O'Neill Hopeful of Repeat John Smith's Grand National Success with Don't Push It 20/01/11
Trainer Jonjo O’Neill is aiming to give last year’s John Smith’s Grand National hero Don’t Push It at least one more outing ahead of a return to Aintree as the 11-year-old tries to become the first horse since Red Rum (1973 & 1974) to win back-to-back renewals of the world’s greatest chase.
Don’t Push It ended one of Jump racing’s greatest hoodoos when giving champion jockey Tony (AP) McCoy an emotional first John Smith’s Grand National success on his 15th ride in the four and a half mile chase, which this year takes place on Saturday, April 9, and carries record prize money of £950,000.
The success significantly boosted the 15-time champion jockey’s profile outside racing and helped him win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in December.
The chaser’s famous victory also marked a first John Smith’s Grand National triumph for O’Neill and leading owner JP McManus. The trainer reckons that his stable star has “a great chance” of a repeat success if he heads to Aintree in similar form.
O’Neill, who today hosted a media day at Jackdaws Castle Stables, revealed: “Don’t Push It won well last year but he is obviously going to have to carry more weight this time and things will be tougher for him.
“If he goes back in the same form and enjoys himself as much as he did last season, then he would have a great chance.
“I would like to run him over fences before the John Smith Grand National if I could find a race that would suit him, but there are no races for him unless you go for a marathon trip. You don’t want to do that before Aintree with a horse like him because he puts a lot into his races.
“Ideally, I want to win a race before we go to Aintree and not just run in one, because the one thing you need him to be in the Grand National is fit. He came back after a long break in the summer very heavy - I think that JP must have given him a lot of sweets!
“He ran too freely under Alan (Berry) on his seasonal return at Cheltenham over hurdles (December 10), when he was a bit too fresh. He got revved up on that occasion and he settled a lot better when AP rode him at the same course on New Year’s Day but he will need another race or two before Aintree.
“I was going to run him last Saturday but he pulled a muscle. He always seems to get little things wrong with him and it is just a question of finding a race when he is right.
“He had a canter today by himself as usual and I expect that he will be ready to run in a couple of weeks.”
O’Neill added: “Synchronised will be given an entry in the John Smith’s Grand National but he would like fairly soft ground, which is the opposite to Don’t Push It. He has looked very well since winning the Welsh National and is in great form.
“He will probably head to the Midlands Grand National again and the main reason for that is hopefully the conditions at Uttoxeter might be similar to when he won the race last year. He is not going to have too many options because he does need the ground to be pretty soft.
“He is a very genuine horse and he was absolutely wrecked after the Midlands Grand National. He was only a novice at the time and he came out of Chepstow much better - he is in great shape at the moment.
“I wouldn’t rule Aintree out but the ground would have to be soft. AP is worried about his jumping but he won’t be on board and I think that he doesn’t want Synchronised to come and beat him!
“Synchronised has only had five starts over fences and I would be hopeful that there could be more to come. He has definitely improved a lot this term and he did really well over the summer - he came back looking a picture from Martinstown Stud. It took him a few runs to get going but we were always training him with the Welsh National in mind.
“We entered him in the Cheltenham Gold Cup because he is rated 159 now and, if the ground came up soft, it might be a race that we would consider before going on to Aintree. We are just trying to keep our options open - you never know about the conditions and so forth when you make the entries.
“He is a lovely, kind horse and anybody can ride him - he just goes about his business and doesn’t make life difficult for anyone - which makes him totally different to Don’t Push It. He has already got two Nationals in the bag, so he is doing very well.
O’Neill will also give Can’t Buy Time an entry in the John Smith’s Grand National. The JP McManus-owned nine-year-old has failed to finish in the two previous renewals of the world’s greatest chase but boasts some good form in handicaps, including when scoring in a Grade Three at Cheltenham in January, 2010.
The trainer added: “Can’t Buy Time will also be entered in the John Smith’s Grand National. He has fallen in the race twice but normally he is a great leaper and, in fairness to him, he didn’t fall last year - a loose horse jumped into him at the Canal Turn and knocked Richie (McLernon) off.
“It wasn’t his fault in 2008 as well when he was brought down by another horse. The form book says that he has fallen twice in the race but that’s not really the case. He is a grand old jumper.
“He is just a handicapper and you need a bit of class to win the John Smith’s Grand National nowadays. I am not sure that he has that but he is a very nice horse to have in the yard and there are some decent races to be won with him.
“We were a bit disappointed with him on his first two starts of the campaign but he ran a nice race at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day when he showed a bit more life. He is a better horse in the spring and he likes good ground, so he will be aimed for Aintree, although he could be the type for the Scottish National.”
Apart from an inevitable hike in the weights following his five-length success in last season’s John Smith’s Grand National, O’Neill feels that the main threats to Don’t Push It may once more come from runner-up Black Apalachi as well as from some of the unexposed up and coming chasers.
O’Neill continued: “I thought that Dessie Hughes’ horse, Black Apalachi, produced a fantastic performance last season. I know that he will be a 12-year-old this time but Sea Pigeon never won a Champion Hurdle until he was 10.
“He would be one of the main dangers to Don’t Push It but I would be more frightened of one of the up and coming horses, something that has ability and has run well at somewhere like Cheltenham. Those are the types to be wary of but you can’t beat experience over the Grand National fences.”
After eight attempts as a jockey and 15 as a trainer, O’Neill was delighted to finally taste victory in the John Smith’s Grand National last year, especially as the success also marked an elusive first win for his landlord McManus and McCoy, the owner’s retained jockey.
O’Neill commented: “Winning the John Smith’s Grand National last year was fantastic because it was a race that we have always wanted to win. I hadn’t had the best of luck as a jockey myself - I had eight rides when nothing happened and then I had a second (Clan Royal 2004) and two thirds (Simply Gifted 2005 & Clan Royal 2006) as a trainer.
“You begin to think that it is going to be one of those races that is going to elude you, so it was a fantastic feeling to win at last.
“It was great for JP and brilliant for AP as well - he had 14 goes at winning the John Smith’s Grand National, which is nearly twice more than I had as a jockey! Anybody in the game, whether they are a jockey, owner or a trainer, wants to be a part of the race and it was nice to get it on the board.
“It lifted the whole of Jackdaws Castle and everybody’s spirit around the place. It’s something that we had looked forward to and I hope that it is something that we can look forward to once again - it has taken the monkey off our back.
“We really fancied Don’t Push It for the John Smith’s Grand National all the way from Christmas onwards. We gave him a prep run over hurdles at the Festival (in March) but he pulled himself up after a mile. That put a real dampener on everything and all of the plans went out of the window that day.
“We came home and tested him and Alan Berry said that he could find nothing wrong with him so we thought that we would go to Aintree and take our chance.
“Don’t Push It was the better horse compared to Can’t Buy Time as he had more class performances. He was runner-up to Denman in a novices’ chase at Cheltenham and we expected him to win on that occasion.”
Due to his excitable nature, Don’t Push It enjoys a unique training regime at Jackdaws Castle in Gloucestershire and O’Neill insisted that much of the credit for the chaser’s success should go to the stable’s amateur jockey Alan Berry, son of McManus’ racing manager Frank Berry.
He added: “Don’t Push It is not a particularly hard horse to train but he is a bit of a character.
“He lives out in a field with half a dozen sheep and he weaves and box-walks when he is in a stable - he does everything that he shouldn’t do and he is harder to keep weight on. At least when he is out in a field and the sheep threaten to eat his food, he makes a bee-line for it!
“He mainly works on his own. If it’s a serious bit of work, then he obviously has to work with other horses but, if you had him with the string everyday, he would drive them all mad and would drive you mad as well.
“Alan knows him inside out and he does a great job with the horse. To be honest, we leave it to him and he does what he likes - when Alan is not happy, we get Don’t Push It checked over. He is a great asset to the horse.”
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