Cheltenham Race Course, Wednesday, March 13th 2002
It’s an hour since the last race weighed-in and things are slowly winding down. For those steering clear of the five-deep bar scrum for warm beer, this is a reflective time of the evening. Day two of the (then) three-day festival has whizzed by but so far the meeting feels slightly underwhelming.
Last year’s shindig was abandoned when some infield sheep scoped dirty for foot and mouth. Istabraq was expected to reinvigorate the missing excitement yesterday but had poignantly consigned his greatness to history in front of packed stands on the first circuit.
This, the death of Valiramix in the Champion Hurdle and a strange new tendency for precocious French-breds with confusing names to hoover up big races has left no strong hook to hang memories for festival 2002.
Two weary looking racegoers are sitting on the bottom steps of the stand, scrutinising the bookies as they deconstruct their pitches. They’ve just watched Jamie Spencer on Pizarro body-slam Rhinestone Cowboy in the bumper and somehow keep the race in the steward’s room and are enjoying a last respite before the long trek back to town and the inevitable bedlam of Cheltenham during festival week.
One of them studies tomorrow’s card, wondering if this Best Mate yoke is really as good as the screaming hype suggests.
His friend is loudly remonstrating on his mobile (back then they were still quaintly used for phone calls), unburdening his frustration on some poor remote listener. “Four effin miles,” he laments loudly. “Four effin miles and he gets done by an effin head.”
Suddenly clarity emerges. There is, after all, a hook to hang some memories on – a great big pointy one in fact. The mobile phone man had obviously backed Timbera in the National Hunt Chase only for a young Limerick amateur called JT McNamara nursing a nutcase chaser called Rith Dubh to mug him on the line.
That’s the lingering memory of 2002 – the genius of JT McNamara.
JT was just a lad in his mid-20s when he cantered Rith Dubh to the start that day.
He arrived there as the ‘typical’ Irish amateur. Point to point hardened, tough as teak, sharp both of tongue and racing elbows and happy to carve a career in the freedom of the unpaid ranks despite knowing deep down that he was better than most of those who didn’t enjoy the honourable term of ‘Mr’ appearing in front of their name on a race card.
Rith Dubh, trained by Jonjo O’Neill, was much less robust a beast who’d run in 27 races and won four of them, mostly minor contests worth five or six grand. He’d earned a career high rating of 115, which in golfing terms made him about an 18 handicapper. However, the accepted wisdom over clubhouse gin and tonics was that if he worked a little harder he could easily get down to single figures. In other words, this was a horse who wasn’t overly committed to the effort needed to win.
When the tapes went up JT dropped him to the rear of the field. Twenty-six opponents, all with amateur jockeys of varying ability, 25 fences and a slow four miles on an undulating, complex racecourse.
If Rith Dubh was going to win today, it would be through a combination of luck, judgement, genius, deceit, and above all, patience.
JT was a never a man famous for the latter, off the course at least. Speaking in a different context many years later, his wife Caroline once remarked that: “The last time I saw you show any patience was when you won the four-miler at Cheltenham on Rith Dubh.”
Cheltenham Race Course, March 14th 2013
It’s about an hour after the last race and the scrum at the bars seems less hectic than normal. Maybe it’s because the racing was severely delayed and the day-trippers have left to catch their trains. If only. The real reason is that the sound of a departing Air Ambulance helicopter still hangs on the track like a deathly smog and all joy has been sucked from this place.
The penultimate race of the day was the Kim Muir Handicap Chase for amateur riders, three and a quarter miles, 21 fences. Eleven years on from Rith Dubh and JT McNamara is now approaching the twilight of his riding career and has evolved from promising amateur to elder statesman of the weigh room.
He now has 600 winners and 18 seasons behind him, mostly in the point to point fields as well as legendary days at the course on the likes Risk of Thunder, Spot the Difference, Tea for Tea, Drombeag.
These were memories that were to carry him through the next movement of his life. Caroline, three kids, stables in Croom and a network of trust his direct honesty had nurtured with influential people in racing who prefer substance to bullshit.
It’s now about two hours since JT mounted a racehorse for the last time and the helicopter has come and gone. Galaxy Rock, also trained by JonJo is a much more straightforward and talented animal than Rith Dubh and a decent each-way squeak at 14/1 considering who was in the saddle.
When the tapes went up JT again settled him towards the back, he jostled for room approaching the first fence but tipped over on landing and the horse rolled onto the prostrate JT.
There is always three seconds of pregnant terror between a fall on the racecourse and the commentator’s reassurance that ‘both horse and jockey are back on their feet.’
The announcement never came this time for the jockey. It never came at all.
John Thomas McNamara died last month from his Galaxy Rock injuries, aged 41, after a three-year battle against catastrophic spinal injuries, borne with unrelenting heroic stoicism. The outpouring of love, respect, admiration and affection are on the record from those who knew him intimately.
For more remote racing lovers his legacy is his work and his work was never better than that day at Cheltenham on Rith Dubh.
The trick with this horse was to fool him into thinking he was out for an enjoyable afternoon gallop with some friends, with a few more people than usual watching on.
By the time they jumped the last JT was still babysitting, taking another pull on the reins even though on his outside a young Mr Davy Russell was throwing the kitchen sink at Timbera.
With the winning post only yards away and without touching him with his whip McNamara gently suggested to Rith Dubh that he should extend his neck just a tiny bit more.
Four miles on a dodgy partner and had he put him in front for a millisecond on the only part of Prestbury Park where it counted.
Four ‘effin miles and he’d done him a head.
A beautiful legacy.
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