Grand National-winning rider Mick Fitzgerald has spoken of his sadness and of the risks involved in racing after it was revealed by the family of rider JT McNamara that the serious neck injury he suffered in a fall at the Cheltenham Festival has led to paralysis.
Leading amateur McNamara, 37, was injured when Galaxy Rock fell at the first fence in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup and had to be airlifted to Bristol, where he remains, although plans are to be made for a transfer to Dublin in due course.
Fitzgerald’s own career was ended following horrific neck injuries suffered in a fall from L’Ami in the 2008 National at Aintree which left him narrowly avoiding permanent spinal damage.
Now a successful pundit on television and radio, Fitzgerald told Sky Sports News: “It’s a mixture of sadness, it’s the end of a great career for a jockey who was an amateur and did it because he loved the game.
“When it happened at the time a sombre (mood) descended on Cheltenham, everyone had everything crossed and plenty of people were praying their worse fears wouldn’t be realised. This is the end of a glittering career.
“The great thing I can say is that he’s in a positive frame of mind and that is number one. He’s surrounded by people who love him and I can only extend my best wishes to him and his family.
“It’s a high-risk sport and this is one of the things that can happen. As a jump jockey you go out to ride every day knowing it could be your last. You never think it could be you, it always happens to someone else.
“We devote our lives to the sport we love. None of us want to see a jockey injured, the same goes for the horse.
“Getting injured is always in the back of your mind but if you were thinking about it, you wouldn’t be able to do your job.
“He’s alive and well and in a positive frame of mind. It’s important that racing does what it can to help him enjoy the rest of life. I cannot tell you how nice a guy he is.”
The latest statement on McNamara’s condition was issued jointly by Dr Adrian McGoldrick, Irish Turf Club Senior Medical Officer and Lisa Hancock, CEO, Injured Jockeys Fund, on behalf of the rider’s family and read: “JT McNamara remains in the Frenchay Hospital, Bristol. Whilst he suffered a serious neck injury resulting in paralysis, he has made progress in the last week and is in a very positive frame of mind.
“He is greatly appreciative of the many messages, cards and letters received and also wishes to thank the Frenchay Hospital who are looking after him so well.”
Speaking to Sky Sports News, Hancock said: “It’s a risky sport. Safety is important and it continues to be, but it is a risky sport and every jockey knows that. We are looking at safety measures and continue to do so.
“But at the end of the day you’re riding a horse at speed and jumping fences at speed so the risk is always there.”
McNamara is famed for his prowess as a point-to-point rider and in cross-country races at Cheltenham and Punchestown, enjoying tremendous success in the colours of owner JP McManus on the likes of Spot Thedifference.
Paul Struthers, chief excutive of the Professional Jockeys Association, tweeted: “Awful news with confirmation of the extent of JT’s injuries. The risks faced/sacrifices made by our brave boys & girls face to entertain us.”
The Jockey Club tweeted: “We echo the sentiments expressed across our sport & beyond, and send our very best wishes to JT McNamara & those dear to him.”