A first Graded winner, Jonjo O’Neill enjoyed his most successful season as a pilot last year.
61 winners in total, O’Neill suffered like others of his trade when the coronavirus pandemic halted live sport for just under three months.
Son of the legendary Jonjo Sr, life as a jockey was always the likely route for the champion conditional. He achieved a Cheltenham Festival success when Early Doors won the Martin Pipe back in 2019. A year later, Grade 2 successes aboard Native River and Copperhead followed as the evident clear progression of Gloucestershire native continues.
Already on 56 winners for the year, he is set to easily surpass his total from the last campaign with the Festival looming ever closer.
Jonjo spoke to Cheltenham.co.uk about what the Festival means to him, life outside racing and the important figures in his life.
You landed the Conditional Jockeys’ Championship last season with 61 winners, even though you missed three months of the season. What’s your secret to success?
I was very lucky that I had a lot of backing from dad and Colin Tizzard. I had gained experience from previous seasons when not having loads of winners, which helped me as I progressed year on year.
Your first victory at the Cheltenham Festival came aboard Early Doors in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle back in 2019. How does riding a winner at Cheltenham compare to other winners you’ve ridden?
There’s just no place like Cheltenham. It will be very strange this year without the atmosphere, but it’s the one place where I’d notice the sound of the crowd immediately. There’s so much history to the course and everyone gears towards those four days in March. It’s a very special place.
You claimed your first Graded success in the Denman Chase last year with Native River, how do you rate his chances in the Gold Cup this season?
In the last three or four years, Native River hasn’t run a bad race. He obviously hasn’t been seen as much in the last couple of seasons, but he was very good at Newbury last year and the blinkers have really sharpened him up. It was a shame he couldn’t get a go in the 2020 Gold Cup, although I think the ground may have dried out a bit too much for him. He was very good in Sandown – he loves soft ground, so the more rain that comes for him, the better his chances. He’s very tough, he loves Cheltenham, and you can never rule out a Gold Cup winner.
What is your best chance of a winner at this year’s Cheltenham Festival?
I’d imagine my best chance of a winner this year is Annie Mc. She’s probably got the best form of the British mares this year, so she’s got to face the Irish runners now. It looks an interesting race, and she won’t mind a bit of cut in the ground either.
If you could ride any horse at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, who would you choose?
Envoi Allen, without a doubt.
You rode winner Soaring Glory in the Betfair Hurdle in February, could he upset Appreciate It in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle?
He’s an interesting runner. He was impressive in the Betfair, but he got raised to 143, so that suggests he’s still got a bit to find. Appreciate It has been very good and is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles. I don’t think it’s the deepest Supreme that there’s been in the last couple of years, but it’s still very competitive. If the ground dried out for my lad, I would say he has a better chance, and the Betfair Hurdle winners tend to run good races in the Supreme.
What makes the Cheltenham Festival so special for you?
The atmosphere, and also that I’m a local boy. We’ve been surrounded by the Festival every year. I used to go to school in Cheltenham and I remember sitting in the classroom and seeing floods of people walking through the streets and up to the course. It’s just a very special place with plenty of history.
What horse would you most like to ride in the Champion Hurdle?
Epatante. I’m not sure she was at her best at Kempton, but she was very impressive at Newcastle before. She’s such a slick jumper and has a high cruising speed, and she was good last year in this race. I think she is the one to beat still.
Apart from your Dad, who has been most influential in your career thus far?
I would say Richie McLernon. He has seen me grow up since I was 10, and has seen a lot of ups and downs for me. He’s the first person I go to for advice and he’s been instrumental in getting me to where I am today.
Your dad was a dual Champion Jockey and rode over 900 winners, do you think you could beat his career tally?
Yes, I’d definitely like to beat his total. I think my greatest achievement would be if I ever surpassed his season tally of 149 winners. In this day and age, that’s unbelievable going, but it was even more remarkable to do it during that era. I’d love to do that as some point in my career.
Describe yourself in three words?
Methodical. Easy-going. Stubborn.
What hobbies and interests do you have outside of racing?
I like doing other sports including cycling and squash, spending time with my girlfriend Ava and dog Vinnie, and travelling to new places. Obviously, we don’t get a huge amount of time to do that, but when we do I try and make the most of it. I also love watching any form of sport, especially live.