Palmers Hill gave trainer Jonjo O’Neill a Cheltenham first – a winner ridden by his son, 20-year-old Jonjo jnr – in the 23-runner Steve & Sue Ibberson Happy Retirement Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
The J P McManus-owned five-year-old Palmers Hill beat Unblinking by a length and a quarter.
O’Neill snr said: “He did his job nicely, had a nice clear run all way and jumped well. A winner at Cheltenham any day is a great thing, and to have Jonjo on board was very special.
“The ground is a bit chopped up after the last couple of days, so Jonjo felt it was a bit better going around the outside. He had a run around before racing and felt that was the best place to go. I left it up to him.
“Jonjo had a bad old start to this year. He had eight months off with an injury in his back. But he seems fine again now and hopefully he gets a bit of a run at it. He is good value for 5lb.”
“I don’t know what we will do next with Palmers Hill – there are no plans further than today, to be honest. We thought he was a nice horse last year and it didn’t materialise really. I think he was just weak and growing, so we only gave him three runs and then left him off. He’s got a good, patient owner and it’s paid off. He might be a nice horse with a bit of luck. He’s big enough to go on and jump fences in time, so we’ll look after him.”
Today’s opening race, the Steve and Sue Ibberson Happy Retirement Conditional Novices’ Hurdle, will live long in the memory of 20-year-old conditional jockey Jonjo O’Neill Jr – the race provided him with his first winner at Cheltenham from his seventh ride at the course.
“It is very special to ride a winner here,” said the claimer, son of trainer Jonjo O’Neill, a two-time former champion jockey who also won two Gold Cups as well as the Champion Hurdle on the legendary mare Dawn Run.
O’Neill Jr added: “It is even better to win in Mr McNamus’s colours, he has been such a good supporter of the yard.”
O’Neill took a wide course throughout on Palmers Hill, who is trained by his father and owned by JP McManus, and that was a deliberate ploy by the jockey who was riding his 20th career winner.
“Paddy Brennan went wide earlier this week and it worked well [the jockey rode a three-timer on Friday] and I thought it seemed a good plan.
“When I ran around this morning, even to me the ground felt better on the outer – it is just a bit dead on the inside.”
Of Palmers Hill, O’Neill added: “He is a nice horse of whom we have always thought a bit of, he just a bit weak last year. He has strengthened up over the summer, we were hopeful today but it was a competitive race.”
O’Neill claimed 3lb in this conditional jockeys’ race, but normally has a 5lb weight allowance.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Unblinking finished second; ridden by Jordan Nailor, he was vying for the lead in the home straight. However, Palmers Hill, ridden by O’Neill’s son, Jonjo O’Neill Jr ran on strongly up the Cheltenham hill to score by a length and a quarter.
Nailor said: “Unblinking ran really well. I was really happy with his performance.
“He met the last hurdle a little bit wrong and we couldn’t do anything about that really as that’s racing I suppose.
“Hopefully, he will keep improving following this run – it was a great thrill to ride him.”
Conor McNamara was equally pleased with the performance of Irish raider Offshore Oscar, who finished a further four lengths behind in third.
He commented: “Offshore Oscar’s ran a cracker. We’ve just bumped into two well handicapped horses on the day.
“We had a good trip round and had every chance in the home straight and we’re delighted with that effort.
“He is a pleasure to ride and hopefully there is more improvement in him following this effort.”