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.