Friday 20 October 2017

'If I was a stone lighter, I'd be able to turn a few bob'

Amateur star Robbie McNamara is giving the professionals a run for their money, writes John O'Brien

W HEN the race was over, Andrew McNamara made his way between horses and gathered his brother Robbie in a tight embrace. The older sibling understood the magnitude of what had happened. For a jockey, the joy of winning the Paddy Power Steeplechase is sharpened by the promise of a handsome cheque. For an amateur, the prestige is the thing. The exquisite glory of leaving a field of professionals strung out like washing in your wake.

It was all the sweeter because it shouldn't really have happened. Majestic Concorde, a son of Definite Article, should not have appreciated such treacly underfoot conditions or been able to haul top weight so gallantly in one of racing's most competitive long-distance handicaps. As an amateur, Robbie McNamara is restricted to riding in 21 races against professionals each season. By any rational reasoning, Wednesday shouldn't have been one of them.

"I was lucky," he says. "Nearly turned the ride down. Well, it wasn't me, but the boss [Dermot Weld] and his son were edging me towards holding onto the ride. We weren't expecting him to win really. I chatted to my father about it and I said I'd nearly prefer to use up a ride than miss out on riding in the Paddy Power. I dropped the hint to the trainer and left it up to him. Thankfully, he let me ride him in the end."

The difficulty of his life is encapsulated in the story. The horses Weld sends jumping are invariably decent and McNamara is forced to plot his way through the season with the diligence of an assassin with only so many bullets in the chamber. "Say if Weld has six good jumpers," says Andrew sympathetically, "and if they all run four times, then he's already over the limit. If he was as fussy as he usually is then he wouldn't have been on Majestic Concorde."

It is how his season unfolds. Winners that he could or maybe should have ridden. Horses he rode that, in hindsight, he might have let go. Learning ultimately that such introspection carried no benefits. You did your homework, made your decision and accepted the consequences for better or worse. Prince Erik at Sligo in September was one he let go. Won his novice chase by two lengths with Ruby Walsh in the saddle. "Ah Ruby needed it more than me," he smiles.

The bracing unfairness of it would make a lesser man bitter. Robbie McNamara had already made his peace with his maker by the time he was 16. He was more than six feet tall and hurtling towards 11 stone, measurements jockeys didn't want to see in their 30s, let alone their teens. With the help of his father he got a job with Weld, the opportunity to ride good horses and observe a master trainer at work. He loves the life. Except for the 21-rule thing, of course. That annoys him beyond belief.

"I think it's very stupid," he says. "I can't turn pro because I'm too heavy. Patrick Mullins is the same: too heavy. Nina [Carberry] and Katie [Walsh] could do it but it'd be an awful tough life for them. It's a hard enough life for lads who do it. I'm not saying they're not tough girls but going out over fences every day would be a hard life. I understand the professionals want to protect their livelihoods. But when an amateur rides, his fee and any winnings go to the injured jockeys' fund. In my opinion that's protecting the pros enough."

He doesn't foresee change anytime soon. The most senior jockeys will stubbornly protect their patch and the stipulation of paying €10 to Horse Racing Ireland each time he lines up against professionals is an indignity he will continue to endure. It's something, at least, that Irish bumpers remain amateur-only races, but how long will that last? In England, there are no restrictions on amateur riders and he has never heard Tony McCoy complain.

"I hope to keep going for years," he says. "But you only kind of get by. It's not easy. When I finish I know I'm not going to be resting on my laurels, on the money I've made. If you were a professional, you'd have a few bob made. You'd be able to afford a house or put a bit away. On what I'm earning you wouldn't do that. If I was a stone lighter, I'd be able to turn a few bob."

It is nature and not a lack of talent that is his enemy. "When you watch him on a horse," says Andrew. "You'd never realise how tall he is. He's so neat and tidy." To his father, Andrew senior, he is nothing short of a miracle. When he watched his kids growing up around the yard near Croom, Co Limerick, Andrew McNamara never imagined he'd produce one successful jockey, let alone two.

They were a horsey family for sure. McNamara had trained Yer Man to finish third in the 1983 Grand National and sent Boreen Prince to win the Arkle at Cheltenham two years later. But McNamara was over six foot tall and well-built while his wife, a teacher, was of a more academic mind. He remembers the day Andrew, having amassed a tidy stack of points in his Leaving Cert, announced he was heading to England to ride point-to-points. His parents were horrified.

They managed to dissuade him from that path and accept an offer to study maths at the University of Limerick instead. He lasted two and a half years. The racing bug was too deep. "I suppose we all wanted it," says Robbie. "Elizabeth was the oldest. She works in Dublin now but was big into hunter chasers when she was younger and went to England a few times. There were three of us and the first was the smallest, the middle was a bit bigger and the last one a bit too big."

Yet they are going places in a hurry. At Leopardstown on Thursday, four of the seven races were divided evenly between the two brothers, the kind of family achievement usually reserved for the celebrated Walsh and Carberry dynasties. In the second last race on the card, a maiden hurdle, the pair went head to head, Andrew on Shot From The Hip, Robbie on Endless Intrigue. "He was looking at me in the weigh room," says Andrew, "pointing to the back of his britches. 'What?' I said. 'Get used to it,' he said. 'This is all you'll see for the whole race'."

In truth, Robbie knew Endless Intrigue wouldn't jump as well or love the ground as much as the eventual winner. The concluding Bumper, though, would give him a better chance of clinching his third winner of the week. Money had poured steadily for Bold Optimist, Gordon Elliott's newcomer, all day and he would start a warm favourite. But the horse ran green and, turning for home in a race developing into a sprint, McNamara found himself in a poor position on the inside rail.

His alarming situation didn't cloud his judgement, though. McNamara refused to panic. He nudged Bold Optimist a couple of places to his right, gently coaxed the gelding onto the heels of the leaders before trusting his stamina and ability to pull clear as the post loomed no further than 100 yards away. It was as cool and effective a riding performance as was on view at Leopardstown all week.

His father would not have doubted it. Andrew hasn't forgotten the day he saddled The Fingersmith in a Galway Bumper towards the end of 2004. Robbie had ridden the horse at home and was desperate to take the ride on the track even though he had just turned 16. "He couldn't understand why I wouldn't put him up," Andrew laughs. A year would pass before the opportunity came for his first winner: his father's Glenquin Castle in a Bumper at Listowel.

Five years on, he fights nature and the racing authorities to forge ahead. Weld is good to him and trusts him, but opportunities still have to be rationed. Majestic Concorde might be a Grand National contender, but would carry a weight beyond McNamara's capability. He'd savour it regardless. The horse carried him to victory in the big amateur handicap at Galway two years ago, his first big-race win, and will forever have a place in his heart.

He knows there will be other compensations. He won the opening maiden hurdle on Thursday on Weld's Hidden Universe and it is an open secret that the trainer thinks the world of the five-year-old which has won four of his five starts. McNamara isn't sure whether Rite Of Passage, on which he finished third at Cheltenham last March, will go jumping this season, but Elegant Concorde is being lined up for another tilt at the Champion Bumper. Good horses that would excite any jockey.

The season has been kind so far. He rode five winners at the Galway festival and is keeping pace at the top of the amateur table, on target to surpass 20 winners for the first time, while Andrew is currently the leading professional. To date he's used just six of his 21 aces and won't be too liberal about playing them with so many big meetings to come. Often he will finish a season with one or two to spare in order to be available for any good rides that might suddenly emerge at the big Punchestown meeting.

If he wasn't having such a good time of it, the thought of such a thing would frustrate the hell out of him.

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