By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Eric McNamara is known as one of racing’s gentleman. As well as being popular, the Rathkeale man is a proven trainer.
Over the years, McNamara established himself as a shrewd customer when it came to landing the spoils in major handicap chases.
The Kerry National was plundered three times from 2007 to 2012, with Ponmeoth doing the honours for the second consecutive time a decade ago. Faltering Fullback bagged the third success while Navallus, Kaselectric, Dashing George, Larkwing, and Questions Answered were others to plunder big pots.
Hurdlers yielded the majority of the graded success, however. Strangely Brown was a Grade 1 victor in Auteuil who also won at Aintree, was runner-up at Cheltenham and bagged Grade 2, 3, and listed triumphs as well. Marhaba Million, Larkwing, and Little Green also benefitted from the McNamara touch.
But by the time Faltering Fullback claimed the spoils at Listowel under Danny Mullins six years ago, holding off the Robbie Power-piloted stablemate Questions Answered in the process, McNamara was feeling the pinch.
Being likeable and good wasn’t enough to protect him from the recession and he still isn’t sure how he survived.
“We went from having 60 horses down to 10 horses in the space of a couple of months,” McNamara details. “I had one particular owner that had 11 horses here and they all went overnight.
“My family often say ‘How did we survive?’ I don’t know how we survived but we did, somehow, and we’ve come out the right end of it. It’s only now that it’s starting to pick up.”
A decade ago, he was coming off a season in which he recorded 25 winners. Prior to racing at Thurles today, where Lily Trotter is his sole representative, he has seven from just 47 runners and is on target to accumulate his best tally since the 2009-2010 campaign, when he saddled 12 winners.
“We seem to have a few nice horses again and there is a little bit of an upturn. We went down to 10 horses and we’re back up to 30 again.
“I’ve taken the plunge a bit this year and bought eight or 10 three-year-olds. We’ve been trying to buy a bit of value, buying horses in the €10-€20,000 bracket.
“I couldn’t afford to be giving any more and I certainly don’t have any owner that would be buying those dearer horses.”
The inauguration of an auction hurdle series sponsored by Connolly’s Red Mills and Irish EBF provides a readymade programme for cheaper horses, giving trainers an opportunity to bring owners back into racing that have been scared off by an inability to compete with the big spenders, or attract new ones, and especially syndicates.
“Those auction maiden hurdles are a fabulous idea and I think every trainer in the country is fully behind them.
“They’re a great idea and fair play to the sponsors for coming on stream with them. They’re certainly going to be a success and I’d love to think there might be more of them because it’s a brilliant idea and we appreciate them.
“The trainers do feel it would be far more beneficial and in keeping with the original idea behind it if they went back to the conditions of the race they had 12 months ago, whereby bumper winners, flat winners, and point-to-point winners weren’t eligible. Hopefully they will do that but it’s brilliant and we’re thankful for it.”
It is difficult to beat the top-tier handlers backed by serious finance but not impossible.
“We’re all the time competing with a Mini Minor against a Mercedes but every now and then we come up with one that can take ‘em on, you know?”
McNamara is hopeful that Black Scorpion might be one of those. He is entered in the Bet Victor Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday week but needs a lot of horses to come out to make the cut. If he doesn’t make the trip, he may take in a hurdle race before taking aim at Leopardstown’s Paddy Power Chase over Christmas.
“I think he ran an absolute blinder in the Munster National because we made far too much use out of him. He ran with the choke out from start to finish.
“How he was still there from the second last at all was a great sign of him because he just ran far too free. To finish third, I thought it was an unbelievable run.
“We’ll change tactics next time, we’ll hold him up a small bit, his jumping – hopefully – will get him into the race and I’d like to think he’d be competitive anyway.”
Percy Veer is another of interest, having followed up his maiden hurdle win at Listowel in September with a listed success at Limerick last month. He disappointed at Cork on Sunday but clearly dislikes it around the Mallow venue, failing to sparkle on all three visits.
Plans are fluid at the moment but McNamara will aim for undulating tracks like Limerick, and maybe even Cheltenham, where the Pertemps could be an option. The dream is the thing.
It has been a challenging decade but McNamara just rolled up his sleeves and is now facing the future with more optimism.
“The 10 three-year-olds are all broken and riding and cantering and there’s definitely a couple of lovely horses in them. So let’s see how they progress. They’re horses we’ll have for next year that we haven’t had over the last 10 years. It’s very important to have the young ones there, to keep the numbers up and have the chance of coming on a good horse. Over the last number of years, we just didn’t have these horses coming forward.
“I’d love to get back up to 50 because I think you need about that to actually make a decent living out of it. You still have the same electricity, lorry, phone, diesel bills. We have 30 now and if you got to 50, you’d be making a living again.
“You’d like to think if we could win one of these big races with Black Scorpion, we might attract one of the bigger owners and get one or two of those Saturday and Sunday horses. That’s the aim, we’re working hard at it and we’re gonna try and get there again.”