When you get a phone call asking for any special requests for breakfast days before your visit, you know you are in for a good morning and Jackdaws Castle does not disappoint in the slightest.
The epitome of a state-of-the-art, no-expense-spared training centre; for the equine residents, owners and even a scribe on location, it is VIP treatment all the way at Jackdaws.
As imagined on the winding drive through stone-housed villages to the heart of the Cotswolds, breakfast served in the yard’s snazzy owners’ room is plentiful, well it is for yours truly at least.
Jonjo O’Neill - the king of this castle - is more disciplined as he picks away at a single sausage and spoonful of soft scrambled egg, while for Jonjo Jnr. it is a rider’s portion of diddly-squat.
Trainer and jockey might be separated by 45 years, yet sitting side-by-side at the breakfast bar there is no mistaking they are two peas from the same pod.
Similarly understated and softly spoken, the trademark twinkle in Jonjo’s eye is reflected in his son’s, while their matching schoolboy grins could illuminate Blackpool during a power cut.
The real symmetry, however, comes from their steely side and a shared desire to succeed in a sport that defines the O’Neill name.
“You either love the game or you don’t and we as a family love it,” declares Dad. “All I want to do is train winners and all he wants to do is ride winners, so we’re on the same wavelength. It’s all about winners.”
Winning is something O’Neill Snr. 66, was rather good at during 15 years in the saddle over jumps. Jonjo was Champion conditional jockey then went on to be ‘twice Britain’s champion jump jockey’, he set a ‘then’ record of 149 winners when landing his first title in 1978, a top score that stood for more than a decade.
O’Neill, who was the master of the driving finish, partnered champions like Dawn Run, Sea Pigeon and Alverton to historic wins and was the undisputed people’s favourite.
Indeed, when he came back from 14 months off a leg injury in 1981 that at one stage had surgeons contemplating amputation, a record crowd flocked to Wetherby, with newsmen, television crews and photographers hounding him like a film star on the red carpet.
A born winner, his record as a trainer has a similar shimmer, with a famous Grand National victory and 26 Cheltenham Festival successes, including the Gold Cup.
“It was great fun and I still say we had the best time,” he says, focussing on his career in the saddle and itching to elaborate with a story.
“It was a totally different game then and it’s probably too serious now. We had great fun - we’d be going around in a novice chase and at halfway Ron Barry would start singing.
"Then everybody would join in and we’d be having a sing song on the way around. If you did that now you’d be locked up! No one was doing anything wrong; it was just good fun and we had a lot of craic.”
Stepping out on the same road, albeit one with a very different landscape to when his father began riding professionally, is 21-year-old Jonjo Jnr. or, to save confusion, Jonj as he is known at Jackdaws Castle.
The eldest of two sons from Jonjo’s second marriage, Jonj has something impossible to live up to as he steps into his father’s riding boots, but just as he pointed out after the biggest win of his career to date in the Lanzarote Hurdle last month, he is a young jockey with his own agenda and neither history nor his title is going to burden him.
“It doesn’t bother me,” says Jonj when asked if the comparisons have become tiresome yet. “I’ve had it for years and I’m kind of immune to it. Dad’s achievements are something I’d like to aim to but nothing I feel when I go out to ride. I want to strive for the best anyway so it’s only a good thing.”
Inspired rather than stifled by the past, he continues: “I’ve read the books and watched all the videos on YouTube. It’s amazing really. There’re top jockeys now who wouldn’t ride 149 winners in one season and Dad was doing it when there was a lot less racing in a season and as a freelance. It’s madness; he was doing it 40 years ago.”
According to Jonj, he has always had an ambition to follow suit, although at no stage of his childhood can he recall any shepherding from his parents.
“Dad never pointed me towards riding,” he says. “He always said it’s a very hard game and not all sunshine and rainbows like it might seem on TV. He never pointed me away but certainly not towards it either. There was never any pressure.”
A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, the youngster was a promising open-side flanker on the rugby pitch at school and the roar of a packed Twickenham rather than Prestbury Park was the only thing that ever tempted him away from riding.
“I soon realised riding and rugby didn’t go hand in hand,” he says. “I broke my leg when I was 17 out hunting in Ireland and that’s when I thought I needed to make a decision. Do I use that time to bulk up for rugby or slim down for racing?
"I’m only 5ft 5½in and my size wouldn’t have got me to where I wanted to be in rugby. I decided racing was more what I knew anyway and what I had a better chance at.”
“One’s bad and the other’s worse,” pipes up Dad with a giggle as he joins the racing or rugby debate. “I always said to him and his brother AJ (Anthony Joseph what you enjoy most, because if you enjoy doing it, you put in that little bit extra.
"I’m delighted he’s gone in that direction but if he hadn’t it wouldn’t have bothered me. I’ve got three older kids and none of them have any interest in racing whatsoever and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
"It’s nice because we go through races together and chat about things, so it works well for both of us. He brings fresh ideas that I might not have thought of.”
For all that success featured heavily in O’Neill senior’s riding career, he was also on the receiving end of some sickening injuries, something Jonj has already had to contend with too.
For the past three summers he has been side-lined but, almost perversely, it was his latest injury that proved key to his breakthrough in the saddle this season.
Jonjo Jnr. broke his L5 vertebra in the indoor school at Jackdaws last March, leaving him out of action for eight months. That followed a series of nasty falls when his focus was being increasingly clouded by his weight.
“Every young jockey goes through it,” he says. “All you want to do is ride so if you’re offered a ride at a low weight you say you can get to that weight and you do get there. You see it all the time in the weighing room.
"The young lads are taking off too much and they’ll ride rubbish and fall off, like I have. But it only takes one fall or one injury to realise there’s a line and you’ve got to set your limit and stick to it.”
Whereas now the scales are rock steady at his comfortable riding weight of 10st 7lb, a year ago he was weighing out at an impossible 9st 7lb, although he has little recollection.
“At that stage you’re not in your own head at all - it’s stupid but you’ve got to do it once to realise,” he reveals. “Going to the races, 80 per cent of me would be worrying about the weight and 20 per cent the race.
"Now, nothing is about the weight because I know I’m comfortable and all the focus is on the race. It makes a heck of a difference. I had eight months to sort it out, so there were no excuses.
“I’m in a good place now, I eat healthy and I’m not having to waste, unless you’ve got a few days’ and it’s for a decent ride (I can do 10 3lb) otherwise you have to and honest with yourself and say you can’t do it.
Having listened intently to his son, Jonjo Snr. offers some sage fatherly advice. “It’s not just about riding - it’s about learning how to handle yourself,” he says, “always do what you’re best at - forget the rest of the rubbish. You need to learn what weight you can get down to with your mind still on the job.”
Junior’s riding has been eye catching for the right reasons since he came back from injury towards the end of last year and with nine winners left before his 5lb claim is shed, he could prove a valuable asset at the spring festivals.
“He’s got the will to win and if he has some luck in running, he’s got a chance of making it to the top,” says his Dad. “But you have to be lucky. He’s had a few injuries already so has had a slow start. I was the same - I missed three of the 15 seasons I was in the game with injury.
"You have to be committed 100 per cent to make it work otherwise you will get badly hurt. He’s always had that commitment. He doesn’t do too much wrong but he’s not AP yet!”
His first Cheltenham winner back in November with Palmer’s Hill was something junior had thought about for a long time and, with Dad training the winner for JP McManus, who is a great supporter of the yard, it was exactly how he imagined.
“I’ve an Equicizer at home and, honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rode that race,” he relives once more. “Everything went exactly right. It was nice, because everyone was there - JP and Kieran - and it’s a day I’ll never forget.”
Perhaps more important for his career was last month’s Lanzarote success aboard Big Time Dancer, which as wellbeing financially the biggest win of his career, crucially came for an outside yard thanks to Jennie Candlish.
“It was a turning point,” says Jonj. “It was in different colours for different people and you need the Saturday winners on ITV. That’s what gets you noticed. There was no better time to get the message out there that I’m my own man.”
His last comment gets Dad’s nod of approval as, for all Jonjo wants to help his son succeed, he knows that ultimately only he can help himself.
“I can only help him so far and hopefully away he goes,” says the trainer. “I don’t want to get into the situation, and he doesn’t want to get into the situation either, where if you’ve a horse here Jonj has to ride. The owners can have the best available or whoever suits the horses better. Neither of us have a problem with that.”
With AJ riding out and helping his Mum Jacqui and Cousin Joe in the office there is an unmistakable family feel one would not necessarily have envisaged at Jackdaws.
“It’s with thanks to JP Noreen and their family we’re here but a lot of people still believe that there’s only JP horses here, well that’s not the case,” he says. “We’ve had Taquin Du Seuil, Iris’s Gift, Albertas Run and lots of other good horses stabled with us."
For the past 11 years Jewson’s have been an integral part of Jonjo O’Neill Racing they have been a terrific yard sponsor and we are highly honoured to be partnered with the world leader in Construction.
Jonjo is the first to acknowledge that the quality that was the hallmark of Jackdaws Castle at the turn of the decade has been missing over the past couple of seasons but, with many of the old guard ushered into retirement, plans for a revival are in place.
There has been and continues to be a big investment in young stock here and while the results will not be immediate, the trainer is determined to see the halcyon days of Exotic Dancer, Synchronised and Don’t Push It return to one of Britain’s most spectacular training centres.
“We’ve a lot of babies, a lot of syndicates and a lot of new owners, and it’s exciting,” he says, his soft County Cork lilt momentarily giving way to that infectious grin. “It’s falling into place again but it takes time.”
He concludes: “It’s so hard to find the good horses and I like to give them time to mature and come right. So long as the owners have the patience to partner me on our journey we’ll be flying again very soon!”
Words: Lewis Porteous
Pictures: Ed Whitaker