“A horse ran out in front of me, causing Night Affair to crash through the wooden wing of the hurdle. He wrapped my right leg round the wooden pole at the end of the wing and as I slid down to the ground, I could see the bone below the knee sticking out through my riding boot. It was like an enormous nail protruding from my boot and, after staring at it for a second, I leaned forward, grabbed the bone and straightened the leg…”
Only the most robust can read such words without wincing. This description of an especially grim mid-race injury was written by Jonjo O’Neill in his autobiography. The book was published three decades ago, this fall occurred in the mid-70s at a racecourse that no longer exists and Jonjo, now 67, is separated from his time in the saddle by a training career that has lasted twice as long. But there is no danger of him forgetting how much it hurts when things go wrong for a jump jockey.
“Probably my worst day was when I thought I was going to lose my leg,” he reflects as we sit, nursing mugs of coffee in the owners’ room at Jackdaws Castle. A large screen shows action from Leicester but the sound is down because it’s only Flat racing this afternoon.
“I broke it on the 18th of October in Bangor and it was a bad smash. My leg went in between the front legs of the horse passing me by and he scissored it completely. It was a fair mess.”
Sitting next to Jonjo is his 21-year-old son, Jonjo jnr. Over the last couple of seasons, he has steadily built a reputation as one of the brightest young talents in the weighing room. But no one knows the risks he runs better than his father, who had previously guided three children to adulthood without any of them showing an inclination to follow in his footsteps.
Jonjo was brave enough to pull the shattered pieces of himself back into position as he lay on the Teesside turf, yet another kind of courage is needed to contemplate your boy taking similar chances. Can he bear to watch?
“I was never horrified about it at all,” he says, with that familiar, easy smile. “Listen, I’ve had a great life with racing, riding and training. I wouldn’t put anyone off it. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody but if you do it, I’ll give you all the help I can give you.
“I’ll never forget the first time I went into the weighing room at Cheltenham”
“It is a dangerous game. There aren’t many jobs where you go around with ambulances behind. But when you’re doing it, you don’t take any notice of that, you don’t even see them. You’re just focused on what you’re doing and trying to outwit the other jockey, trying to win it any way you can.”
So Jonjo snr gave Jonjo jnr the time and space to make his own decision about riding. Perhaps a significant early injury would prove off-putting? The chance to find out came four years ago, on what had been a good day for the family. AJ, Jonjo’s youngest child, won the pony race final at Aintree and, within the hour, Optimistic Bias scored for the yard.
Young Jonjo, 17 at the time, was in Ireland, taking part in the famously fearsome charity ride at Athlacca, County Limerick, “like hunting without the hounds,” as he now describes it.
He had a safe conveyance, a hunter provided by Michael Hourigan, but the animal scrabbled to keep his feet on the muddy top of a bank and the pair slithered together over the edge and into a ditch, one of the rider’s legs being broken in the melee.
At Aintree, Jonjo snr had had about five minutes to celebrate his winner when the phone call came. Such is life when you’re related to a jump jockey. But he immediately points out the injury’s upside, that it happened in McManus country.
“If there was a place to get it broken or get anything done, it was the place to be, because he knew everyone.”
“JP was good,” young Jonjo chips in, “got me into hospital and operated on straight away. I did my tib and fib and it got pinned and screwed and I was back riding out in three months.”
Since then, Jonjo jnr has bounced back from breaking his jaw at Southwell and mangling his hand in a fall while riding Terrefort for Guillaume Macaire on a working visit to France.
Slightly more troubling was the broken vertebra, discovered in early 2018, that did not seem to be caused by a specific incident.
“They did lots of different tests,” he says. “I was very deficient in loads of vitamins and bone density in my spine. I had to be off for eight months, to let it heal and get my diet and everything right.
“That was a big reason for it; I wasn’t giving myself the right nutrition, because you’re wasting and stuff and not doing it correctly. So I had to get on loads of pills and supplements.”
That sensible decision to take time to sort out the problem was, at least in part, a response to fatherly advice. “When he did his back, I said to him, look, don’t go back half-cocked, it’ll haunt you for the rest of your life,” says Jonjo snr.
This, in fairness, is an example of ‘do as I say, not as I did’ because, back in early 1981 his determination to be fit for the Cheltenham Festival nearly cost him his leg as he rushed his recovery from that Bangor scissoring.
He recalls: “I started riding out in the January and it was all going grand until one morning the horse slipped a little bit and so did the plate in my leg. Then I got gangrene in it.”
An operation to save the leg went well but Jonjo didn’t make it back until December, by which time he had long missed winning the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon.
Jonjo jnr shows every sign of willingness to learn lessons from this and other memories. On the other hand, he is a jump jockey and therefore hell-bent on seizing any winning opportunity that presents itself.
Having weighed 12 stone in his days as a teenage rugby prospect, he once boiled himself down to 9st 7lb for an outside ride in a big Saturday race.
“Stupid stuff, really, just sweating a whole lot,” he explains. “But you only have to do it once to realise; I fell off at the first, just nothing in my head, completely weak.
“Some lads still do it. You think you’ve got to. You think, I won’t get another chance like this, [I] must do it. So you do it and then realise it was the wrong thing to do.”
Jonjo snr made sure this particular lesson was not missed. He relays: “I said, if you do that again, that’ll be the end of it. You’re wasting your time at this game if you do that, because the last few pounds come out of your head, not out of your body. And you can’t think straight.”
All the accumulated insights and hard lessons showed their value last winter, when Jonjo jnr really began to make his mark. Widely praised for a perfect hold-up ride on Big Time Dancer in the Lanzarote, he then guided Early Doors through the madness of the Martin Pipe to secure a first success at the Cheltenham Festival.
Full of ambition
His ambition for this season is to be champion conditional and he leads the table at the time of writing, though Connor Brace seems sure to be a formidable opponent.
In fact, the two are good friends, having bumped into each other again and again during their pony racing days. The English version of pony racing is not long established but young Jonjo stresses what an impact it is now having on the weighing room.
He says: “There was Harry Cobden, Sean Bowen, James Bowen, Charlie Hammond, Stan Sheppard, Tom Marquand. There’s loads I’m missing out that were doing it then.
“We started when we were ten and got more competitive when 13 to 16. If you’re not doing pony racing to start with, you’re well behind these days.”
His father adds: “These kids, they’re going into the weighing room at Cheltenham. I’ll never forget the first time I went into the weighing room at Cheltenham, you’d be crapping yourself.
“It would overcome you. Of course, they take it all in their stride now, weigh out properly, do everything that jockeys do.”
Was there ever a moment when father produced some old videos of his glory days, as a way of showing son how the job should be done? “I wouldn’t, no,” he says.
“Everybody has their own style of riding, their own way of thinking. If you interfere with that… you’ve got to have a lot of things natural, when you’re riding. He’s heavier than me. His thighs are like rugby thighs, so it’s a different thing.”
Even so, young Jonjo has watched footage of his dad’s biggest moments on YouTube. He can’t recall the first time he heard the stories of Dawn Run’s Gold Cup “because she’s always been around, everywhere”. Any time he leaves the paddock at Cheltenham, he rides past a statue of his dad. Is it intimidating to be following such a high achiever in the same line of work?
“Obviously you want to be good at it but I don’t feel pressure,” he replies. “It’s something to work towards.”
These days, the two Jonjos work together a lot of the time. Jackdaws Castle has a new sponsor and as broad an ownership base as it has ever had. The trainer plans to be competitive in lots of good races and his son hopes to take as many of the rides as he can. On the face of it, they make an excellent team.
“We’re pretty much on the same wavelength,” says the younger man, addressing his father. “If I say something, you finish the sentence. Which makes it very easy.”
There must be moments of tension? “Not yet, to be honest,” replies Jonjo snr. “I understand what happens in races, really. I’m sure all the jockeys are going out there to want to win a race. If you’ve cocked it up, come in and say, ‘I made a mess, I’m sorry, I got that all wrong’.
“People get it wrong in an office, they get it wrong on a building site, they get it wrong everywhere, but if you don’t come in and tell the truth and you haven’t got the foundations right, the house is going to fall down, isn’t it?”
Having made that point about frankness, he says how rewarding it is to have his boy for a jockey: “I enjoy the camaraderie about it. It’s good, planning it out and the feedback is good. You think, ‘Jeez, I didn’t think of that, maybe that’s an idea, why don’t we try that with him?’ It’s fun. It’s a great game when it’s going well.”
Jonjo jnr was born in January 1998 and was just three when his family left Ivy House Stables in Cumbria in favour of this more impressive facility in Gloucestershire.
He has “tiny little flashbacks” of their northern base but his first real racing memory is of jumping tyres in the indoor school aboard Keen Leader, a tall, classy, raw-boned type who ran in Best Mate’s final Gold Cup.
Young Jonjo estimates he was four or five at the time. He muses: “You know sometimes you see Shetland ponies with a mascot attached? I was like that, seat-belted to him!”
“Obviously you want to be good at it but I don’t feel pressure”
Naturally, Jonjo snr’s reminiscences go quite a bit further back. “Night Nurse, he was a great horse,” he says. “Paddy Broderick had the best of him, probably. I had him over fences towards the end. Oh my God, he was brilliant. I won around Newbury, was it the Mandarin? I went around there, making all. It was like riding Concorde! He’d shoot you back in the saddle, with the power of him. It was the kind of a memory that stays with you; he was a magical horse.”
Jonjo’s career was not short of magical horses. He talks of how you couldn’t hit the front too soon on Sea Pigeon, or he’d pull up. He marvels at Peter Easterby swearing that Little Owl had never been schooled over fences before lining up for the Dipper, which he nevertheless won “hard held”.
And then there was the characterful Little Bay, whose motivation was dwarfed by his talent but who was more or less fooled into victory one Grand National day.
“I was following Badsworth Boy down to the last,” says his rider. “Badsworth Boy fell and I galloped straight over him. He got such a bloody shock, he took off and won.”
We have finally arrived at the point of it all, the reason why one Jonjo risks his neck and the other is content to let him. Twenty years from now, the young man can hope to match his father, story for story, and if he’s very, very lucky perhaps there will be a Night Nurse somewhere down the line, waiting for a rider with jump racing in his blood.