'JT just doesn't want people to feel sorry for him'
A year ago today, Lisa Hancock, of the Injured Jockeys Fund, rang one of her almoners, Julia Mangan, and asked her to hurry to Bristol airport to meet Caroline McNamara, whose husband John Thomas had come close to death in a fall at Cheltenham.
Hancock, the chief executive of the fund, stood on the steps of the weighing room and recalled the day racing mobilised to help J T McNamara, who will watch the corresponding race – the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup – in a hospital room in Southport, where he receives intensive care at the North West Regional Spinal Injury Centre, which was set up to help victims of World War II.
"The medics here at Cheltenham saved his life, there's no doubt about that," Hancock says. "They have a fantastic team and Simon Claisse, the clerk of the course, goes over and above the requirement."
Today's 4.40 race will be coloured by memories of an air ambulance rising above the course en route to Bristol's Frenchay Hospital, where McNamara (38) was operated on for fractures to the C3 and C4 vertebrae in his back.
McNamara has travelled a long path since, to the National Spinal Unit in Dublin and on to Southport, where the mission statement reads: "Seventy-five per cent of our patients return home."
An extra shudder hits the heart for the other 25pc. McNamara is not the first jockey to be maimed in a Cheltenham fall and will not be the last. Yesterday, Jason Maguire was brought out of an induced coma at University Hospital Coventry. He suffered a fractured sternum and bleeding on the liver after being kicked in the stomach by a horse at Stratford on Monday.
Hancock says: "We're probably in communication with 250 jockeys. They're receiving pastoral, medical or financial help. Somebody like Brian Toomey, who had a head injury at Perth last summer, we're assisting him with occupational therapy sessions to help him make the changes he needs to.
"Marie King, another of my almoners, is in the hospital with Jason (Maguire) and his wife Lauren at the moment. It was a bad injury but I hear positive things."
But the McNamara anniversary will prompt special anguish today. Several riders, including the champion, AP McCoy, are regular visitors to McNamara's bedside, even though his terrible injuries remind them of the risks they take. His family have declared that there should be no commemorations or interviews. "I think they're absolutely right," Hancock says. "John Thomas is in Southport watching the racing and he just doesn't want people to feel sorry for him. He is not that kind of individual. And none of his family are. They're an amazing family. They absolutely appreciate everyone's thoughts, but they're not looking for sympathy."
The brutal truth is that McNamara is paralysed from the neck down and has been on a ventilator, which specialists are trying to wean him off. "His condition is such that a lot of care needs to be put in place. He's in a stable condition and in good spirits," Hancock says.
"But it's a desperately severe injury. As and when it's time to get him home, they need everything in place there, not just for him but the family as well (he has three children). It will change the dynamics of the McNamara home, won't it? They have a young family and there's a lot to be put into place to make it work for them."
No sport is more attentive to the needs of its fallen, and no sport asks for less in the way of pity. But this is a growth industry. The Injured Jockeys Fund, in its 50th year, is opening a second centre, Jack Berry House, in Yorkshire, to complement John Oaksey House in Lambourn. Hancock says: "I've got a fantastic team of nine almoners who 'get' racing. They don't ask stupid questions and they don't say stupid things.
"Julia struck up a really good relationship with Caroline and I think that will be a lifelong one now. We work very closely with the Irish authorities and the Irish charities. There has been a J T McNamara Trust Fund set up. There's also the jockeys' emergency fund."
Ireland's national health service pays for McNamara's care in Southport and charity and private donations have poured into the fund. Toomey said recently: "To be honest, I even thought I was hard done by until I knew exactly what had happened to John Thomas, and had been to see him a good few times. You would not believe the number of jockeys even in England who have been to see him. He said to me: 'Brian, do you mind ringing a few of them up and thanking them?'"
So, no ceremony, but plenty of thoughts. Jockeys know the game. "Some, we patch up, give them operations, so they can get back out there, because all they want to do is ride again," Hancock says. "Not like the public, who might want to stretch things out. Jockeys just want to get back out there." J T McNamara will just want to get home. (© Daily Telegraph, London)