for O’Neill senior to become the top conditional in the early 1970s, the loyalty of connections mattered just as much then as it does now.

His autobiography by Tim Richards recounts the drama of the 1972 Mackeson Gold Cup at Cheltenham when O’Neill came off the Gordon Richards-trained Proud Stone at the final fence when holding a winning chance.

Helped to his feet by two St John Ambulance attendants, he told the trainer’s wife Jean who was present: “It’s better that I don’t come home and see the boss. I’ll make my way back to Ireland if you could pack my bags and send them on.”

However, he was persuaded to return to Cumbria – and then stood nervously on the steep stone steps leading to the trainer’s flat at his famous Greystoke stables.

O’Neill was then told to “come on up” where the fearsome Richards foisted the telephone receiver onto him and said: “Here, Jimmy McGhie (the owner of Proud Stone) would like to speak to you.”

O’Neill recalled: “My hand was shaking until I rested the phone against my ear and offered a feeble ‘Hello’ into the mouthpiece.

“‘You tried to be a big name and it didn’t come off. But forget it’, growled McGhie’s Scottish tones down the line.” The rest, as they say, is history.