One of the most influential trainers of all time, Jonjo O’Neill is the Irish jump superstar who dominated the track despite a series of personal difficulties.
So, who is Jonjo, where did he get started and what about him makes him a perfect pick for your punts to follow?
Who Is He?
Born in 1952, it came as no surprise to anyone that the Cork native always dreamed of having a career as a jockey, with the city having racing in its blood. O’Neill started by apprenticing for local legend Michael Connolley and soon distinguished himself by riding his first winner ‘Lana’ at eighteen years of age.
His time with Connolley saw him continue from strength to strength, going on to ride professionally from 1970 – 1986, becoming a household name in the process. The period between 1977 – 78 arguably saw the apex of his career as he shattered the record for the most winners ridden in a season with 149 successful runners and saw him twice-crowned as Champion Jockey and take home the Gold Cup at Cheltenham with ‘Dawn Run’, a horse that also went on to win the Champion Hurdles.
However, after a career total of 900 wins – and an almost commensurate amount of injuries – O’Neill decided to bow out on a high and go into the world of training.
But it wasn’t an easy start.
As he was setting up shop in a small farm holding in Penrith in 1986, O’Neill received a shock diagnosis of cancer. With characteristic determination and singlemindedness, he managed to get through the year while ‘only’ managing to produce three winning runners. As the years passed, O’Neill’s stable continued to cement its reputation and ‘Ivy House Stables’ grew into a famous brand. The existing 45 acres expanded out to a round 100 and became known as the one-stop-shop for horse training. Before long, the improved grounds held room for staff accommodation, loose boxes, and a state of the art indoor training ground that contained gear for all conditions and going.
But after making his home there for 21 years, the born-and-bred jockey couldn’t resist a final gamble – taking up a job working in JP McManus’ famous ‘Jackdaws Castle’ training centre, located a ten-minute drive from the doors of Cheltenham.
Now training a whole generation of jumpers – and the occasional runner – O’Neill shows no sign of slowing down and is still the only person to ever manage to take a hundred wins in a season as both jockey and trainer.
What Were His Biggest Victories?
Aside from his myriad victories as a jockey, many of O’Neill’s wins have been as a trainer.
Here are some occasions where O’Neill’s hand at the tiller tipped the balance for runners:
‘Wichita Lineman’: Even with earnings of £197,693 throughout his career, Lineman may not have been amongst the highest banking of O’Neill’s trainees, but he undoubtedly provided one of the was most spectacular wins. The horse most famously clutched a win at Cheltenham in 2009 after a surprise rally at twenty lengths which saw jockey AP McCoy drive home past rival runners with no more than 50 yards left in it.
‘Don’t Push It’: Providing another win for McCoy, the O’Neill trained ‘Don’t Push It’ was the horse that finally saw the Northern Irish jockey AP McCoy break his streak of Grand National losses and take his rider to a five lengths victory. However, the win at the National was followed by a dip in performance that prompted O’Neill to retire the horse, characteristically stating that “the last thing we wanted was to make him carry on doing something he was not really happy with” and giving the horse the ever-so-slightly preferable career as a stud instead.
‘Synchronised’: A world-class long-distance steeplechaser, ‘Synchronised’ was trained under O’ Neill and soon distinguished himself by being small in stature but big in his drive to win. After racking up race after race, ‘Synchronised’ took the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2012 against strong, storied pedigree opposition – outlasting all others on the field to give McManus his first Gold Cup and O’Neill his first cup as a trainer. Sadly, the horse’s promise was cut short after a fall in the 2012 Grand National which saw him euthanised. The loss proved devastating the team, leading owner JP McManus to put out a formal press release mourning his passing, and interring him on the grounds of Jackdaw’s Castle.
What Can We Learn About Him?
With decades of experience, it’s hard to find a trainer who can match the wealth of experience that O’Neill embodies.
But experience is not everything. There are a few traits which really set him out as a trainer to track.
Inclusivity and partnership: While O’Neill is at the helm with his work, he always goes to great lengths to highlight the work that is put in behind the scenes. Jackdaw’s website includes testimonials with seasoned professionals like Jim McGrath, Sir Martin Boughton, and long-time friend AP McCoy. Although it’s easy to get the feeling that he’s so open because, simply, he knows no-one can do it better.
Employs a tech-savvy team: O’Neill and his team host a regularly updated website and Facebook page that not only give updates about race wins, but also videos about horses in training, runners, and training updates for stabled horses. This can prove to be an invaluable resource for getting more rounded and contemporaneous information about O’Neill’s future runners and lets you double-check against any hot tips that you happen to come across.
Top training options Jackdaw’s Castle facilities: With his recent partnership with JP McManus, O’Neill now has access to one of the world’s top training resources, with the facilities including an owner’s suite, gallops, indoor school, equine pool, solarium and more. Supported by a full team of professionals, any animal boarded with Jackdaw will have access to therapy, training and round the clock support in any weather conditions. And with such a close distance to Cheltenham, horses can be quickly boarded and stabled without trouble before the event – making sure that they are in top form come race day.
Knowledge and approach: Put simply, there are few trainers that have the skillset that O’Neill embodies. The trainer has now trained and ridden a winner over flat and fences and hurdles at Ascot; an accolade that few can claim to have. His approach is also brave but tempered with a knowledge about the dangers of brinksmanship. Famously, O’Neill had a framing made of the pins that held his leg together after a particularly bad break which, when he returned to riding too quickly, resulted in him being flown to Switzerland for emergency surgery that carried a risk of amputation. Considerate, courageous and a consummate professional – any horse that emerges from the shadow of the walls of O’Neill’s Jackdaw training centre is well and truly worth a punt.