For readers of a certain age, John Joseph “Jonjo” O’Neill will always be remembered as the jockey of Dawn Run, the only horse to complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double. Three months after winning the 1986 Gold Cup, though, Dawn Run was dead, having broken her neck in the French Champion Hurdle, and O’Neill had been diagnosed with cancer. Twenty years later, he reminisced, saying, “It was a terrible time, and when you get told something like that, all the good days disappear for a while. But thank God, we are still here all this time later to tell the story.”
Having recovered from cancer, the Ulsterman began his training career in Penrith, Cumbria, where he stayed for 10 years before being offered the chance to take over at Jackdaws Castle, the 400-acre training complex in Gloucestershire owned by John Patrick “J.P.” McManus. O’Neill trained 100 winners in a season for the first time in 2001/02 and, in the interim, has reached that milestone on another six occasions, including 26 winners at the Cheltenham Festival.
Notable winners at the Cheltenham Festival included Witchita Lineman in the William Hill Trophy in 2009, who was given one of the best, if not the best, rides of his career by A.P. McCoy. Wichita Lineman was sent off favourite, at 5/1, made a series of jumping errors and, although rallying from the second last fence, looked to have no chance of overhauling Maljimar, who was matched at 1.06 on Betfair. But overhaul the flagging leader he did, getting up in the shadow of the post to win by a neck.
The following year, O’Neill provided A.P. McCoy with his first, and only, Grand National winner in the form of Don’t Push It. Sent off 10/1 joint favourite, Don’t Push It led at the final fence and stayed on well from the Elbow – a right-handed kink halfway up the run-in at Aintree – to beat Black Apalachi by 5 lengths. O’Neill described it as “one of the greatest afternoons in the life of myself, J.P. [McManus] and A.P. [McCoy] as we had all been trying to win the race for so many year.”
In 2012, the famous trio hit the headlines again, this time winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup – a race that featured Kauto Star and Long Run – with Synchronised. Jonjo O’Neill rode 885 winners as a jockey and has now saddled over 2,000 winners as a trainer; his son, Jonjo Jr, is now working full-time at Jackdaws Castle and riding as an amateur.