AT WELL over six foot, Andrew McNamara cuts a disproportionate figure for a National Hunt jockey. You get used to seeing the more, let’s say, compact jockeys coming and going from the weighroom, but the sight of McNamara emerging into the parade ring alongside his colleagues – literally head and shoulders above them – is a strange one.
Even more strange, perhaps, when you ponder the fact that his racing weight is not much above ten stone and realise that there is hardly an ounce of excess weight on a frame that is – theoretically – all wrong for a jumps jockey.
But the young Limerick rider has never let theory get in the way of his career and having really made an impact on the sport, first in 2006 when he won the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham aboard John Murphy’s Newmill and the following season’s famous victory on Michael Hourigan’s legendary Beef Or Salmon in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown (“my best racing memory”), McNamara was a hot riding property.
And, after Cheltenham, Punchestown and Fairyhouse this year, he may yet be hotter still.
Having been appointed as Edward O’Grady’s stable jockey at the start of last season, the association has worked well for both men and McNamara believes there is a lot more to come – not only from the Ballynonty handler’s yard, but from elsewhere too.
One horse he has high hopes for is Luska Lad, trained by John ‘Shark’ Hanlon, aboard whom he won comfortably at Punchestown last time out. Those high hopes, however, do not extend to Cheltenham, as the horse has something of a kink.
“Luska Lad fell at Naas and he was running terribly before he came down. He was not firing at all. And then he was beaten in Leopardstown going left-handed by the horses he beat last Sunday, so he is a much better horse going right-handed. That being so, there seems no point taking on good horses at Cheltenham going left-handed. There will be plenty of opportunities for him going right-handed at Fairyhouse and Punchestown and we might be able to find something else as well. It’s just a question of sticking him to what he does best.”
The Racing Post actually quoted trainer John ‘Shark’ Hanlon as saying McNamara reckoned the horse to be 2lb better going right-handed, but the jockey sheepishly admits: “I didn’t say he was 2lbs better, I actually said he was two stone better.”
The season started well for McNamara when Ballyholland notched up his first Galway Plate win during the summer for northern trainer Colin McBratney, but it was with his retained yard that things really picked up.
“We got things off to a good start and we had a bit of fun early on too with [Edward O’Grady’s] Jumbo Rio, even though he didn’t win a race. I rode him twice in France – at Auteil – and Philip Carberry rode him another time and he was second in all three races. They were big races and there is plenty of place money over there, so it was not a waste of time.”
And, of course, the five-year-old was third behind Solwhit and Sublimity in the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown after Christmas and could well be sent to the Champion Hurdle, although plans have yet to be finalised.
Then Tranquil Sea came along and won the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham in November and it was a terrific performance – one which the jockey hopes to emulate in a couple of weeks time.
“As a novice chaser last year Tranquil Sea didn’t really fire at all, but it is great now that he is back to himself. That was a great win in the Paddy Power and I would be happy enough with his run at Leopardstown last time when he was beaten by Golden Silver. I know that horse has been beaten since, but I think he was better at Leopardstown than he was since. But it was a good run for my fellow and it leaves him right for Cheltenham, although we will probably have one race at Naas as a pipe-opener before going for the Ryanair Chase.
“He has not had a busy season – just the three runs since October. He beat Joncol at Naas before going to Cheltenham and beating Poquelin there. He has an entry in the Champion Chase as well as the Ryanair, but I suspect it is the latter we will head him for. When he was beaten by Golden Silver it was over two miles one furlong and I don’t think the distance suited him. He does want further and nearly all his best performances were over a staying distance.
“The Gold Cup looks seriously hot this year and I don’t think he’s ready to run over the three miles, but he might be next year. As things stand, the Ryanair looks the obvious one for him. It certainly looks like Imperial Commander will be sent to the Gold Cup, but the Ryanair will see us up against Poquelin again and Voy Por Ustedes, who of course has won both an Arkle and a Champion Chase and was possibly a little unlucky in the Ryanair last year.”
COMING back from the future, McNamara reflects that he had been going well with the likes of Newmill and Beef Or Salmon and Hi Cloy and it was coincidental that Edward O’Grady was on the lookout for a stable jockey.
“I was at Michael Hourigan’s and Edward was mainly using Barry Geraghty and Paddy Flood, but they were not riding everything. Denis O’Regan had ridden a few for him as well, but he asked me to ride a few and we had a couple of good winners. Then he asked me would I become stable jockey. I was still riding for Michael Hourigan at the time and I had a chat with the two of them about it and I had to make up my mind.
“Michael is going well again now, but just around then he had a bit of a lull and the younger horses were not quite up to the standard they had been; on top of that the likes of Beef Or Salmon and Hi Cloy were pushing on. So, for my own sake rather than loyalty sake, I went to O’Grady’s and it has worked out well.
“Nearly straightaway there were a couple of Grade 1 winners and the likes of Catch Me did very well and so did Sky’s The Limit. In fairness Michael and myself never had a bad word over it and he was very fair with me. There was no bad blood and I still ride for him occasionally – I won a Munster National for him – and even to this day I still ride an odd winner for him.”
In going to O’Grady’s yard, McNamara was signing up with one of this country’s most prolific Cheltenham winners and he says that the trainer’s record there was one of the main plus points.
“For some jockeys that sort of record might have a fear factor attached, but for me it was not something to fear at all,” he says. “There might be some pressure in a situation like that, but what’s the point in being at the game if there is no pressure on you. It is very easy to be riding bad yokes around gaff tracks, but where I want to be is riding good horses at Cheltenham with live chances. If he is a man who’s trained eighteen winners there down the years, then he knows how to do it and hopefully he’ll train plenty more of them.”
Tranquil Sea, aside, one of the horses he is most looking forward to bring to Cheltenham is Osana, the Thomas Barr-owned eight-year-old who was previously in David Pipe’s charge.
“Osana is going to go for the Arkle which is going to be a brilliant race this year. I know the Irish form a lot better than the English form and I would be very surprised if the English form is as good as ours. Osana is a very good horse; Captain Cee Bee is a very good horse; Sizing Europe is a very good horse; and, Sportsline is a horse I’d be afraid to write off, even though I suppose he let himself down the last day he ran.”
McNamara confidence has undoubtedly been bolstered by the fact that he is currently homing in on his previous best season tally of 50 winners, but what impresses him most is not the volume, it’s their class.
“I’d say a lot of them are better quality winners in better quality races than in other years. I’ve also ridden a couple of good handicap winners which I had not done before. I think my best year to date saw me with 50 winners, so to have so many with so much of the season left to go is very good.”
But how - if at all - has he been affected by the current recession. “The last couple of weeks you’d notice that the numbers are down in a lot of yards,” McNamara says. “It has not really emerged until now - but you’re now seeing a lot less runners at meetings. I was at Navan the other day and one maiden hurdle had 25 runners, but the other only had ten, while the novice hurdle only had five. Last year you’d have had 25 in one, 30 in the other and maybe fifteen in the novice hurdle.
“We’re definitely well down on numbers – the bumper in Punchestown last Sunday only had four runners, which is almost unheard of in recent memory. Even the problems with horses being balloted out of races is not the same problem it was until very recently. But, whatever about the racing, it is all the people who have lost their jobs that I feel sorry for. There’s nearly 2,000 staff have lost their jobs in the last year. Jockeys are not as directly affected – sure there is less prize money and there are less rides – but it something which we can deal with. It is not like we’re being made redundant; we still have jobs.”
As a six-footer, his weight is obviously a potential problem, but it is not something he is insanely focused on.
“I just have to keep an eye on it. Sometimes it is frustrating when you know you potentially have a nice ride and you’re struggling a bit with the weight. But with Edward, he does not have a lot of 9 st 10 lb runners, while a lot of smaller yards would specialise in them. Edward doesn’t have a light weight every week and even if he does have one he doesn’t stick me to ride it. He knows that if he has a good horse, he wants me to be good and strong to ride it and that definitely helps. The other thing is that I am getting enough rides now that I don’t need to do very light weights. It was different when I was just starting out and eager to get going, I was more inclined to take anything that was going.”
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