Farm Ireland

Monday 24 October 2016

Battling back against all odds - Robbie McNamara's story

Robbie McNamara talks about life after the horror fall that ended his riding career and left him paralysed from the waist down

Siobhan English

Published 20/01/2016 | 02:30

Robbie McNamara with Robert Hall and Ted Walsh during day four last year's Galway Festival. PA WIRE
Robbie McNamara with Robert Hall and Ted Walsh during day four last year's Galway Festival. PA WIRE
Robbie McNamara in action.

Time and time again race riding has proven to be one of the most dangerous of all sports, yet if you ask any jockey if they are prepared to give it all up, you are guaranteed to get a negative response. It is their life, there is no doubt.

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Never for one minute, however, did the immensely talented and multiple-Cheltenham winning jockey, Robbie McNamara, think that this decision would be made for him. However, a serious fall in a handicap hurdle at Wexford in April of last year left him with no feeling in his lower body.

Robbie was one of so many jockeys going about their daily business that day, but his career in the saddle ended abruptly, in the blink of an eye.

Now nine months later, instead of wallowing in the past and reflecting on what could have been, the Newbridge-based Limerick native is busy moving on with his life and in the coming weeks is preparing to do a stint with the Irish National Stud ahead of what will be a busy breeding season at the Co Kildare farm.

"Life is good at the moment," said the 27-year-old. "My time at the National Rehabilitation Centre is over and I'm doing a bit of walking exercise myself using my new walking bars and I'm also in the gym a lot."

In the days, weeks and months after that horrific fall on April 10 last, Robbie suffered immense emotional trauma in a bid to cope with the severity of his spinal injuries which left him paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.

He suffered a litany of injuries including eight broken ribs, a punctured lung, multiple fractured vertebrae, internal bleeding in his chest and stomach, in addition to the spinal injuries that required titanium rods to be inserted each side of his spine..

However, just like his first cousin John Thomas McNamara and fellow jockeys Jonjo Bright and Shane Broderick, who also suffered career-ending falls, Robbie has shown immense strength and courage.

The decision to commence a career in training later this year leaves people in no doubt about his intention to succeed in the next stage of his life. He also recently moved to get back behind the wheel in his newly-adapted car.

"Training is something I've always wanted to do as well," said Robbie, who is now set to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Andrew who hung up his boots last August.

Their cousin, JT, who is paralysed from the neck down following a fall in Cheltenham in 2013, is already carving out a new career as a trainer from his home in Croom, Co Limerick.

"I've already seen a yard I like on the Curragh and I hope to start picking up horses during the sales during the summer," Robbie added.

When injuries either end their careers or put them on hold, jockeys such as Robbie are most fortunate to have the financial support of the Irish Injured Jockeys' Fund and those overseen by The Turf Club on the Curragh.

Set up in 2014, the Irish Injured Jockeys' Fund has to date raised €1.4m from public donations and various fundraising events held countrywide.

"The Irish Injured Jockeys' Fund was originally established by the jockeys themselves as they felt that the existing charities were not active enough," commented general manager Michael Higgins.

"We now rely solely on the generosity of others, and also high-profile fundraising events such as Jog for Jockeys.

"Last year alone we had 22 jockeys in trouble. In addition we part-funded an exoskeleton suit to help with the rehabilitation of injured riders who have suffered paralysis. This was done in conjunction with the IRFU with whom we would hope to work closely again in the future."

Jonjo Bright, who suffered severe spinal injuries from a fall in March 2013, was one of the first to try out the Ekso suit in the summer of 2014.

The suit allows people who have been paralysed through injury or stroke to stand upright and through motors and hydraulics walk around and, crucially, to build up the muscles so that they can work towards the goal of walking unaided.

In recent weeks the attention generated from the generous donation of €50,000 made to the Irish Injured Jockeys' Fund by Eva Maria Bucher-Haefner of Moyglare Stud again highlighted the importance of supporting such charities which are put in place for these jockeys who risk their lives every time they head out onto the racetrack.

The donation came from prize-money won earlier this year by Forgotten Rules who, with Robbie in the saddle, made a winning debut at Punchestown in the spring of 2014.

"It was through Pat Smullen I heard about the organisation, though to be honest, I never expected it to affect me as closely as it did this last spring," Ms Bucher-Haefner said of Robbie's accident.

"We need to look after our own," she added. "The priority after any accident is that the injured jockey receives immediate care and support to remove the worry for both themselves and their families, and hence be able to face the future with optimism.


"We are a very wealthy business and the onus is on us all, it is our responsibility, to make sure that the people that contribute so much are looked after in their time of need."

In the past fortnight alone Robbie has received new walking aid bars thanks to the continued support of the Irish Injured Jockeys' Fund, while financial assistance has also been made available to him through the Robbie McNamara Trust.

Overseen by three private individuals, fundraising for the Trust is ongoing and later this month, on January 30, many of Ireland's top jockeys will gather for an event at the Killashee House Hotel outside Naas.

Meanwhile, Gowran Park Racecourse has pledged to donate €5 from all full-priced admissions at the Goffs Thyestes Chase day, on Thursday, January 21, to the Irish Injured Jockeys' Fund. "The Irish Injured Jockeys' Fund has been good to me, as has the Trust," said Robbie, who also acknowledged the great work carried out by the four individual charities run by The Turf Club.

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