Yesterday morning the racing world woke to the sad news that John Thomas McNamara had passed away. The 41-year-old former leading amateur, who suffered a horrific fall from Galaxy Rock in the Kim Muir Challenge Cup at the Cheltenham Festival of 2013, lost the one battle he could never win.
Five times champion point to point rider, and generally acknowledged and accepted as one of the finest riders – amateur or professional - to ever grace a track, he was paralysed from the neck down in that first-fence fall at the Cheltenham Festival, but battled bravely for life for the past three and a half years.
His career in the saddle yielded more than 600 winners, and he enjoyed four winners at the Cheltenham Festival: Rith Dubh, Spot Thedifference, Drombeag and Teaforthree. His association with JP McManus spanned his career and life, and his partnership with the owner’s Spot Thedifference endured seven seasons, and yielded 11 victories, seven of which were on the cross-country course at Cheltenham.
In tribute to their late friend, his former weigh-room colleagues penned a board above the peg where he used to get changed at Cheltenham. “J T McNamara, ‘King of the Banks’, 16 Cheltenham winners” it read, before naming his four festival winners and marking his seven successes aboard Spot Thedifference.
McNamara was pivotal in the development of numerous horses which went on to great success, including Cheltenham Festival winners Captain Cee Bee and Like A Butterfly, while he also partnered the remarkable Risk Of Thunder to the last of his seven wins in the La Touche Cup.
One of McNamara’s five point to point titles was shared with Davy Russell, and that rivalry spilled over onto the track for one of the most memorable finishes ever seen at the Cheltenham Festival.
Russell was on board Timbera, a horse who would go on to win the Irish Grand National the following season, with McNamara on Rith Dubh, a wily old campaigner with his own thoughts on the game and just the type which disliked spending too much time in front.
With Russell working hard aboard his mount, the strong-travelling Rith Dubh jumped to the front at the last but McNamara pulled him back, not wanting to get there too soon.
Cajoling his mount up the infamously punishing hill as Timbera responded to Russell’s urgings, McNamara, conscious not to pick up the whip, coaxed the reluctant Rith Dubh to put nose in front just yards from the line, for a famous victory.
A true horseman at the peak of his powers.
Remembering the ride, Russell said: “He was a very brave man to do what he did on Rith Dubh.
“I wanted to do the same, but he was just able to do it so much better than me. He could ride any type of horse. They all came alike to him.
“The thing about John Thomas was that he had no airs or graces. We went on to ride in Ireland the following Sunday and it was like nothing had ever happened.
“He was just after beating me in one of the greatest finishes ever witnessed at the Festival but you would swear it had never happened. That was the measure of the man – he’d just get on with his job.”
Twenty-time champion jockey Tony McCoy described it “as good as I have ever seen or will see”.
McNamara was a life-long friend of renowned racing photographers the Healy family of Listowel, and Pat Healy recalled a story which typified the man.
“It was when he was doing store horses for JP McManus, getting the three-year-olds ready,” said Healy. “Martinstown Stud would want reports back from yourself, myself and anyone else who was working with the young horses.
“Everyone was filling in these cards for the horses, reporting on how they were going, what they were doing, how they were getting on. John Thomas filled in one card with the words ‘they are all fine’ and sent it back.
“No detail. In his own inimitable way he was saying ‘I know my job, this is only bullshit, leave me at it’. That was typical John Thomas.
“But he was a great friend, and very loyal. It was all black or white with him: he either liked you or he didn’t – and you knew it. And he was always very helpful.
“He was an institution in the point to point game. For a while he couldn’t get a ride in bumpers, but then won the GPT at Galway.
“He was very underused in bumpers, for whatever reason, but I think the highest compliment you could pay to him came when from Paul Carberry and Davy Russell. One day I was travelling in a car with them and we were talking about jockeys, and both said the one fella they hated going down to the last fence upsides was John Thomas. When you think this was the era of Ruby Walsh, Tony McCoy, Richard Johnson, for a compliment like that to come from them two lads … and they were talking about an amateur rider.
“From my own point of view, the best compliment I could pay him is to say that if you had to tell a young lad to grow up like someone, you’d tell him to grow up like John Thomas.”
His passing, though very sad, was not in vain, said JP McManus: “I suppose in many ways his legacy will be that he didn’t die in vain. Because of that the dreadful injuries he suffered, a lot of good things followed.
“Other badly injured riders have benefitted and will continue to do so in terms of facilities and services and there is now a much greater awareness amongst the public of what can happen to riders.”
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