A light of inspiration goes out
John Thomas McNamara April 8, 1975 - July 26, 2016
A perpetual light that had been a constant source of inspiration for most of 20 years was quenched with the news of JT McNamara's passing yesterday.
Few people command the sort of unanimous respect and deference amongst their peers as McNamara did. Ask any of the game's most decorated riders for a top three of the most audacious winning rides at the Cheltenham Festival and McNamara's inch-perfect Rith Dubh masterclass will feature in almost every list, and it will top most of them.
In that epic 2002 encounter with Davy Russell, his fiercest foe at the time but also a kindred spirit of the faithful point-to-point congregation, McNamara conspired to con one of the most renowned equine thieves into putting its head in front on the grandest of stages in a spectacle that will be forever etched in racing fans' collective memories.
McNamara didn't force Rith Dubh home, he coaxed him there, never once resorting to the whip - the old rogue of a horse didn't even know he'd won.
Every horseman and woman was in awe, and I was no different. McNamara was someone to whom so many of us looked up to for so long. It is 17 years since I first met him in the weigh room at the 1999 Cheltenham Festival. At the time, I was immersed in what proved to be a forlorn battle with Alan Dempsey for the amateur riders' championship in Britain.
My star happened to be in the ascent and I was in demand, yet I was in awe of McNamara. He had won just one point-to-point title by then, but his reputation preceded him, as he began carving his place in the history books as heir to Enda Bolger and Philip Fenton's status as kingpins of the amateur riders' ranks.
Eventually, he would go on to trump both their legacies, and became the finest cross-country rider to grace that relatively new discipline.
Sure enough, my own impact proved short-lived, but McNamara was no flash in the pan. Prior to Derek O'Connor's arrival, he re-wrote every record on the point-to-point scene, and he was an example to all.
Neither of us enjoyed much luck in the Cotswolds back in March '99, but what struck me then was the way that he conducted himself. Despite the esteem in which McNamara was held as a prince among amateurs, he exhibited the humble demeanour of a pauper. That left a lasting impression.
There were no airs or graces about him back then, and there never would be. Of course, in the wake of his shocking plight following Galaxy Rock's fateful fall in Prestbury Park's theatre of dreams, the character of the man would ultimately be called upon for all the wrong reasons. For him and his family, the dream became a nightmare, yet, by all accounts, McNamara's resilience shone throughout.
Bolger, of course, was one of his greatest allies, and his tribute captured the essence of McNamara perfectly. "He was a great guy and a great jockey and he will be sorely missed," Bolger said of his old friend. "I know the last three years have been hell for him and his family, and, if there is a heaven, he'll be the first one in, that's for sure."