Memories of Sea Pigeon revived as Jonjo O’Neill’s club celebrate

JONJO O’NEILL’S affection and appreciation of Yorkshire’s legendary racehorse Sea Pigeon is as great today as it was four decades ago when they were one of National Hunt’s great partnerships.

This was the Jonjo O'Neill Racing Club's When You're Ready winning at Leicester this week in the colours of Sea Pigeon.
This was the Jonjo O'Neill Racing Club's When You're Ready winning at Leicester this week in the colours of Sea Pigeon.

Trained at Great Habton by the incomparable and irascible Peter Easterby, O’Neill won a heart-stopping Ebor on ‘Pigeon’ in 1979 before getting the better of their nemesis Monksfield in the 1980 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Now, 40 years later, the famous tartan and red colours of Sea Pigeon are back on the racecourse after O’Neill, a top trainer, launched a racing club to attract a new generation of enthusiasts to the sport that made him.

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What is more, they are back in the winners’ enclosure after When You’re Ready prevailed at Leicester this week under the trainer’s son, Jonjo junior, the reigning champion conditional.

Jonjo O'Neill won the 1980 Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon.

Yet, while Covid-19 rules meant none of the 400-plus members of the Jonjo O’Neill Racing Club were present to witness Wednesday’s win, their delight was epitomised by this message sent to the team.

“Wow, we couldn’t have had a more exciting start to the club than that, could we? What a brave horse, fantastic. My 93-year-old mum, who had her Covid jab yesterday, even got out of bed to watch the race,” they posted.

Typical of the enduring appeal of racing – and the O’Neill family in particular – to many people, members pay a £99 annual fee and, in return, receive a daily newsletter from organiser Roger Hart, have visits to the iconic Jackdaws Castle stables, the chance to attend race meetings and a share of net prize money from the club’s three horses.

While the trainer admits that there will never be another Sea Pigeon, the greatest dual purpose horse of all time, he was proud to watch When You’re Ready do justice to the iconic colours. “We’re all delighted – and it was great to get a winner for the club,” O’Neill told The Yorkshire Post. “Syndicates seem to be the way forward. It is an expensive sport and it’s nice for people to get involved.”

The motionless Jonjo O'Neill and Sea Pigeon surge past Monksfield in the 1980 Champion Hurdle.

Sea Pigeon, whose epic battles with stablemate Night Nurse and Ireland’s champion Monksfield still define hurdling’s golden era, was owned by Scottish businessman Pat Muldoon.

However, when his colours were auctioned by Sotherbys, they were purchased by O’Neill’s wife Jacqui and worn with distinction by their son, Jonjo junior, on the pony racing circuit.

“To be honest, how they got there, I don’t know,” said O’Neill, one of an elite group of horsemen to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup as a jockey and trainer.

“My wife spotted them and luckily bought them for me – and young Jonjo was wearing them pony racing and his brother AJ was wearing his mum’s colours.

“But it’s nice to get them back on the track. It’s what it is all about – you want to get as many people involved and getting pleasure out of it.”

Of all the top hurdlers and steeplechasers that O’Neill rode with such distinction, it is his associations with Sea Pigeon and Dawn Run, the mare who won the 1986 Gold Cup on a tide of Irish joy, that endure most vividly.

Yet Sea Pigeon was beaten by Monksfield in he 1979 Champion Hurdle – Easterby still rues not having the final say on tactics over Muldoon – and many thought the Ebor winner would be past his best the next year.

However, a change in Cheltenham’s configuration meant the Champion Hurdle field did not have to climb the punishing hill to the winning post on two occasions in the race.

“He was a great horse,” reflected O’Neill. “When they shortened the race, they didn’t have to go up the final hill twice. When they went up the hill twice, he didn’t quite get the trip. When they changed it, he won the next two Champion Hurdles.”

Yet a chequered preparation required another Easterby ‘miracle’ to ensure Sea Pigeon’s participation in 1980.

By then O’Neill (who missed the winning ride in 1981 with a badly broken leg) knew the horse so well that he did not panic at the mid-point in the race.

“On the far side of the Cheltenham amphitheatre, we met rising ground and Sea Pigeon started to let out the most disturbing gasps and pants,” he recalled.

“His heaving and wheezing were frightening; but I told myself to leave him alone and let him get on with the race in his own time. Some gravel had got inside his foot and made it septic and this cost him vital work in the build-up.”

However, while O’Neill likens the race to having to “sit and suffer”, it paid off. The waiting game enabled Sea Pigeon to find his second wind and rejoin the pacesetters without ever losing his flowing action.

With O’Neill motionless in the saddle at the last as Monksfield came under pressure, it also meant Sea Pigeon had enough in reserve to make the most of his finishing burst that had to be timed to perfection in case the champion tried to down tools, as he did in the Ebor. “He was one of those horses that captured the imagination of the public with his brilliant burst of speed,” added O’Neill.

And still does 40 years later.

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Doncaster detour to the National

JONJO O’NEILL says Cloth Cap – the runaway winner of Newbury’s Ladbrokes Trophy – remains on course for the Randox Grand National.

The victory of Cloth Cap under a well-judged ride from Tom Scudamore was particularly popular because the horse is owned by Trevor Hemmings, who already has three National wins to his name.

O’Neill said the horse’s prep race for the Aintree marathon could be the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster on March 6.

“Cloth Cap is in good form. He might have one more race and go for the National,” reported the trainer. “You might see him at Doncaster in the Grimthorpe.

“If that didn’t work out, we would put him in the three-mile handicap chase at Cheltenham.”

O’Neill described the Newbury win, one of the highlights of the 2020-21 National Hunt season, as “brilliant” and the culmination of a long-term plan to get the horse on a competitive handicap mark.

“He also came in this season a stronger horse,” he added.

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