IF THERE’S one thing the jockey Dane O’Neill was born to do... it was to ride. The Dublin-born 45yo is anything but wildly exuberant and does not have much to offer in terms of flamboyance like that displayed by the affable darling of contemporary racing Frankie Dettori, whose leaps off from the backs of his riding partners after winning are perhaps as exciting as his performances in the saddle.
Dettori is easily the greatest rider of our generation and sits pretty at the summit of the Top 10 most successful current Flat jockeys in Britain. And therein lies a parallel if you are to be called to draw one. While Dettori tops the list with a tally of 3,251 wins, O’Neill’s 1,791 puts him in seventh place.
Making that list of the extraordinary is a remarkable effort for anyone and O’Neill seems pretty satisfied with the way things unfolded over the past 28 years since he made his competitive debut as an apprentice at Richard Hannon Snr’s yard. “Doesn’t seem as far back as it is when someone describes it, but yeah touch wood it has improved every year going forward,” O’Neill told Al Adiyat.
His professional career has taken him on assignments to nearly every major racing jurisdiction in the world, including Hong Kong, the United States, Germany, Canada, France, Italy, Ireland and of course the United Arab Emirates, where he has 136 wins till date. “There’s a lot because it’s been a long career and encompasses a lot of places and I’m very happy with the way it has all fallen into place,” he said.
Things fell into place at birth for O’Neill, who was born into a family of horsemen. “My dad owned and bred horses, so we always had horses at home when I was growing up,” O’Neill explained. “My whole family rode and was involved with horses from a young age. I was the smallest of four brothers and the rest were too big to be jockeys, but they all rode horses to some degree and did showjumping and I too was involved in showjumping.
We all had horses, but I’m the only one that’s still in racing at the moment.” O’Neill left County Cork to join Hannon Snr’s yard as an apprentice in 1992. After a slow start, he burst onto the scene when winning the apprentice championship in 1996 when he recorded 80 wins in Britain. Success continued to shake his hand with his first big win arriving on the back of the Hannon Snr-trained Lots Of Magic in the Group 3 Jersey Stakes at the 1999 Royal Ascot meeting where he also won the Group 2 Cork and Orrery Stakes with Bold Edge for the same trainer.
O’Neill’s partnership with Bold Edge helped him reap big time. They won the 1999 running of the Group 2 Diadem Stakes at Ascot and the year after he gained his first career Group One win in the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville. It is one of two top tier wins for O’Neill, who had to wait a long time for his second which was gained in the 2015 royal meeting’s Commonwealth Cup with Muhaarar, who was trained by Charles Hills for HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
That was his third season riding for Sheikh Hamdan, who appointed him as his second jockey in October 2012. O’Neill has a further 11 Group Twos and 16 Group Three wins under the belt, with one of his career highlights, in his own words, being his two consecutive triumphs on Dubai World Cup night in the Group 1 Dubai Kahayla Classic with Purebred Arabian horses owned by Sheikh Hamdan.
He won the race first in 2015 with the Erwan Charpy-schooled Manark and repeated that performance the year after aboard AF Mathmoon trained by Musabbeh Al Mheiri. In a tone that was more honest than patronising, O’Neill said he was honoured to be associated with Shadwell’s blue and white silks and to have made his own contribution in Sheikh Hamdan’s conquest of Britain where he has only recently been crowned Champion Owner for 2020.
“It’s fantastic and an honour to be riding for him,” said O’Neill, who won aboard 29 of his 250 rides this year in Britain. “Obviously, it’s a very big operation and that by itself doesn’t ensure guaranteed success. Everyone has worked hard behind the scenes and it’s nice when it all comes together well. “Sheikh Hamdan is a big supporter of racing so it is nice to see him get a prize he fully deserves.
I think the nice thing about it all is that even when I ride for other people in the UK, they were very complimentary and said it was nice to see Sheikh Hamdan have such good runs at some of the important meetings like Royal Ascot, York, Goodwood and Newmarket. “He was successful at a lot of big meetings last year and a lot of people were very happy for him which goes to show how appreciated he is and how much respect there is for him.
“In a job like this it’s nice to have strong partnerships like I have with Shadwell. You have that trust that you know the horses that you ride throughout the season. So, if Jim Crowley doesn’t ride them, I will ride them or if he isn’t available then I will ride them. Sometimes you might only sit on these horses once and might never see them again, but it’s nice to have that kind of a partnership.”
His partnerships in Dubai have been flourishing as well and last month’s win aboard the Doug Watson-trained Mnasek in a 1400m maiden at Meydan perhaps truly highlighted O’Neill’s potency as a rider. Making her debut, Mnasek was caught unawares when the gates flung open and ceded nearly seven lengths to the last of her rivals in the blink of an eye.
O’Neill, however, was in no mood to throw in the towel and laboured on and by the far turn brought Mnasek back in the mix. And as the field turned for home she was led to the front from where she built up rapidly to win by six and three-quarters of a length. It was a spectacular finish and O’Neill had the best seat in the house as he picked up a third UAE victory for the season.
“It was a nice spare ride to pick up. I ride work for Doug at Red Stables and sometimes when they have three in a race he gives me an opportunity to ride them. So sometimes the third choice at Red Stables isn’t too bad,” joked O’Neill. “She was a little bit green and a little bit slowly away and because she took two or three strides to get going, she lost a bit of momentum and suffered a bit of kickback.
She was lost for the first two or three furlongs but she grew in stature as the race progressed and ran out a pretty convincing winner.” O’Neill has been riding in the UAE consistently since the 2013/14 campaign and is glad to spend the winters here with his wife and 2yo daughter. “I come here with my wife and daughter and we have some nice family time alongside competitive racing,” he said.
“Like racing everywhere, it’s become more competitive here and the standard of racing and riding is higher. It’s great to come here during the winter and the travel I do here is minimal compared to England, which is nice. It’s just a great place to be in.” Even otherwise O’Neill certainly seems to have created a nice place for himself.