By Jon Lees
Jonjo O’Neill jr on Monday said he felt very lucky to be chosen to ride Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Native River on his next start, news he learned on the day of his 22nd birthday.
O’Neill, who is still a conditional jockey, only found out at Fontwell on Sunday that he will take over from regular partner Richard Johnson moments before trainer Colin Tizzard made the news public.
Under the arrangement O’Neill will replace the champion jockey, who is sidelined with a broken arm, on the 2018 Gold Cup winner when he seeks a third victory in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury on February 8.
He will also ride the horse at Cheltenham if Johnson is not fit to return.
O’Neill said: “I am delighted to be associated with a Gold Cup winner. It is a huge ride to pick up. There are plenty of jockeys that ride for Colin and these are very unfortunate circumstances for Dicky, but he will be back.
“I can’t say I expected to be riding him at all, but I had my fingers-crossed something might happen. I feel very privileged.
“Colin only told me at Fontwell, just before he picked up the saddle for my first ride for him. I kind of found out near enough the same time as anyone else.
“I have ridden a good few winners for his owners, Mr and Mrs Broom of Brocade Racing, in the last year or so and get on with them very well. I feel very lucky that it was announced it was me.
“I ride out for Colin once or twice a week and school plenty. I have not sat on Native River yet. Jamie Thomas rides him every day, but I will probably go in on Wednesday and school him and maybe next week as well.
“Native River is Dicky’s ride and if he comes back for Cheltenham, then he will ride him. He won a Gold Cup, a Welsh National and Hennessy and everything. I am delighted to be on him for Newbury anyway.”
With 45 winners this season, O’Neill, who has ridden out his claim, is 15 clear in the conditional jockeys’ championship.
He is already a Cheltenham Festival-winning rider having captured last year’s Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle on Early Doors. Victory in the Denman Chase would be his first at Graded level.
“Without a doubt Native River would be the best horse I will have ridden so far in my career,” he said. “He is a Gold Cup winner who has won loads of good races. It doesn’t look like he is on a downward curve.
“He was very impressive at Aintree in December, where the blinkers looked to have sharpened him up. He has won plenty of times round Newbury, including the Denman Chase twice. He would go there with a great shout.”
O’Neill jr’s dad Jonjo won the Gold Cup twice as a jockey, on Alverton in 1979 and Dawn Run in 1986.
“I haven’t spoken to Dad about it yet,” the jockey said. “I sent him a text saying I was riding Native River and he sent me a thumbs up. That usually means he is pretty happy.”