Jonjo O’Neill Jr is determined to keep improving after a breakthrough year that has seen him leap to the top of the conditional ranks.
Now officially crowned champion conditional, the 22-year-old was well clear of the pack with a total of 61 winners when racing was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
His tally was more than the target he had set at the start of the season – and on top of that he won on one of the best chasers in the business and rode in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“I ended on 61 winners and we missed the last six weeks and I missed three months before that, getting banned and injured,” he said.
“Had I not missed all that time I’d have had more winners, but my goal was 50 at the beginning of the season and then when I got to 50 I set 75 and then it stopped quickly.
“I was happy with what I got. Hopefully, I can try to better it next year. It will be hard, but I’m looking forward to trying.
“I’ve been very lucky this year, but I know you do have to get more competitive each year. I’ve realised that this year.”
O’Neill is among many of those feeling the surreal atmosphere due to the unprecedented circumstances.
“I got reminded it was Grand National week and it didn’t feel like that at all,” he said.
“We did well to get Cheltenham on this year. Any later and we’d have struggled.”
O’Neill may have been last of the 11 finishers in the Gold Cup on Elegant Escape, but just to have a ride in chasing’s blue riband was a moment he will not forget in a hurry.
“It was good and very good of the Tizzards to put me on the horse,” he said.
“He led for a long way and probably got a bit outclassed in the end, but he wasn’t beaten miles.
“It was a good first ride. It’s the biggest race there is and it was great to be a part of it.”
Despite having no luck in the Gold Cup itself, O’Neill made the most of the opportunity of riding the 2018 winner Native River to victory in the Denham Chase at Newbury in February.
He got the chance as the horse’s regular partner, Richard Johnson, was injured.
“The month of February worked out very well for me. I had a few Saturday winners and he was the one that snowballed that effect,” he said.
“He’s obviously a very good horse and different to the rest of them.
“To ride a Gold Cup winner and win a Grade Two in itself was pretty special.”
Among O’Neill’s other Saturday winners that month were Copperhead in the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot and Mister Malarky in the Betway Handicap Chase at Kempton.
With a thirst for winners, more high-profile successes look certain to follow for O’Neill for many seasons to come.