Too much water has flowed through Becher’s Brook for Jonjo O’Neill to start counting his chickens when it comes to the Randox Grand National even when he turns up to Aintree with the red-hot 4-1 favourite.
The trainer, who will be 69 in four days’ time, has enough experience of the Grand National’s slings and arrows to keep well-handicapped Cloth Cap’s challenge firmly in perspective even if the formbook is screaming his chances.
As a two-time champion jockey he rode in the race eight times, never getting further than the 24th fence, a record made even more painful by the fact that his 1979 Cheltenham Gold Cup winning mount Alverton was ‘cantering’ when falling fatally at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit.
Cloth Cap enters the Randox Grand National as the 4-1 hot favourite to win at Aintree
O’Neill’s record as a trainer also stands up to the closest scrutiny. His 32 runners have yielded one win — AP McCoy-ridden Don’t Push It in 2010 — two seconds and three third places.
But one of those second places, when Sunnyhillboy was beaten by a nose by Neptune Collonges in 2012, coincided with O’Neill-trained Gold Cup winner Synchonised also being fatally injured while running loose.
It was a low point in Grand National history, prompting belated safety modifications to the famous Aintree fences which have transformed the race’s safety record.
O’Neill said: ‘Loads of things have happened to me in the Grand National, good and bad. I know the National well enough and strange things happen.
‘You love it when it is good and hate it when it goes wrong but that’s life in general. It’s still nice to have a fancied horse going for it.’
The unpredictability of what happens on the track is not the only reason O’Neill adopts a philosophical approach.
This is a man who defied the odds to beat cancer and also came perilously close to losing a leg. When a jockey, he ignored doctor’s orders and started to ride too soon following a broken leg, dislodging the titanium screws and plate holding the injured bones in place.
O’Neill, who was sidelined for 14 months, recalled: ‘After three or four days I couldn’t cope with the pain anymore. My leg was starting to swell up and I got gangrene in it. I was sent to Basle to the guy that invented the plate for all the skiers.
‘It was a lot of money — it was about two and a half grand a night in this hospital — and I was in there for a couple of nights. That was hurting more than my leg!
Cloth Cap’s trainer Jonjo O’Neill has had his fair share of ups and downs at the Grand National
O’Neill’s last Grand National win came with AP McCoy riding Don’t Push It back in 2010
‘When I woke up after the operation I put my hand down and all I could find was wood around my leg. I started crying, thinking, “I’ve lost my leg!” but the nurse realised what I was thinking and showed me 10 toes. It took a while to sink in.’
Cloth Cap, who is owned by three-time Grand National winner Trevor Hemmings, has had a slow-burner of a career and initially failed to kick on as O’Neill expected after finishing third in the 2019 Scottish National as a novice.
But things have clicked this season with a 10-length win in the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase at Newbury in November and an equally impressive win at Kelso last month after the Grand National weights were published. If the handicapper was allowed to assess Cloth Cap again, he would give him an extra 14lb to carry.
Key to Cloth Cap’s improvement appears to be the decision to allow the nine-year-old to live 12 months of the year in a paddock, rather than a stable.
It was the same routine O’Neill adopted with Don’t Push It.
The trainer said: ‘Cloth Cap wasn’t finishing his races and there was no answer to it.
Jonjo O’Neill’s son won’t be able to ride so Tom Scudamore will look to win with Cloth Cap
‘He has a little bit of attitude about him so in the second half of last season we trained him out of the field. He seemed to be more relaxed and happier. If he was in a box he’d get tense and be sweating sometimes.
‘We will try anything with horses. We have put mirrors in their boxes and put tyres in with them. Some want to be out in a field. They are a herd animal and they chill out.
‘There is no right or wrong way to do it. You just have to go with the personality. Happy and healthy horses are the key. I would love to tell you I am the best trainer in the world and I can do magical things with them but it’s a load of b******s.
‘He will be taken from the field on Grand National day and have a wash and a shampoo at the races. He will look lovely in the paddock and hopefully even better in the winner’s enclosure.’
With Cloth Cap carrying only 10st 5lb, O’Neill’s son Jonjo Jr cannot ride. That means Tom Scudamore, on board for Cloth Cap’s last two runs, retains the mount.
O’Neill, who casts a respectful eye to ‘class horse’ Bristol De Mai in the opposition, added: ‘Cloth Cap has all the favourite’s attributes. He’s got a light weight, he jumps, he stays. But his odds are crackers. We’re talking about the Grand National.’
We are also talking Jonjo O’Neill, a person with an Aintree track record.