THE pride is palpable in Jonjo O’Neill junior’s softly-spoken voice as he speaks of the privilege of becoming racing’s latest Grade One-winning jump jockey.
“To get the first one is what you dream of as kid,” he tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview to mark the aptly-named Champ’s win in Ascot’s Howden Long Walk Hurdle.
“It doesn’t change your everyday life or anything – you still want to win every race – but the big races on the pinnacle days, they’re the ones you want to win any more.”
What is less widely known is that the seriousness of the injury that the jockey overcame just to be in a position to be considered for the ride on the Nicky Henderson-trained Champ three weekends ago.
It’s enough to make his legendary father Jonjo O’Neill, a champion jockey whose own battle-scarred career in the saddle was marred by injury, wince in sympathy.
No stranger to injury himself, O’Neill junior’s pain threshold has, by his own admission, increased with each heavy fall. Even this, however, did not prepare him for the instant agony when Morning Spirit, trained by his father, failed to take off at a fence at Aintree on October 24 and pitched the young rider straight into the turf.
“That was the worst yet,” conceded O’Neill who was in winning action at Wetherby yesterday. Even more painful, he continued, was the thought of all the big race rides that he would miss while on the sidelines.
The prognosis was inauspicious – he had torn the AC ligament [acromioclavicular], which holds his right collarbone together.
“They tore off and I don’t have the ligaments any more. Once they’ve gone you can manage without them – just bone on bone,” he explained. “The first surgeon said I would be out for at least six to eight weeks. I then saw Richard Evans, who treated the rugby player Alun Wyn Jones when he was injured at the start of the Lions tour of South Africa.
“He said there was no reason why I could not be back sooner if the injury was carefully managed. I made it back in three and a half weeks. I won on Springwell Bay for my dad at Market Rasen (November 18) on my first day back and I had the bug – it wasn’t going to stop me.
“The shoulder was sore – and I was selective about what I rode – but I probably would not have got the ride on Champ if I’d waited the full six to eight weeks.
“I’d help dad in the mornings while I was off, an extra pair of eyes to help with the placing of horses, and go to Oaksey House (Injured Jockeys Fund rehab centre) in the afternoons to work on my recovery. They were brilliant.”
It is a routine that had become all-too-familiar to O’Neill as the 2019-20 champion conditional discloses that he’s yet to complete a full season free from serious injury.
His first calamity came two weeks before the 2021 Cheltenham Festival when he was effectively unseated by a riderless horse at Leicester – and then kicked in the face by a pursuing horse as he lay on the turf.
Despite suffering a broken eye socket, O’Neill made it to Cheltenham thanks to the ingenuity of the BHA medical team, headed by Dr Jerry Hill, developing a special face protector and the rider passing every conceivable concussion and Covid test.
And while O’Neill was proud to finish fourth on the progressive Soaring Glory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, his main motivation was the Midlands National ride at the end of the week aboard Time To Get Up for his father.
His perseverance was vindicated when the JP McManus-owned horse, under pressure up the entirety of Uttoxeter’s demanding home straight, lived up to his name and hit the front in the shadow of the winning post.
But any hope that O’Neill had of an injury-free run came to an abrupt halt at Worcester in mid-summer when he broke his left shoulder blade after his horse sprawled on landing.
Yet, typically, he did not bemoan his luck. Instead he helped his father and mother Jacqui with the day-to-day running of Jackdaws Castle, the Cotswolds stables where the family have trained previous Gold Cup and Grand National winners.
“I’m there as much as I can because it is a family operation,” says O’Neill junior. “They support me so I help them as much as I can. I get very bored – I couldn’t sit on the sofa all afternoon watching the racing on TV. Even when I’m riding, I’ll try and drop in after racing – a lot of people don’t realise it takes a lot of effort just to get the horses to the track in the first place.”
Such a work ethic has certainly endeared O’Neill junior to the likes of the aforementioned McManus whose extensive string is overseen by Sir AP McCoy, the 20-times champion jockey, and racing manager Frank Berry. They very much view the young rider as a kindred spirit and the jockey’s most notable wins at Cheltenham, Punchestown and also Uttoxeter have been for McManus in his iconic green and gold hooped silks.
And their collective faith was vindicated when they chose O’Neill to partner Champ, named in honour of McCoy’s prodigious feats, at Ascot when Nico de Boinville opted to ride Henderson’s Buzz while Aidan Coleman, another regular McManus rider, was suspended.
And the McManus team resisted the temptation to switch riders when Buzz became injured on the eve of the three mile race – a noted trial for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
What O’Neill junior remembers most of all about the landmark day is instructive – the lack of pressure from connections, the exhilaration of winning a Grade One race and a chance to reciprocate the loyalty of McManus.
Now his sights are set on further big race success while helping his family develop an exciting crop of young horses at Jackdaws Castle. “We’ve got a lot of nice horses that will be horses for next year,” he said. “We’re looking for the next stars – hopefully we have one or two – but they are hard to find.”
Yet Jonjo O’Neill junior goes about his work in no doubt that he made the right decision when he gave up a promising rugby career to become a rider. “Look at how big them boys are now. I’m not sure I would have lived up to it,” he remarks with a smile that is even more telling now he is a Grade One-winning jockey.