Jonjo O’Neill has achieved almost everything in racing, but there is still one race above all others that gives him a buzz – the Randox Grand National.
O’Neill famously won the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup on Dawn Run, trained a Gold Cup winner in Synchronised and provided Sir Anthony McCoy with a previously elusive National win with Don’t Push It.
It can therefore be said the hugely popular trainer has been there and done that – as well as fighting and beating cancer – but the thrill of preparing a favourite for the most famous race of them all still gets his juices flowing.
“We’ve got everything crossed now,” said O’Neill.
“He’s basically done everything right this year – and it’s just a case of whether he can carry on doing that, I suppose. We obviously hope he can.”
Cloth Cap always looked like a stereotypical National horse – and being owned by Trevor Hemmings, who is seeking a record fourth win in the race, it has always been his aim.
Having finished fourth in the Scottish National as a novice in 2019, the 2020 event at Aintree was immediately on his radar. But even before Covid wiped the meeting out, Cloth Cap would not have been there, because he was not rated high enough.
This season, on good ground, he has gone to another level – finishing third to King George winner Frodon before winning the Ladbrokes Trophy impressively and following up at Kelso. If the handicapper had his time again he would give Cloth Cap another 14lb to carry, and his odds have continued to tumble.
“He was impressive at Newbury, but I suppose you could say he was well handicapped there,” said O’Neill.
“At Kelso he looked good again, but I don’t know if those behind him ran up to their marks.
“Whether he was as good as he looked that day or not, you still had to be delighted with his performance, whatever went on behind.
“He got into such a lovely rhythm up there. Whether he can on Saturday we’ll see. Can you make all over four and a quarter miles? We’ll find out. He doesn’t have to make all, but he does like to be prominent – when he cocks that jaw it’s hard to bring him back.
“Given the forecast, the ground won’t be soft, which is a relief. They’ll put plenty of water on to make sure it’s safe. But I’m expecting it to be good to soft, good in places, something like that, and then you couldn’t have any complaints.
“All I’ve been bothered about for the last few weeks is to get him there safe and sound. He did his last piece of work on Tuesday morning and went well – and after that it’s just been a countdown. After that there’s no more I can do.”
After a relatively quiet spell for the last couple of years by his standards, which has nevertheless seen his son Jonjo jnr emerge as a rising star of the weighing room, O’Neill cannot help but let himself get a little carried away.
He said: “It’s still the magic race, it’s like no other. You could run it 100 times and get a different winner each time. Look at Fairyhouse on Monday, a 150-1 winner. The National is the National.
“It’s always a great thrill to be involved – and despite all the pressure, you’d rather be going with a 4-1 chance than one at 40-1.”
For his two impressive wins Tom Scudamore has been on board, and connections have stuck with him.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” said Scudamore.
“Richie (McLernon) usually rode him, but had to ride something else in the Ladbrokes Trophy. I was going to be at Newbury and could do the weight.
“Newbury was a great thrill. It meant a lot to me and it looked a great spare to pick up. It’s actually turned into a great ride to get.
“He’s had a fantastic season so far – so let’s hope he can continue in that vein.
“You can’t allow yourself to think about winning. I won’t be thinking that until we’ve crossed the line – you’ve got to go and get it done, there’s no point thinking about it.
“At Kelso he jumped and galloped, and obviously he’s been over four miles at Ayr. We can keep talking about it, but he’s still got to go and do it.”
With former champion jockey Richard Johnson’s recent retirement Scudamore is now among the elder statesmen in the weighing room – but he insists there is plenty of life left in him.
“There are still a couple older than me, although they won’t like to admit it!” he said.
“Obviously Richard had the most amazing career, but there’s a few years left in me yet.
“It would be nice to win it, though, given he never managed it.”