John Joseph ‘Jonjo’ O’Neill rode 901 winners in his 16-year career as a National Hunt jockey, yet is probably best remembered as the jockey of Dawn Run, who won the Champion Hurdle in 1983 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1986, thus becoming the first horse in history to win both races. Indeed, earlier in his career, O’Neill had gone closer than most to completing another historic double. In 1979, Alverton, whom he’d ridden to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, started favourite for the Grand National and was going well in the lead when falling, fatally, at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit. Otherwise, he might well have become the first horse since Golden Miller, in 1934, to win the two premier steeplechases in the country in the same season.


Born in Castletownroche, in Co. Cork, in April, 1952, O’Neill moved to Britain to ride for the late Gordon W. Richards at Castle Stables, in Greystoke, Cumbria in 1972 and partnered his first winner on this side of the Irish Sea, Alexandra Parade, at Stratford-upon-Avon in September that year. In 1977/78, O’Neill was Champion Jockey with 149 winners – including five out of five at Uttoxeter on April 19, 1978 – breaking the record, previously held by Ron Barry, for the most winners in a National Hunt season. In 1979/80, O’Neill was Champion Jockey again, with 115 winners, an extraordinary achievement for a jockey based in the most north-western county of England and likened by seven-time Champion Jockey John Francome to ‘winning five Olympic Gold Medals’.


Aside from Dawn Run and Alverton, O’Neill is probably best remembered for his association with Sea Pigeon, trained by Peter Easterby, on whom he won a total of 15 races, including the Champion Hurdle in 1980. That year he also won the Cathcart Challenge Cup on King Weasel, as well as the Dipper Novices’ Chase and the Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase on Little Owl, also trained by Easterby. In 1982, O’Neill completed a notable treble by winning the Bula Hurdle, the Christmas Hurdle and the Welsh Champion Hurdle – in those days still run at Chepstow – on Ekbalco, trained by another Cumbrian handler, the late Roger Fisher, who was based in Ulverston.

John Francome MBE is often labelled, demeaningly, as ‘the best jockey never to have won the Grand National’. Nevertheless, between December 2, 1970, when he rode his first winner, Multigrey, at Worcester, and April 8, 1985, when he rode his last, Gambler’s Cup, at Huntingdon, Francome racked up 1,138 victories – in so doing, becoming the most successful jockey, numerically, in the history of British National Hunt racing – and won the jockeys’ title seven times.


Francome was Champion Jockey for the first time in 1975/1976, the season in which he won the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Lanzarote, and again in 1978/79, the season in which he won his one and only Cheltenham Gold Cup on Midnight Court. He was also Champion Jockey for five seasons running between 1980/81 and 1984/85 although, in 1981/82, he shared the jockeys’ title with Peter Scudamore, after graciously refusing to ride once he drew level with his arch rival, who’d broken his arm as the result of a fall at Southwell in late April.


Francome was employed by Frederick Thomas ‘Fred’ Winter, at Uplands Stables in Lambourn, Berkshire, for his entire career as a jockey and, together, they enjoyed many great days. At the Cheltenham Festival, aside from the Gold Cup with Midnight Court, they also won the Sun Alliance Chase twice, with Pengrail in 1975 and Brown Chamberlin in 1982, the now-defunct Cathcart Challenge Cup twice, with Roller Coaster in 1979 and Observe in 1983 and the Stayers’ Hurdle with Derring Rose and the Grand Annual Chase with Friendly Alliance, both in 1981.


In 1981, Francome also won the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon, trained by Peter Easterby, showing amazing restraint to ride the 11-year-old for a turn of foot. Replacing the injured Jonjo O’Neill, Francome delayed his effort until well after the final flight but, in an outrageous act of derring-do, still won comfortably under hands and heels. In his title-winning years, Francome also won the Hennessy Gold Cup twice, on Brown Chamberlin, trained by Winter, in 1983 and Burrough Hill Lad, trained by Jenny Pitman, in 1984 and the King George VI Chase twice, on Wayward Lad, trained by Michael Dickinson, in 1982 and Burrough Hill Lad in 1984.

Graham Edward Thorner, known in some quarters as ‘Whanger’ because of his uncompromising riding style, is probably best remembered as the jockey of the well-weighted, and well-backed, Well To Do, winner of the Grand National in 1972. What is perhaps less well-remembered, though, is that, at the time of his Grand National victory – the first of three for his boss, Captain Timothy Arthur “Tim” Forster – Thorner was, in fact, the reigning Champion Jockey.


Born in 1949, Thorner showed a keen interest in horse racing and joined Forster at Old Manor House Stables, in Letcombe Bassett, near Wantage, Oxfordshire straight from school, at the age of 15, in 1964. He rode his first winner, Longway, at Newton Abbott in 1966 and, having turned professional the following season, became Champion Jockey for the one and only time in 1970/71, with 74 winners. Thorner enjoyed a successful association with Forster until his retirement in 1979, by which time he had ridden 650 winners in total. Nevertheless, the relationship between trainer and jockey lacked intimacy, although Forster did later concede, “It was perfectly obvious from the beginning that he [Thorner] was going to be a fine rider.”


Thorner recorded some notable successes, at the Cheltenham Festival and elsewhere, and was probably a little unlucky not to have ridden at least one Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. His major winners for Forster included Mocharabuice in the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup in 1972, Denys Adventure in the Arkle Challenge Trophy in 1973, Royal Marshall II in the Hennessy Gold Cup in 1974 and Casbah in the Grand Annual Chase in 1979. Thorner won the Arkle Challenge Trophy again in 1978 on Alverton, trained by Peter Easterby – who would, of course, win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1979 – and, with the initial running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup postponed until April because of snow, also rode the eventual winner, Midnight Court, in his preparatory race at Chepstow. Midnight Court won but, had he jumped well, Thorner would have kept the ride in the Gold Cup.

In recent years, until his retirement, at the age of 72, in May, 2018, Robert Bertram ‘Bob’ Davies was best known for his work at Ludlow Racecourse, Shropshire, where he fulfilled a variety of roles, including clerk of the course, general manager and company secretary, for a period of 35 years. Davies is probably best remembered as the jockey of Lucius, winner of the Grand National in 1978 and, arguably, one of the best ‘spare’ rides in history.


In the absence of his stable jockey, David Goulding, who had injured his back in a fall at Wetherby five days before the National, Greystoke trainer Gordon W. Richards offered the ride on Lucius to Ron Barry; Barry declined, in the grounds that he had already agreed to ride Forest King, trained by Ken Hogg, but put in a good word for Davies and the rest, as they say, in history. In a rough-and-tumble race, Davies and Lucius tackled the leader, Sebastien, passing the Elbow and, in a pulsating finish, held on to win by half a length and a neck.


Davies rode the first of his 912 winners under National Hunt Rules, Ellen’s Pleasure, at Newton Abbott in April, 1966 and enjoyed a stellar career, during which he became Champion Jockey three times. On the first occasion, in 1968/69 – the season in which he won the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup at the Cheltenham Festival on Specify, trained by Denis Rayson – he shared the jockeys’ title with Terry Biddlecombe, on 77 winners apiece. The following season, in which he won the Imperial Cup on Solomon II, trained by David Barons, Davies won the jockeys’ title outright, with 91 winners, and did so again in 1971/72, with 89 winners.


In the latter years of his career, aside from the Grand National, Davies also won the Grand Annual Chase on Dulwich, trained by Colin Davies, in 1976, and the Gainsborough Chase and the Great Yorkshire Chase on Tragus, trained by David Morley, in 1981.