Jonjo O'Neill speaks at Cheltenham Racecourse fundraising dinner
JONJO O'Neill spoke candidly about his remarkable life and career in racing at a fundraising dinner at Cheltenham Racecourse on Saturday.
The 340-strong audience heard how he had achieved success both as a jockey and a trainer and, more importantly, won a battle with cancer.
'An Evening with Jonjo O'Neill' was in support of the Bob Champion Cancer Trust and guests included 18-time champion jockey AP McCoy, former seven-time champion John Francome and Gloucestershire trainers Fergal O'Brien and Richard Phillips.
In conversation with television presenter Mike Cattermole, O'Neill covered various aspects of his life, from growing up with a non-horseracing background in Ireland to becoming one of the best-known sportsman in Britain.
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He described the burning ambition he had as a teenager to make it as a jockey despite a patchy start to his career in Ireland.
"When you start riding racehorses, with the speed and everything, it's a fantastic feeling," he told the audience.
"It's something you can't explain to anybody, it's just such a thrill, and then when you start jumping over hurdles and fences, you think to yourself, 'Wow, this is fantastic, this is the game'."
On a hugely entertaining night with laughter filling the Gold Cup room, O'Neill revealed what it was like to ride some of the best horses of all time, including Dawn Run, Sea Pigeon, Night Nurse and Alverton – "He was like riding Concorde.".
He said he seriously considered hanging up his boots after his Gold Cup hero Alverton sustained fatal injuries in the 1979 Grand National, but he was persuaded to carry on by trainer Peter Easterby.
"I seriously thought about giving up the game at the time," said the former two-time champion jockey.
"I felt really sorry for the poor old horse."
The 61-year-old spoke in depth about being diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1980s and the subsequent battle to beat the disease.
McCoy took to the stage to pay tribute to O'Neill, describing him as "great to ride for".
"Very early on in my time riding for him, one of my stupid statements was when Clan Royal was carried out in the Grand National and I said it was a bad day," he said.
"Very quickly, Jonjo said to me, 'I'll tell you what a bad day is, it's when you're lying in bed waiting for the doctor to tell you if you're going live or die.'
"My outlook was different after that and that's something I'll remember for ever more."
Looking ahead, O'Neill spelled out his ambitions as a trainer for his Jackdaws Castle stable in Temple Guiting, from where he has already won a Grand National and Gold Cup.
"I still feel the best is still to come and will be giving of my very best, with the brilliant team at Jackdaws, to win even more races and as many of the big ones as we can get within our grasp," he said.
"To become champion trainer in the next few years would be very special and we will be giving that our best shot."
Champion, who famously won the 1981 Grand National on Aldaniti after his own fight against cancer, thanked guests for supporting the trust.
"I am honoured that Jonjo agreed to help the cause tonight with this spectacular evening," said Champion.
"A brilliant jockey, a fantastic trainer and a true friend."
For more details about the Bob Champion Cancer Trust, www.bobchampion.org.uk.