AN hour after the last race on Thursday, as the last few racegoers filtered towards the exits, Liam Healy sat on the cold concrete steps in the stand overlooking Cheltenham racecourse, took a long pull from his cigarette and did something he couldn't recall doing for 30 years. He wept. Shed tears for a jockey who wasn't just a trusted colleague and a fine horseman, but his most cherished friend in life too.
A few hours earlier, Healy had taken his customary position by the last fence as the field streamed down to the start for the Kim Muir Handicap Chase. His brother, Pat, stood a few yards away, snapping the runners as they cantered past. When he saw John Thomas McNamara approaching on Galaxy Rock, Pat knew what to expect. McNamara would wave his whip and shout, "Good man Pat Cash," calling Healy by his nickname. Typical John Thomas, he thought.
Their friendship isn't difficult to understand. The Healys have been taking racing pictures since 1975. Not a dynasty like the Moores or the Mullinses, perhaps, but a hugely respected racing family all the same. Most days they drive to the races, the road will take them no more than a few miles from the McNamara's place in Croom from where Andrew, John Thomas' uncle, sent Yer Man to finish third in the 1983 Grand National. Andrew bred two sons, Andrew Jr and Robbie, to be fine horsemen too. A racing family to their core.
What they knew about John Thomas told them that when Galaxy Rock came to grief at the first fence and the jockey lay prone on the ground, the situation was grim. "He's the type of fella," says Liam, "that if he doesn't get up immediately after a fall, you know he's hurt." A couple of hours later, Richie Harding, who had ridden in the race, called and confirmed his worst fears. "Healy," he said sadly. "I'm not going to lie to you. He's down."
In the cruel logic that prevails in racing, it is often the most innocuous falls that reap the grimmest consequences. Not this time, though. The moment McNamara struck the ground, it was apparent to those close by that he was in serious trouble. Riding Vesper Bell for his father, Patrick Mullins steered his horse around Galaxy Rock, wide enough to be out of danger, close enough to sense something bad had happened.
"When I went by him I heard this loud crack and I presumed it was the horse," says Mullins. "But next thing I see the horse is fine and then we missed out the fence on the following circuit so you're just hoping he's okay. He's one of the oldest amateurs around, a gentleman and a character. Everyone likes John Thomas."
The crack Mullins heard was almost certainly the stray hoof of an oncoming horse landing flush on McNamara's helmet, inflicting the blow that left him with potentially catastrophic spinal injuries. "One of the doctors said afterwards that the helmet was absolutely shredded to bits," says Liam Healy. "The horse just stood on it. There's just nothing anyone can do about that."
A few miles away, Davy Russell watched the racing unfold in his room in Cheltenham General Hospital. That morning a doctor had drained blood from his lung, damaged from a fall the previous day, so he could ride that afternoon. After riding Stonemaster in the Pertemps Final, the second race on the card, the pain had become too severe. Russell would watch the rest of the Festival from a hospital bed, sore but largely in one piece.
Russell and McNamara are cut from the same cloth. Stalwarts of the point-to-point circuit, the true grassroots of the game, great rivals and friends for many years. One day Healy remembers driving with Russell to the races and asking who he regarded as the best jockey he'd ridden against, expecting the answer to be Ruby Walsh or AP McCoy. But Russell was adamant the best horseman he'd seen and ridden against was John Thomas McNamara.
For a time Healy felt a smidgen of sympathy for Russell, but it passed quickly. And not just because of McNamara's bad luck. "Did you hear about Jonjo?" he asks. Last month, he explains, far away from the attention of the wider world, Jonjo Bright, a 19-year-old jockey from Co Antrim, suffered horrific injuries after a fall at a point-to-point meeting in Tyrella and remains in hospital in Belfast. "First Jonjo and now John Thomas," Healy sighs. "You just pray these things don't come in threes."
By and large, hardened racegoers aren't a sentimental tribe. As harsh as it sounds, the show doesn't stop because of one man's cruel misfortune. You watched on Thursday afternoon, in the moments before the Kim Muir, as McCoy found a quiet spot in the weigh-room and sank deep into conversation with JP McManus' racing manager Frank Berry, the left arm of his green and gold silks spattered with the blood of Get Me Out Of Here which burst a blood vessel in the previous race.
With Russell unavailable, McCoy knew there was an opening to ride Sir Des Champs in the Gold Cup and, naturally, he was desperate to secure it. To do so he needed McManus' Sunnyhillboy not to run and you didn't need to be an expert in lip-reading to understand the nature of his discussion with Berry. From McCoy this wasn't ruthless or insensitive behaviour. If it had been the other way around, he knew, someone else would profit from his bad luck. It is how a relentlessly tough business has always worked.
But this time it wasn't the same, though. Couldn't be the same. A short time before the Gold Cup, before he got legged up on the favourite Bobs Worth, Barry Geraghty passed John Francome on the steps to the weigh-room. "John looked at me and just said, 'it's fucked this', and I said I know. It hasn't spoiled the day, but it's a case of there's no glory in success. It's bittersweet."
Dressed in his suit now, the mud that splattered his face scrubbed off, Geraghty tries to capture what it is about McNamara that left him feeling "hollow." "He's just a top-class guy," he says. "Never gives out. Just gets on with his job. Such a genuine fellow." And as he rushes away to another interview, Geraghty pauses at the top of the steps. "He's a good friend," he shouts back. "A real good friend."
Ken Whelan has known McNamara as a friend for as long as he can remember. They met first when they were work riders at Enda Bolger's yard in Co Limerick and McNamara's quirky sense of humour instantly struck a chord. "If you met him," says Whelan, "he'd never say how's it going? He'd say what the fuck do you want? If you didn't know him, you might think he was a grumpy fucker. But that was just his humour. I loved it. We had great times together."
This year Whelan watched the racing from a television studio in Dublin. In November, at 41, his licence to ride was withdrawn and he cursed the doctors for taking away his career in the saddle. On Thursday, he saw what happened to his friend and, finally, it struck him how lucky he'd been. "It's a bit selfish the way you look at it," he says. "I'm able to drive around and do things most people take for granted. I regard myself as one of the lucky ones."
He didn't see the fall but saw the air ambulance landing and, in his head, instinctively tried to rationalise the situation. In England, he thought, they spend so much money on the air ambulance that they tended to use it in even relatively minor situations. "So as to be seen to use it." That was an extension of his faith in McNamara's legendary toughness. He'd bounced back from hard falls so many times, it was easy to believe he was indestructible.
Pat Healy tells a story from just two weeks ago, when McNamara suffered a last-fence fall at a point-to-point in Askeaton and damaged his shoulder. "He gets up, walks into the ambulance and they drive 20 minutes across Limerick to the city hospital. They put the shoulder back in, he's taken back to Askeaton, picks up his car, drives home and does a full evening's work. That's the type of man we're dealing with here."
Whelan looks back now on a Festival of radically contrasting fortunes. He was happy for young Bryan Cooper, an unquestioned star of the future, but happier still for the veteran jockeys from his own generation. Paul Carberry belatedly doing justice to an incredible talent by winning the World Hurdle, his first Championship victory at the Festival. And Barry Cash winning the Cross Country Chase on Big Shu. Life in the old dogs yet.
He wonders how many people know that Cash had to shed 17lbs to make the weight on Big Shu and then had his agony prolonged when the race was delayed for two days. In a normal year, he figures, these would have been stories to relish. But Cheltenham 2013 was far from a normal year. "One incident," Whelan says, "clouded the whole thing."
The harsh and unspoken reality is, though, that what happened to McNamara isn't the first time a jockey has suffered a serious injury and won't, inevitably, be the last. On Friday morning, you are greeted by the smiling figure of Declan Murphy outside the weigh-room. Murphy grew up outside Limerick city, a few miles away from the McNamaras, and became a stylish and successful jockey until a horrific fall at Haydock in 1994 ended his career and, almost, his life.
"When I woke up in hospital," he remembers, "a surgeon sat on the end of my bed and told me I'd be paralysed and partially blind for the rest of my life. Luckily that wasn't the case. There's always hope. Nobody should ever be deprived of hope."
"They said JP McNamara would never walk again," says Whelan. "Bob Champion was told he'd be dead, never mind riding a Grand National winner. Maybe it's a thing with jockeys? They're different characters. They have a mindset that tells them not to accept no for an answer. If I know anything about John Thomas, it's that he's too stubborn to take this lying down. You tell him he can't do something, you better prepare for a battle."
It is the way of the sport that bred him. Why it endures even in its darkest moments.