This week we're venturing away from the racing hub of Stirling to speak to a young driver hailing from Ayr, Hugh O'Neil Jr Jr (that is not a typo, he is the third of his name currently in the sport). Hugh, or 'Junior Junior', is the stable driver for the O'Neil family and enjoyed success this summer with Caraghs Hall at Appleby Brough in August. Hugh is probably most associated with Ayr Escape, a horse with all the looks and none of the luck, having fallen foul of a flawed handicap system which saw him move through grades 2 to 4 without winning a race in the past couple of seasons. Hugh is the eldest son of Hugh (Jr), one third of one of the country's top studs, Ayr Standardbreds, and Elizabeth, top videographer at Corbiewood, as well as numerous other tracks where she can be seen trying to avoid anybody offering an additional commentary service (James Allan & Caroline Kennedy, please move away from the camera!).
Here, Hughie tells me a little bit more about the driver who could probably also be described as having 'all the looks and none of the luck'...
For anybody who doesn’t know you, how long have you been involved in the sport and where did it all start?
My family has been into racing their whole lives. My grandparents on both sides (O'Neils & Kennedys) bred and raced horses, as did my mum and dad so I got the bug at a young age.
Which is the best horse you’ve driven in your career?
I've had the pleasure of sitting behind some good horses in Canada , just working out though. Over here I'd have to say Caraghs Hall; Ayr Escape when he was at his best was definitely the best I'd sat behind at the time.
Which horse, past or present that you haven’t driven, would you like to drive and why?
Somebeachsomewhere without a doubt.
Who did, or do, you admire as a driver?
In the UK it has to be Gordon Gilvear and Wull Greenhorn; in the world it's Tim Tetrick and John Campbell.
Which is your favourite track in the UK and Ireland?
Tir Prince under the lights, there's nothing better.
Have you driven outside of the UK and Ireland? If not, where in the world would you choose to have one drive?
As I said, I've worked out horses in Canada, but I'd love to drive on the Red Mile in Lexington, Kentucky.
Have you ever considered moving abroad to become more involved in the sport?
I hope to move to Canada to work with horses, it's hard to make the grade as a driver over there but I'd hope I could be working with horses in Canada someday.
If you could change one thing about the sport in the UK, what would it be?
I'd change the stewards' consistency (or lack of).
Which is your favourite meeting in the UK racing calendar?
Probably have to be Musselburgh.
Out of all the races you have won, which has been the most memorable? Which race would you like to win that you haven’t already?
Most memorable would have to be winning with Caraghs Hall at Appleby. I'd love to win Musselburgh.
How would you describe your driving style? i.e. pace setter, strong closer, rail hugger?
I don't really know if I've developed one style yet, I'd say maybe a patient driver. The horse I drive weekly I try to trip him out on the rail most weeks and leave some for coming home.
Where do you see yourself in the sport 10 years from now?
Hopefully winning a lot more races!
What are your hobbies/interests outside of racing?
There's not really a lot of time for much else apart from working and horses but I try to get to the gym as much as I can.
If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be and why?
Australia and NZ just to see and experience their type of racing (that's technically two places, but I'll let you off).
You’re stranded on a desert island – what five things can’t you live without?
Chocolate, chicken fajitas, Nandos cheesecake, iPad, maybe Kareen (Hughie's girlfriend and number one supporter...or maybe number two, after his mum)....probably just more chocolate though! (Well Kareen definitely isn’t your number one supporter after that comment!)
You’re holding a dinner party for five famous guests (alive or dead) – who would they be and why?
Taylor Swift, James Corden, Luke Bryan, Jonah Hill, Stanley Dancer
If you were invisible for a day, what would you do?
Just annoy George (Carson - Hughie's best friend and biggest rival in all things from driving to gym workouts) all day without him knowing it was me!
If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you would spend your winnings on?
I would move to Canada, buy a farm and some horse.
Which actor would play you in a film about your life?
My lookalike Terry Crews (for anybody who doesn't know who Terry Crews is, like me, follow this link for a photo - Terry Crews - I think you'll agree they are like twins!)
When was the last time you got into trouble?
Hard to keep track, it happens a lot!
Describe yourself in three words.
Witty, determined, focused.
Thanks Hugh for answering the questions, some of which with a real sense of humour! I would say that people should give this guy a chance as a driver next season as under the new handicap system he will carry at least one grade of an allowance for any horse he drives (until he reaches 7 wins). However, that would seem a little hypocritical of me seeing as I let him drive my horse this year in a C Class race, and then ditched him the second time for George Carson, his biggest rival (who incidentally, won, in tremendous fashion, and showcased the best celebration ever to grace the tight mile at Corbiewood). That said, he did post the unofficial fastest first quarter in the track's 49 year history whilst driving my horse, so credit where it's due...I'd probably give him another chance!
|Hugh & brother Michael working out on the beach|
|Hugh & Ayr Escape at Corbiewood|
|Hugh & Caraghs Hall winning at Appleby Brough, August 2015|
Over and out (and thanks for being a good sport Jr Jr),