Ruby Walsh was 16 when he first came across John Thomas McNamara; more than half a lifetime ago.
When Ruby started out in Enda Bolger’s stable, JT was there. When Ruby went pro and JT stayed amateur, JT was still there in the jockeys’ room. And when Ruby married Gillian a couple of years ago, JT was there too.
Why were they friends? “I liked his honesty,” Walsh would say yesterday in the sunshine and goodwill that poured down on Limerick. “He was — is — tough and honest. Very straight talker. Very good worker. No frills. No bullshit. He didn’t give an opinion for the sake of giving an opinion but always said something if it needed to be said and when he did it, it was worth listening to. There was nothing to dislike about John Thomas.”
Only what befell him when he fell in Cheltenham earlier this year.
Walsh was obviously there for JT’s worst day, just like he was for his best with Caroline. He was just changing out of his clothes when he knew by the commotion something serious had happened to his friend in the last race of the day. Adjacent to the jockey’s room was the ambulance room door. A security man appeared in front of it; behind him, emergency staff scuttling, hurrying around. In all his time in racing, he’d only ever seen something like it once before. And the longer it went that JT had yet to be taken off the track, the more serious he knew it was. A couple of calls that night confirmed it. His friend was paralysed.
The next day, the jockeys filed into the jockey room, took their place on the scales, then the horses, then some of them, in the winning ring.
But even then, they were going through the motions. Any emotion was reserved for JT’s wellbeing.
“Barry (Geraghty) won the Gold Cup and was nearly crying (over JT). The rest of us just went about our job because we’re professionals but that’s all it was. Fellas going about their job. There was no enjoyment in it that day.
“No excitement. It was a sad, cold place to be, Cheltenham that Friday. Just something to get through, something that had to be done. Life goes on.”
So it does, and so does JT. It’s something Walsh and everyone among the 10,500 people who filed through the turnstiles of Limerick were mindful of yesterday: to speak of JT and young Jonjo Bright in the present tense, not the past.
It’s ‘JT is...’ Because JT is still talking, still cracking quips, just not whips. He might still be on a ventilator but he’s still fighting, still loving, still planning, still living.
And this event in Limerick has been to make sure the quality of that life, as restricted as it now is, can be as good as it can be.
Walsh has visited him a good few times over the last six months. “The first time, you’d be very sheepish going in. Wondering what way he was going to be. But he was still the same John Thomas. He mightn’t have been able to get out of bed or move but it was like as if he was sitting away talking with us going into Cheltenham, about all that was happening in the world. He seemed to have more news than us. He knew everything that was going on.”
The last visit was this day a fortnight ago, again up in the Mater. Again, JT’s outlook inspired him, as did Caroline’s. The plans they had to renovate the house upon his return home, how they’re going to cope through this.
Jonjo has bowled Walsh over too. Walsh had never met the 19-year-old from the North but last week he watched online the interview he gave Irish Horse TV (http://irishhorse.tv/jonjo-bright-back-home/) upon his return from hospital. There he was, already helping out on the family farm. Back going to point-to-point races, even though it was racing in one himself that he sustained his injury. Jonjo actually believes he’s lucky. Other people in his hospital ward became paralysed from just lifting something off the floor. He became paralysed doing something he loved. And he’d do that something all over again if he had the choice. He’d rather be paralysed at 19 having rode horses than never have been near one at all.
“I could only think, ‘What a young man,’” says Walsh. “For a 19-year-old to be in the physical condition he’s in, to be still so mentally strong, positive. You turn on the radio every week listening to people moan about clamping or bus strikes. Then you look at these two guys and wonder ‘What are we giving out about?’”
Their plight does give Walsh some cause for complaint. Last week John Thomas had to move to England, into the North West Regional Spinal Injuries Centre in Southport, to get the kind of treatment he needs.
He’ll be there for more than six months. “That’s a sad sign,” says Walsh. “This is Ireland in 2013 and you look at the billions we’ve spent in healthcare, yet there is no rehab facilities for someone on a ventilator?”
But again, JT is seeing only the positives. Now he can get rehab, make progress, all the more so with the funds raised for him and Jonjo and the Jockeys Emergency Fund yesterday. In a way, he’s back on the horse.
Walsh will be on one again this week, conscious how lucky he is to do so. He’s had multiple injuries himself: ruptured his spleen, crushed his vertebrae, broken his right leg twice, dislocated both shoulders, broken a collarbone, broken both shoulders and a hip, for starters. Yet that shows how fortunate he’s been.
“It shouldn’t take something like (JT’s and Jonjo’s injuries) for you to realise what the good days are. I’ve had injuries so I’ve learned to enjoy the good days because not every day is going to be a good day. But it’s every jockey’s biggest fear: that you’ll injure your head or your neck. To watch these lads, it makes you realise how lucky you are that you only broke your leg.”
Yesterday was another one of the good days — for the best of causes and the best of men.