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Trainer of Exotic Dancer Jonjo O'Neill with jockey Tony McCoy after victory in the Lexus Steeplechase. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE
Trainer of Exotic Dancer Jonjo O'Neill with jockey Tony McCoy after victory in the Lexus Steeplechase. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE
SOCIAL BOOKMARKS

The Leeside legends series: Jonjo O'Neill left Castletownroche to become a racing icon as a jockey and trainer

ON the walls of the reconstructed schoolhouse that is now an all-purpose office at his home, endless photographs are interrupted just once.

A scroll hangs in a simple frame, its script the type of rhyme that could seem incorrect elsewhere.

Here it is an appropriate parable to the life and turbulent times of Jonjo O’Neill.

Its verses are ponderous, but its message is simple: 'Don’t Quit'.

O’Neill has always been public property, privy to that rare sporting status of being known everywhere by his Christian name.

The masses are sometimes misguided with such figures but with O’Neill they have somebody as authentic as his reputation for courage in adversity.

Jockey Tony Dobbin with trainer Jonjo O'Neill after winning The EMO Oil Champion Hurdle at Punchestown. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Jockey Tony Dobbin with trainer Jonjo O'Neill after winning The EMO Oil Champion Hurdle at Punchestown. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Adversity was brought out best in the grocers’ son from Castletownroche who packed his bags and emigrated to England at the age of 19 in 1972.

He acquired an intimate knowledge of hospitals as a jockey to whom broken bones were an inconvenient common occurrence , but it was when he was admitted to a cancer ward that the character of the man was vividly illuminated.

Cancer...

At 33 years of age O’Neill had not started his training career long at Penrith in Cumbria when he was forced to undergo treatment for cancer and suspend his training activities for a time.

Like so many who became top jockeys, he was given a pony to ride by his father and it was too long before he was out with the age old Duhallow Hunt.

He first went to work with Don Reid a private trainer near Mallow and then joined Michael Connolly on the Curragh with whom he served his three-year apprenticeship.

Jonjo won his first steeplechase as a spare ride at Navan in 1972 on Stan Royal a 25/1 outsider.

O’Neill had the first of many falls later on that year when the Connolly- trained Irish Painter came to grief at the last fence of a chase Naas.

Jonjo joined the Gordon Richards stable in Cumbria but he didn’t get a mount for a few months.

In March 1972 O’Neill won a race at Ayr only to be relegated and placed second.

The year of 1972 changed the affable north Cork man’s life after basing himself at Richards’ stable where he befriended Limerick-born Ron Barry who had ridden a record 125 winners that season, but in 1977 Jonjo broke that record when amassing 149 winners in a season that included a five-timer at Perth.

In October 1980 he suffered his worst fall at Bangor when he broke his right leg for the second time.

The broken bone was plated but after a few months it had to be replaced after Jonjo had tried to make a recovery too early. O’Neill suffered injuries that would have broken lesser men but he showed typical resolve to comeback each time.

Smiling...

Other injuries suffered by the Cork man included a broken cheekbone, dislocated hip and various back injuries, but in the style of his kind ways he always managed a smiling visage masked with an indomitable will and nerves of steel.

Of the 901 winners, O’Neill’s fondest memories are of winning the 1979 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Alverton. 

O’Neill also won the Champion Hurdle on Night Nurse, Sea Pigeon, and Dawn Run with the latter also winning the 1985 Cheltenham Gold Cup. The popular mare looked well and truly beaten on rising to the final fence but characteristically the rider did not give up and neither did Dawn Run.

The scenes after that particular race were quite amazing as the Irish punters went

Jonjo O'Neill, trainer, at the Cheltenham Festival. Picture: Pat Murphy/SPORTSFILE
Jonjo O'Neill, trainer, at the Cheltenham Festival. Picture: Pat Murphy/SPORTSFILE
absolutely wild with excitement as they had just witnessed one of the bravest performances ever from a horse and rider at the famous Cotswold’s track.

The legendary Fred Winter once told Jonjo: “You will never go out and buy a star it will just come into your yard with a bit of luck.”

As a trainer Jonjo trained Wichita Lineman to win the 2009 William Hill Trophy.

A year later Jonjo trained Don’t Push It to win the Aintree Grand National and two years later Synchronized won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

There is another O’Neill jockey presently making great strides in England as Jonjo junior is highly rated by many pundits.

Nowadays Jonjo’s once main owner JP McManus has only 15 horses in training at his Jackdaws Castle base but that will not deter him in his battle to mix it with the best.

But then O’Neill is an eternal optimist.

 Trainer Jonjo O’Neill with his Cheltenham Gold Cup hope Legal Right at his stables, Jackdaws Castle in Gloucestershire, 2002. PA Photo: David Davies

Trainer Jonjo O’Neill with his Cheltenham Gold Cup hope Legal Right at his stables, Jackdaws Castle in Gloucestershire, 2002. PA Photo: David Davies

FACTFILE:

Jonjo O’Neill rode his first winner on January 1972 on a 25/1 outsider Stan Royal at Navan.

Jonjo joined Gordon Richards stable in Penrith Cumbrian in March 1972.

In 1977 O’Neill broke Ron Barry’s record of 125 winners in a season when he saddled 149 winners.

O’Neill rode 901 winners during his illustrious career.

Jonjo will be best remembered for his memorable 1985 Cheltenham Gold Cup success on Dawn Run.