JT McNamara’s passing overshadowed everything else in 2016

The past year, like any other, has had its high points, but whatever highlights anybody in racing might have had in 2016, I will always remember it as the year John Thomas McNamara passed away, writes Ruby Walsh. 
JT McNamara’s passing overshadowed everything else in 2016

He was a brilliant rider, but the life he led following that fall in Cheltenham was a true measure of the man.

To get out of hospital and home to Limerick was a remarkable achievement by John Thomas, and by his wife, Caroline, and family, but he lost his fight for life and for that reason it will be always be a year I’ll remember with considerable sadness.

And the year didn’t get much better when, in November, Freddy Tylicki suffered a fall which left him paralysed. Earlier this week it was reported that he has begun his rehab, and I can only wish him and his family all the best for the future.

They are things that happened that you don’t want to foresee, don’t want to happen, and never want to talk about even the possibility of them happening.

On the tracks there were plenty of positives, many of which couldn’t have been foreseen. If somebody had said, following a brilliant juvenile year, that Air Force Blue wouldn’t win a Group 1 as a three-year-old, and yet his trainer, Aidan O’Brien, would still have such a successful season, you wouldn’t have believed it.

He won Classics and had a great Royal Ascot, but, to me, his greatest achievement was having the first, second and third in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

And all those Group 1 successes along the way came despite the Irish and English Derbys being won by another Irish yard — that of Dermot Weld, with Harzand.

This year was just another showcase of the remarkable talent, equine and human, we have in this country.

On the jumping front, of course I hoped Cheltenham would be successful, but did I think the results would go the way they did?

No! I couldn’t have imagined we’d go there without Faugheen and still win the Champion Hurdle, but Annie Power managed to do that and, after what had happened 12 months previously, when she fell at the last with the Mares’ hurdle at her mercy, it was probably the highlight of my year.

I didn’t think that, leaving Aintree, I’d be riding at Punchestown, but I managed to get myself back to ride a couple on what was another great week for Willie Mullins. What happened in the spring may not have been with the horses we expected, perhaps, but our results could have been foreseen.

Gordon Elliott will always remember Cheltenham 2016 as the year he won the Gold Cup, with Don Cossack, while Mouse Morris had an amazing couple of weeks in the spring, winning the Aintree Grand National with Rule The World, and the Irish National with Rogue Angel. Not that I was overly delighted for Rogue Angel, of course, as I went down by a short head on Bless The Wings.

The summer rolled on, and Galway produced its customary festivities.

The Plate was remarkable for the fact Gordon and Willie shared the first six home in that race. It set the scene for the winter season ahead.

But I’ll remember Galway for the Galway Hurdle, which was amazing for me, for Gillian, and for our friends.

I won the race on Clondaw Warrior, who is trained by Willie and owned by Gillian and some of our friends. That was magic.

Listowel brought its Kerry charm, with Lisa O’Neill winning the featured Kerry National on Wrath Of Titans, but what happened just a couple of weeks later was certainly one of those things which couldn’t have been foreseen, when Gigginstown and Willie parted ways.

I GUESS that’s just a progression in life, and what’s done is done. You can’t look back. What’s gone is gone, and we now have to compete against those horses, and hope to have ones good enough to take them on and, with luck, beat them. But there will be swings and roundabouts in those battles, as there already have been. Apple’s Jade just got the better of Vroum Vroum Mag in the Hatton’s Grace, but Djakadam beat Outlander in the John Durkan Memorial. And there’ll be plenty more battles going both ways over the coming months.

I don’t think losing those horses affects the overall mood in the yard, but it was a shock on the day. All we can do now is go to war with what we have. And what we have are pretty good horses.

Something which has taken up plenty of column inches over the past couple of months and, I’m sure, will command even more right through until the end of the season, is the trainers’ championship. Willie has dominated this for the past nine years but Gordon Elliott has emerged as a real force this season.

The National Hunt season is balanced, but when you’re talking about a championship which is decided on money, it is very different to the Flat.

By the fourth month of the Flat campaign, you’ve already had four of the five classics. By the fourth month of the National Hunt season you’ve only had Galway and Listowel.

From now until the end of April is a massive chunk of the season, and this is when the title is likely to be decided.

Gordon has a healthy advantage at this point, but Willie has a lot of ammunition to go to war with.

MANY THINGS will swing as the season progresses but, ultimately, Willie will go where he thinks his horses have best chance of winning, whether that be Ireland, Britain or France.

He will be looking to win as much prize money as he can for his owners, whatever the currency. One thing he won’t do is panic. Last year, when he left Cheltenham, it looked as if he had a chance to win the trainers’ championship in Britain and thus he targeted Aintree.

Whatever way the season and the title unfolds, firstly and most importantly he will do what’s right by the horses and by his owners.

After all, the championship could hinge on just one race. Take the prize-money on offer for the Irish National as a prime example.

There’s half a million to be won, with €300,000 going to the winner. Of course, it’s a difficult race to win, and Willie hasn’t had much luck in it, but that much prize-money could have a major say in the outcome of the title.

But the trainers’ championship is something you could make too much of. Focusing attention on one aspect of the game won’t do racing any favours. At the end of the day, the individual results at next week’s Christmas meetings will shed light which horses are going to go to Cheltenham, or to Punchestown.

At the moment we would look to have a very strong hand in the Champion Chase, and in the Champion Hurdle, while Djakadam would look to be our Cheltenham Gold Cup horse, and we have plenty of exciting novice chasers. We have a few good horses you could argue are Ryanair horses, so overall, the team looks strong.

I like the way our novice hurdlers are shaping, I could struggle to pick the right one were they to clash, which looks inevitable. I couldn’t tell you whether Riven Light, Crack Mome or which other of them is our best.

It was easy in years gone by, as you had Yorkhill and Min, Faugheen, Douvan, Vautour. and they stood out. This season, though, there’ll be plenty of trial and error, which mightn’t be great for me, but should mean plenty of value for punters.

And the way things are shaping up, with the strength that’s in Gordon’s yard and with Gigginstown, as well as in Willie’s yard, a lot of jockeys are going to get chances to get up on good horses over the next few months. Both operations are going to be multiply represented in all grades of races, and that opens up opportunities.

As we saw in Cork recently, Paul Townend doesn’t need two sniffs of an opportunity to take it, and it’s the same with Danny and David Mullins, Jack Kennedy, and Davy Russell, to name but a few.

There are plenty of good jockeys out there, but what racing could do with is a superstar horse. Perhaps that’s Douvan or Thistlecrack — we may soon know. Monday’s King George Chase at Kempton is a great way to kick-start the post-Christmas season, and thereafter it’s all about preparation for the spring festivals.

It would be remiss of me not to remark on what has been a rocky end to 2016 for HRI, a situation which has masked, somewhat, a turbulent year for the Turf Club, also.

There have been plenty of issues with running and riding enquiries, and wholesale changes are being made to rule 212 – the non-triers’ rule – while they are still having plenty of problems with the testing of horses.

But, having said that, the BHA didn’t exactly cover itself in glory with its cases this year, so here’s hoping things will get better for them all in 2017.

  • Don’t miss Ruby Walsh’s column in Monday’s St Stephen’s Day edition as he offers his thoughts on the top-class action in Ireland and Britain.

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