A famous name can be as much of a burden as a blessing for a young jockey and Jonjo O’Neill jnr has a long way to go to match the exploits of his title-winning father in the 70s and 80s. The biggest win of the 20-year-old’s career was a step in the right direction here on Saturday, however, and there were moments in O’Neill’s confident performance on Big Time Dancer in the Lanzarote Hurdle that betrayed his impeccable racing pedigree.
Big Time Dancer was a 16-1 chance to beat 13 opponents but travelled smoothly from the start behind a strong pace and was still going strongly with three flights to jump as other rivals came under pressure.
O’Neill, never previously a winner in a race with a five-figure first prize, remained impressively composed with a £25,000 purse within reach and eased past Solomon Grey and Bridget Andrews between the final two flights to secure a comfortable, one-and-a-half length success.
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O’Neill’s father, now a successful trainer at Jackdaw’s Castle near Cheltenham, has supplied most of his winners but it is another promising sign that Jennie Candlish’s Big Time Dancer is from an outside yard, as O’Neill edges towards the 40 winners he needs for his claim to drop from 5lb to 3lb.
“He made it very easy for me,” said O’Neill, who missed much of last season with an injury. “He travelled really well and jumped unbelievable, and every position I put him in, he answered my call straight away. You are dreaming of these sorts of things when you’re off for eight months, just sitting on the sidelines.
“To ride a nice winner like this means everything. I’m trying to be my own self and I want to be a jockey. I take advice and he [O’Neill’s father] is very supportive and a very big help but I’m my own man, and even though I’ve the same name, I’m very much different.”
Top Notch, whose season got off to a difficult start when he suffered an adverse reaction to a flu jab, registered his first win of the campaign in the Listed 32Red Casino Chase and will now be aimed towards the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
“He always had them covered off a right good pace,” Nicky Henderson, Top Notch’s trainer, said. “He hasn’t got the scope of other horses and he has his own way of doing it, but he is brave as well and he has been a wonderful servant.
“If you had a straw poll at the yard, he would come out No 1. Everyone loves him. Altior, Might Bite and Buveur D’Air might be better horses, but there is not a nicer horse in the place.”
Top Notch is top-priced at 14-1 for the Ryanair Chase, while Henderson’s Ok Corral, an impressive winner on the card at Warwick, is a new clear favourite for the four-mile National Hunt Chase at the same meeting.
Dan Skelton’s Beakstown also advertised his Festival chance with a comfortable success in the Grade Two Leamington Novice Hurdle and he is now the 16-1 third-favourite for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle on 13 March.