Sport Horse Racing

Monday 23 April 2018

Back from the brink of retirement and as hungry as ever for winners

Robbie McNamara achieved a lifetime ambition at this year's Cheltenham Festival

Robbie McNamara: ‘The one thing I didn't want to do was retire without a Cheltenham winner.’ Photo: Tony Gavin
Robbie McNamara: ‘The one thing I didn't want to do was retire without a Cheltenham winner.’ Photo: Tony Gavin

Aisling Crowe

Robbie McNamara sits at his kitchen table, reliving the moments that changed his life, every detail as alive as if the jockey were experiencing them for the first time.

The feel of Silver Concorde through every furlong of the Champion Bumper, each fence Spring Heeled soared over in the Kim Muir Chase, the thumbs up from his father in the winners' enclosure and the roar of Cheltenham's crowd carrying him up the hill and satiating a hunger he had long held. Yesterday's events may be sketchy but not a second of those heady March days has grown hazy in his memory.

"I remember going about 50 yards from the line in front and I could hear the roar of the crowd and there was a feeling I've never had before and I think I never will again," he says.

"It was kind of a sense of disbelief and I said to someone that it was a feeling that people describe when you are about to die, the light feeling that you get. I think I got something close to it before when I did a sky dive. I remember sitting on the side of the plane with my legs underneath it and just as I fell out my heart stopped and that was as close a feeling as I've got to that. I preferred this feeling to sitting on the side of the plane," he laughs.

The 25-year-old almost never reached this place. When he was 15 he was a prop forward but a growth spurt meant he finished the season playing centre. Despite rugby's charms and nature's quirks, racing exerted its magnetic pull on him. His father Andrew senior is a trainer in Croom, Co Limerick and his older brother Andrew is a Champion Chase-winning jockey.

Andrew senior met Dermot Weld at the races and asked if his youngest son could go up to his Curragh yard for a month during the summer holidays. Almost nine years later, he is still there; "the longest month ever," he smiles.

McNamara was the perfect fit for the Master of Rosewell House. He is a student of the sport, constantly striving to improve, to be the best he can be. Each day he watches racing with a scholar's eye, discussing rides with his housemates who are all jockeys. He can quote advice from legends of the sport and takes whatever opportunities he can to converse with other jockeys, learn from them.

Although the globetrotting trainer has reduced the number of National Hunt horses he has in training, there's still a select group of choicely-bred horses for the jockey to ride.

During their association they have headlined at the biggest festivals including Galway, Leopardstown and Punchestown, where Hidden Universe gave McNamara his first, and until March, his only Grade One winner in 2010's Champion Bumper.

It may well have remained that way if his life had turned off the racing motorway last summer. For four days in early August, in his mind he was no longer Robbie McNamara, jockey. Brought low by the havoc injury had wrought on his exercise regime and the consequences of the struggle of making his 6ft 3ins body conform to a jockey's weight, he felt it was time to quietly exit the stage.

There was no public utterance of his retirement and Tim Carroll, his housemate, helped him to decide that there would be no final curtain call this time. Together they pounded tracks into the Curragh plains, cycled miles around Kildare and swam Olympic-training distances. McNamara had always been smart about diet; at his height and with the punishing weights demanded of jockeys, he had to be.

"I've seen a few dietitians along the way and I have a fair idea of what to do. I ride out every morning, I'd have something small for breakfast before I'd leave here. I wouldn't eat a whole pile during the day, just fruit and stuff and then I'd have dinner in the evening – a lot of chicken and veg. I'd go running most days, about 10k five days a week and cycling and swimming too," he says of the punishing diet and fitness regime he endures.

His amateur status is a peculiarly Irish notion. These jockeys are amateurs in the same way that inter-county GAA players are. Their dedication to racing and the discipline required of them is no different to the professionals and that same desire for winners is encoded in their DNA.

"Winning a race isn't like winning a match, it's a different experience. It's like there is a hunger for winners, riding winners is a great feeling. I think it's just that hunger for that feeling every time that drives me. I love riding over fences and hurdles but I love riding the horses I ride," he says, adding that the belief you will ride more winners, that your chance is coming, is another powerful motivator.

The Punchestown festival, with its myriad bumpers, banks races and hunter chases, offers an abundance of chances for amateurs to shine. One of the rules amateurs must abide by if they want a seat at the table means they can only ride against the professionals 21 times a season. It is a delicate balancing act they must employ, deciding the horses with which they will use up their precious allocation. Inevitably, they miss out on winners.

Usually McNamara heads into the season finale with just a couple of those rides left but this time it's different. Last summer's darkness has given him a golden opportunity of a half dozen rides in hurdles and chases. Still, Silver Concorde in the bumper is the horse that excites him most.

Cheltenham transformed them both. When Silver Concorde crossed that line in first, it was as if the valves on the Hoover Dam were released and that mighty river pent up behind a concrete wall was allowed resume its natural course. Fear of never succeeding at racing's test of great champions had always loomed large in McNamara's mind. He stared into the abyss last summer and it glared unflinchingly back at him, revealing that the hunger which had driven him gnawed away still.

"What I will look back on is, I've ridden a winner at Cheltenham. I had a big, big fear of retiring without doing that and I've lived that fear during the year. I had given up a bit after Galway and the one thing I didn't want to do was retire without a Cheltenham winner. I had achieved an awful lot in my career, ridden an awful lot of winners, ridden big winners, but I had never ridden a Cheltenham one. I remember Ted Walsh saying about three years ago that if you don't ride a Cheltenham winner you don't cut the mustard and that really stuck with me.

"You look back and every single great jockey has ridden a Cheltenham winner. Ruby has 40-odd winners at Cheltenham but he will have five or six rides a day. I'll only have two or three a year so it's harder to get winners. That was a lot of the reason I got such a kick out of Silver Concorde. I had it done. I think that will be the thing I take out of Cheltenham. I'm much more relaxed about riding now. Spring Heeled was just going out for a walk down the road, I had no pressure whatsoever. That's the main thing that Cheltenham did for me. It would have eaten me for the rest of my life if I hadn't ridden a Cheltenham winner."

Silver Concorde returned from Cheltenham a changed horse too. McNamara sees it in him every day, a bold confidence that wasn't there before. He is a winner now and the worries that almost prevented him from thriving have dissipated. On Wednesday, with the belief and the freedom they now have, the revitalised pair will make formidable opponents for their rivals in the Grade One Champion Bumper.

You will see a different Robbie McNamara at Punchestown this week. The changes are subtle but look closely and you will notice a spark in his bright eyes, a lighter air around him.

The sating of one hunger has freed him from its bonds, but his thirst for winners will never be quenched.

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