Champions Day at Ascot may have stolen all the headlines on Saturday, but it was also a big day for followers of Jump racing. Cheltenham opened their gates for another season and as always attracted quality fields for their two day ‘Showcase’ meeting.
The ‘usual suspects’ were in attendance with Champion trainer Paul Nicholls taking the opener on day one. Nigel Twiston-Davies loves his local track and again had success with the talented Splash Of Ginge winning the novice chase on Saturday. David Pipe unveiled an exciting type when Moon Racer won the bumper in emphatic style. But it was Jonjo O’Neill that again caught the eye with a double on Saturday including victory in the valuable 2m4f handicap chase.
The Master of Jackdaws Castle has again started a jump season in style. Leading the way in the Trainers Championship with 53 winners and a 20% strike rate, many believe that he has the talent in his yard to challenge Nicholls and Henderson for the trainer’s crown. That may be a little optimistic, but there is little doubt that Jonjo’s stock is on the rise.
Johns Spirit won the valuable chase on Saturday for the second year running, and did so in the style of a horse with more to come. Still only a seven-year-old, he was given his usual patient ride from regular partner Richie McLernon, arriving on the scene late before storming up the hill to victory. Hands and heels was all that was needed from his jockey, suggesting the possibility of 'more in the locker'.
It was a great ride from an improving McLernon. He has become an able deputy for AP McCoy at the stable, but also has a number of quality rides that the Champion jockey is often likely to miss. Johns Spirit in particular, regularly runs in the large handicaps where AP is collared by JP McManus. Should the horse be targeted at a defence of the Paddy Power Gold Cup, then the likelihood is that Richie will again get the ‘leg up’.
But it is the one of the stables very best that McCoy’s understudy will hope to ride again this season. Holywell has given McLernon two Cheltenham Festival wins. After the win in March in the Baylis and Harding Handicap Chase, his trainer spoke in glowing terms, "He's a lovely horseman, a brilliant lad, and I'm thrilled to bits for him – he gave the horse a great ride.”
A nephew of former two-time champion jockey in Ireland Tommy Carmody, he is privileged to be learning his trade under two of the most talented horsemen at one of the greatest training facilities of Jackdaws Castle.
Many will look back to a riding low point when on Sunnyhillboy in the 2012 Grand National, he was cruelly robbed of victory on the line by Paul Nicholls’ star Neptune Collonges. After that race McLernon said: "He really travelled well for me and I wasn't sure whether I had won or not. He didn't deserve to be beaten because he ran a fantastic race for me but that's how it goes."
Such highs and lows are par for the course as a jockey. After his success at Cheltenham in March he was to suffer a crashing fall at Ludlow and in the process broke two vertebrae resulting in a lengthy period on the sidelines.
There looks to be little doubt that this is going to be a season to remember for Jonjo and his team. Richie McLernon is sure to be called upon to play a key role in the stable’s success.