Tag Archive for: Jonjo O’Neill Jr

O’Neill hunting Cleeve crown with Champ

Jonjo O’Neill Jr is relishing the chance to reunite with Nicky Henderson’s Champ for another shot at graded glory in the Welsh Marches Stallions at Chapel Stud Cleeve Hurdle on Saturday.

The gelding is currently the 4-9 favourite for the three-mile contest after a switch to hurdles at Ascot in December resulted in a Grade One success in the Long Walk Hurdle.

Coming home a length and three-quarters ahead of Thyme Hill, the success put the bay in the picture for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and provided O’Neill with the first Grade One winner of his career.

“I’m glad to be back on Champ. He gave me a great thrill at Ascot and he is probably the one to beat on Saturday,” he said.

“It was only supposed to be a confidence-boosting run as he had a troubled preparation last season.

“He was a little bit gassy at Ascot but he was entitled to be as he had not had a proper run for a while.

“The horse that came second, Thyme Hill, is probably the one you wanted near you as it makes the form solid.”

Champ last ran at Prestbury Park when pulled up in the 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup, but he has prior form at the track having won the race now known as the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase the previous year and finished second in the 2019 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

“He was very effective at Ascot but he likes three miles around Cheltenham, albeit that was over fences, but his course form will help,” O’Neill said.

“He is going to have to be 100 per cent as there are some good horses in there but that last run will have really sharpened him up.”

O’Neill’s season has been interrupted by injury and a spell on the sidelines has precluded him from chasing last term’s tally of 62 winners, but the young jockey has revised his target for the current campaign to focus more on quality than quantity.

“When I had those injuries, beating my best number of winners in a season wasn’t going to be attainable so I wanted to focus on quality and try to get on better horses,” he said.

“That was kind of my goal at the start of the season to win a Grade One.

“It is not easy to win a Grade One as you have got to find the right horse to be able to do it.

“To get a Grade One has made my season and it is nice that it has worked out as it is difficult getting on those types of horses.”

Champ is owned by JP McManus, a key figure in the career of O’Neill’s father, Jonjo snr, and of 20-times champion jockey AP McCoy, after whom the horse is named.

“A big thank you goes out to Mr McManus and his family for letting me ride him,” said O’Neill Jr.

“Winning the Grade One for him made it all the more special as he has been a very good family friend since long before I was born.

“I used to look up to AP riding when I was younger and to ride a Grade One on the horse named after him made it special as well.

“It would be nice if we could now win another race like this together.”

Champ holds off Thyme Hill to take Long Walk title

Champ made a remarkable return to the smaller obstacles to win the Grade One Howden Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.

The nine-year-old, trained by Nicky Henderson, was last seen being pulled up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup – but showed he retained all his ability when outpointing Thyme Hill and Paisley Park in the extended three-mile showpiece.

The 4-1 chance was pulling double before the home turn with two flights left to jump and had to find extra in the closing stages as Thyme Hill put in a serious challenge.

But Jonjo O’Neill Jnr – recording a landmark first Grade One victory of his career – kept the JP McManus-owned gelding up to his work to prevail by a length and three-quarters.

Thyme Hill was runner-up for the second year running, although he reversed placings from 2020 with Paisley Park, who was three and a half lengths away in third on this occasion. Thomas Darby was fourth.

It was a bittersweet success for Henderson as he had to withdraw ante-post favourite Buzz on the eve of the race as the horse suffered a serious injury.

Champ was cut to 5-1 from 10-1 for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival with Betfair.

Henderson said: “We have got to decide which way we will go. He can go either way (fences or hurdles).

A moment to savour for connections of Champ
A moment to savour for connections of Champ (Nigel French/PA)

“He is still a Gold Cup horse, but he is still capable of winning a Stayers’ Hurdle. So there is a big decision that we don’t have to make today.

“It is great for JP, it’s great for everyone – there is a lot to look forward to and we have to take these horses on and take them to where they belong.

“It is lovely to see him back and getting horses back when they have problems is our job and when that comes to fruition, from the team’s point of view it is a terrific effort. Our team at home, to get him back – it was lovely to watch the horse enjoy himself like that. We can go either way with him now.

“He has to go left-handed over fences, (but) as you can see over hurdles he can go left or right.”

Of opting to return in the Long Walk, he added: “There was nowhere to go, it seemed the obvious thing to do to give him a run over hurdles for his own good, for his own confidence.”

Celebration time for Jonjo O'Neill Jr
Celebration time for Jonjo O’Neill Jr (Nigel French/PA)

A jubilant O’Neill said: “It’s my first Grade One, I’ll remember this!

“As a young boy it’s what you want to do, ride a Grade One winner at Ascot. To do it for Nicky, JP and on a horse like Champ – it doesn’t get much better. The adrenaline is through the roof.

“Nicky said not to disappoint him, I was in front too but he’s won an RSA and has plenty of stamina. When Tom (O’Brien, on Thyme Hill) came to me he went again.

“He’s a great horse. He only really had one run last year and Nicky has done a tremendous job with him.

“I’ve had three bad injuries this year and it’s been slow to get going, but it only takes one horse to get you back. I’m very thankful to Nicky and JP for putting me on him.”