McNamara's band march on
Trainer eyes more Kerry National glory with Ponmeoath
The framed mountings in a man's office offer a cursory glimpse into that which he holds dearest. Around the four walls of Eric McNamara's clerical workspace within his home in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, there aren't too many exhibits.
Atop the bookshelf in the corner behind his desk there is a photo of McNamara and his wife Paula on their wedding day.
On the wall behind the desk are three of him show jumping in his heyday, displaying a polished style in one as he soars to victory in the green of Ireland at the Dublin Horse Show.
To the side, there is a signed Manchester United jersey with the name Beckham and the number 10 on the back. The number indicates it is a relic of the 1996/97 season, when the midfielder temporarily filled the shirt vacated by Mark Hughes.
On the wall facing the desk is a small collage of three grainy snaps of For John, the horse that supplied the trainer with his first winner. One of them shows a young McNamara smiling in the winner's enclosure at Leopardstown alongside an equally happy Jonjo O'Neill, who had, as it happened, just ridden his last winner in Ireland.
And perched proudly above the fireplace, opposite the United jersey, is one of Ponmeoath at full stretch in the Kerry National, a race that the tidy-sized bay famously claimed in 2007 and 2008. From 27 years of winners in the racing game, just two made it into the office. Two of the most memorable.
McNamara, whose son Emmet was champion apprentice in 2008, is reluctant to utter as much, but he could do with his Listowel specialist producing some more magic when he goes in search of an unprecedented third Kerry National on Wednesday. This is a tough time for trainers.
Over two years, McNamara has seen his string shrink by more than half from 60 to 25. Ditto his winning tallies, last season's 12 down from a domestic high of 25 in 2008. Four and a half months into the new campaign, he has yet to saddle a winner.
"That's not something that I'm unduly worried about," he says. "I'm happy that the horses are healthy and well.
"With the ground having been so hard until recently and our numbers reduced, we haven't taken chances running them. The few we have run probably haven't been a lot of good for one reason or another, but hopefully, with all this rain falling now, from Listowel on we will have a few nice horses to run."
That McNamara would look to the north Kerry venue to kick-start his season is understandable. A local track for him at less than 40km from his gate on the outskirts of Rathkeale village, it has been a happy hunting ground.
At the last four Harvest Festivals he has trained five winners, Ponmeoath chief among them in the race that McNamara maintains was the one that first captured his imagination as a horse-mad youngster. Now 10 years old, this will be Ponmeoath's seventh consecutive appearance at the September gathering.
Starting with a bumper on his debut in 2004, the Flemensfirth gelding finished second there on three successive occasions. He finally got it right when it mattered most under Paddy Flood in 2007, and the second bus duly arrived 12 months later.
The handicapper steadied him last year in sixth. Still, he picked up €3,200 in the process, which means that he has never left Listowel in September without a cheque.
This time, the handicapper has relented a little, dropping him eight pounds since last year. Ponmeoath, which will be joined in the three-miler by stable-mate Larkwing, has again been trained specifically for the race, his eye-catching fourth over hurdles at Galway recently his first run since January. The dream is well and truly alive.
"I think Ponmeoath is going there in good shape," McNamara declares calmly. "His run at Galway was as good a prep run as he has ever had going to Listowel, so we are looking forward to it.
"If Mossbank stays in, he'll have 10st 9lb, a lovely racing weight. That should give him some kind of a chance. For one reason or another, he seems to run better at this time of the year, and he runs better at Listowel than anywhere else. So this is his big target, and we think he is trained to the minute for it. Wednesday is D-Day for him."
While it's hardly D-Day for McNamara himself, he would welcome the fillip should either of his representatives land the €96,400 highlight. Without meaning to in one respect, the straight-talking handler has come a long way since swapping the more sedate thrills of the show-jumping arena for those of the racecourse.
Having established himself as an exceedingly skilled producer of young equine talent to sell on, McNamara's purchase of a middling handicapper off the Flat in England in 2004 would propel him out of the shadows and into the limelight.
He paid just 11,000 Guineas for Strangely Brown, which went on to win the Grade One French four-year-old champion hurdle for him under Ruby Walsh the following year.
Six weeks before Strangely Brown first ran for McNamara, Hordago won at the Cheltenham November meeting in 2004. Over the next three years, the grey would go back there and win twice more. In 2006, Strangely Brown chased Sky's The Limit home in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham before skating up at Aintree.
With the rising tide of the economy lifting many ships that would traditionally have sold their wares while moored in shallow waters, McNamara found himself inundated with horses. And then the music stopped.
"We're in a luxury sport," he reasons, "so it's going to take a while before people start to buy racehorses again when they have plenty of other bills to pay. It will take a year or two. People say it has levelled out, but I'd say it hasn't. It's very hard to sell horses.
"Unfortunately, we've had to cut most of the staff here down to a three-day week, which was a very sad day, but we are down on numbers. I've eight staff; six of them are on a three-day week now, two are full-time. They are a fabulous, fabulous bunch, though, and we will weather the storm together. That's all you can do."
In the courtyard immediately alongside McNamara's house, the evidence of the turnaround meets you at first glance. Six small stables are being turned into four large ones, the kind of overhaul that might have been deemed regressive in a time of plenty.
However, it is a sign of McNamara's pragmatism, taking an adverse set of circumstances and carving something constructive out of them. Rather than wallow in the anguish that so many of his profession have been lumbered with, he is making the best of the situation. He wants to be ready.
"I personally believe," he says with some candour, "that most trainers need good horses to be good trainers. There are a lot of trainers around who, if we are fortunate to get a good horse, have proved that we can train them. But if you don't get them it is very hard to stay up there. We haven't had the rub of the green here lately, but I think we are only a good horse away from being successful again."
In the meantime, Ponmeoath will endeavour to do his bit on Wednesday. His photo has pride of place in that office for a reason, so write him off at your peril.