Saturday 21 April 2018

'If they came and saw my life for a week, there would be no pity'

Robbie McNamara’s passion for horse racing is as strong as ever and he is determined to make his mark on the sport. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Robbie McNamara’s passion for horse racing is as strong as ever and he is determined to make his mark on the sport. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The first thing you need to realise about Robbie McNamara is that the story of his life will not be defined by the fall. It’s never about the fall.

It only takes a couple of minutes in his company to realise this.

To the outside world, McNamara might be the former jockey who was paralysed from the waist down after a horrific tumble at Wexford in April 2015.

But in the racing community, he is known as a very ambitious trainer with firm views about the sport that still consumes his every waking moment.

There were dark days, and he came out the other side with a mature sense of perspective. In the grades of misfortune that are an everyday risk in his trade, he was one of the luckier ones. His late cousin John Thomas was dealt a harsher hand.

And in an afternoon spent at his Curragh home, the life-changing injury is only ever mentioned in passing. These days, it only really comes up with people who meet him for the first time and feel obliged to mention it in some way. The people he encounters every day have long gone beyond that discussion point.

They realise that his journey is only beginning.

"It's not something that ever comes into my head now," he says. "The fall or being in a chair. Day in, day out, it doesn't come into my head. People class everyone in a wheelchair the same way, but I'm lucky. I'm as agile as anyone. I have the whole use of my core and if I wanted, I could go up the yard there, tack up a horse on my own and haul myself up on top of it. I'm grand.

"It drives me mad when I go racing and people say, 'Oh, it's great to see you out'. They might mean well, but it's very patronising. I don't ever get angry with them; it's not an everyday situation to be knowing what to say to someone in a wheelchair.

"I have a brilliant business going now. I'm in a way better position than I was before the fall. I'm a lot more determined, and I have my life a lot more sorted out. If those people came and saw my life for a week, there would be no pity."

And that's the crucial part of this story. That fateful Wexford evening ultimately ended up accelerating the inevitable career path for a 29-year-old that has always been energised by the idea of training horses.

His goal now is to propel himself to the top of that profession, and it's already apparent that he wants to make his voice heard on the way there.

Robbie McNamara celebrates after winning on Spring Heeled on day four of the 2014 Cheltenham Festival. Pic:Mark Condren
Robbie McNamara celebrates after winning on Spring Heeled on day four of the 2014 Cheltenham Festival. Pic:Mark Condren

This will be a busy Christmas for McNamara and his four full-time staff. The plans have been in place for some time now, with nine of his 10 older horses lined up to run over the Christmas period.

"Christmas Day will be a nuisance," he says, before correcting himself. "But then I suppose it won't either. We have everything organised already, all the fine details. If Christmas doesn't go well, we'll be in a spot of bother," he adds, with a wry smile.

He is confident there will be winners, though, and there are some parallels with the long-term plan to announce himself in the training business – a winning double in Cork in July 2016 which was a card he targeted once he had secured his licence two months earlier. That was a different type of pressure, however.

McNamara speaks contentedly about his understanding owners who know his modus operandi is to nurse younger horses through their earlier years so they peak at the right age for maximum impact. One of his main supporters is Dr Ronan Lambe, whose colours he wore in what was probably the best week of his riding career – a pair of Cheltenham wins in 2014 on Silver Concorde and Spring Heeled.

But he needed to be hard on the first horses in the yard in order to really make a splash and the headlines from his Cork brace were a necessary part of the publicity launch.

But that ballsy approach went beyond that opening day and the realities encountered by fledgling trainers. The real gamble was digging deep for horses at sales, spotting potential in those horses overlooked by the real big hitters, and then finding owners for them to balance the books.

I wasn't far off €300,000 in the red at one point," he says matter of factly, "But I kept ploughing away. It was the same when I was riding. I'm not cocky at all, but I have absolutely no self-doubt whatsoever. If I didn't have that, I'd be going to bed worried at night. And there were times when there was pressure, and there was phonecalls. The sales company were very patient and any time I got a few quid I would give them what I could."

That is easier said than done with the scale of the ever-present bills – feed, vet fees, wages, revenue bills et al – adding to the debit side of the ledger.

"I never panicked," he says, "because if I had rushed things to try and pay them back I could have messed up the horses. I'm still not back in the black yet but I'm very close to it. I have a bunch of horses down there that are worth more a lot more than what I paid for them."

Cascavelle, a €30,000 purchase from the sales ring, is a prime example. He liked the breeding, the Moyglare Stud connection with his old boss Dermot Weld, and went with his gut.

The three-year-old Flat horse won a maiden on his first run for the yard at Galway and was sold to a new Chinese owner, Zhang Yuesheng, for €130,000. A subsequent win at Dundalk has increased the value again. Those figures offer an insight into how clever buying and selling can make all the difference to an emerging yard.

You have to think big. And this line of ambitious thinking bleeds  into the other major thing you need to realise about McNamara and that's his deep dissatisfaction with the complicated governance of his multi-million-euro industry.

"I could sit here for six hours and have a conversation about racing and you wouldn't be able to tell me another sport where the same things happen," he says.

The work of the Turf Club, the sport's regulatory body, is what really grinds the gears.

From the New Year, racing's integrity affairs will be controlled by a new limited company – an effective partnership between the Turf Club and the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee – because members of the two private clubs were open to personal liability from legal challenges.

But the Turf Club retain influence and their approach to the selection of stewards is a thorny area. Still, McNamara cautiously welcomes any change in administration, but stresses there's a long way to go.

"There are silly decisions being made every week," says McNamara, who bristles as he raises the subject.

"And they're left up to people who aren't really qualified in it. If I make a mistake – and we made one recently with the timing of a vaccination – we learn from them and make sure they will never happen again. In stewarding, it's mistake after mistake after mistake, in my opinion.

"The Turf Club employ the stewards, and it should be people that have ridden who are controlling the stewards' enquiries because they are very important.

"If the stewarding was taken to HRI (Horse Racing Ireland – the promotional body) and put in a state-of-the-art facility with different camera angles, they wouldn't even have to go to the races," says McNamara who lists ex-trainers and jockeys that could do the job.

"You could get people like Charlie Swan, Colm Murphy, Sandra Hughes, Joanna Morgan or other people who know horses inside out, put them with people fully up to speed on the rules and then see how many stewarding mistakes are made in a month."

Facilities for the protagonists are another major bugbear.

A lot of our racecourses are dingy, they are freezing," he continues. "Some wouldn't have hot showers. I went to a track the other day and there are stables that looked like a cattle shed from 1950. If you looked hard enough, you might find Michael Collins inside! And it was one of my preferred tracks but it still can't be excused.

"Gordon Elliott went to a meeting a few weeks ago and had to leave six or seven horses out in the lorry because there wasn't enough room in the stables. At another venue people thought it was safer to leave them in the lorry rather than bringing them in and expose them to the state of the stable yard.

"I'm here spending a lot of money on infection control and then you go to some racetracks and you're leaving yourself open to the whole lot of it. You can have meetings where the horses collectively could be easily worth around four or five million in total and they're sitting inside stables you could put up for €30.

"Ireland is one of the biggest countries in the world for horse racing. There's a fair chance the best horses in France will end up in Ireland. Horses from America too. I'd say there's more money put into it than Formula One when you consider the value of the horses; like you could go to Aidan O'Brien's stable alone and think of what all the horses there are worth.

"But Formula One don't go from Silverstone or Monaco to other tracks with potholes in it. Aidan O'Brien can go to Hong Kong and Dubai and win races, but I'd say the swimming pool on the top of Meydan (racecourse in Dubai) is worth more than 90pc of the racetracks in Ireland. There are places that should not have been licensed with those things the way they are."

If that is an area where McNamara may privately have the support of his peers, another frustration is a subject that causes a bit more unease.

A few weeks back, he tweeted about the fact that on a big Sunday card at Fairyhouse, the prize money available for a handicap hurdle was worth more than winning prize money in the Grade One races on the same card.

In Ireland, there is a love of the lucrative handicap, yet McNamara firmly believes the best horses should be scooping the top prizes and a culture weighted the other way encourages mischief. There's a nod and wink knowledge of what it takes to ‘lay a horse out' for a handicap, which is all related to staying on the right side of the rules while avoiding sanctions under ‘non-trier' regulations. In other words, masking the true ability of a horse until the money is down.

"Everything in racing is set up in a way that it almost encourages people to cheat," McNamara declares.

"And people get away with it. That's the way it's been for 30 years and because it's like that, it's now accepted but that doesn't mean it's right.

"You can't have the 42nd highest rated horse on an afternoon winning more prize money than any of the others. That's like giving Tiger Woods a crap prize compared to a 14 handicapper who wins the stableford.

"I think it's great there is good prize money available, but it's stopping horses. I'm not saying lower the prize money for the handicaps. The Grade Ones just need to be worth a hell of a lot more.

"The other day, Tom Mullins said to me that it wasn't giving the small lad a chance. Give it to the smaller lads and give them more money. That's what people in Ireland want to do.

"People will say, ‘Well, Michael O'Leary doesn't need the money' but that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life. Cristiano Ronaldo has enough money, but do you think his wage will be lowered because of it?

"If there was better money for good novice races and up through to the graded races – if there was a better set-up to incentivise horses to go down the Novice route and get towards Graded level, it would make things fairer in those valuable handicaps and make the sport cleaner.

"You see a lot of the younger people in the country here now, lads stepping up to the next level and they want the big winners, the best horses. Gordon Elliott, Gavin Cromwell, Joseph O'Brien, Adrian Keatley and I'm the same but it feels like you are punching through a very thick wall because there's so many people saying, ‘Why don't you go this way? Why don't you get that handicapped? That's not logical'. This is something that goes through my head 24/7 and it drives me insane.

"The best horse deserves to win the most money, and it shouldn't be different just because there are lads there jealous of the same owners and trainers dominating.

"I think it's absolutely brilliant the races are being dominated because I have a target, a standard to go and chase. I'll improve as I go along, like Aidan O'Brien has done, like Gordon Elliott has done, and I'm not putting myself in that league or saying I'm going to be as successful as them but I'd hope if I did that racing would be in a better position than it is now."

His father Andrew, a lifelong racing man and an experienced trainer, has urged his son not to create a fuss.

Earlier this month, at a trainers' meeting, the relatively fresh face vented at the low quality of horses running in a race on Troytown Chase day at Navan – ironically enough his own horse had actually won it. The argument was that the day should have been aimed towards a higher calibre of animal.

"That's what I'm striving to have," he continues. "The Grade One horses, the aeroplanes. I don't go to the sales to buy a horse with the hope he might win in Wolverhampton in a year's time.

"But if I happen to get one of those good horses and end up getting to the Drinmore (Grade One novice at Fairyhouse) after years of planning and preparation and only end up winning €45,000 – and basically not even getting back what you paid for him and put into him – that's what kills me.

I want to win one of them down the line and I will, mark my words. But it would leave a bad taste in my mouth if the prize money is only €45,000. That sounds like a nice sum of money, but to get a horse of that calibre and to train him to that level, it's most likely to cost somewhere in the region of €250,000.

"I sound like an upstart, training a year and a half and coming in saying there's all these problems with racing, but this isn't about me," he continues. "I'm not trying to make these changes for next week or the week after because I know in racing that's banging your head against the wall. The way racing is now is perfect for a lot of people, but there's a wave of the younger generation coming through that want a more modern, up-to-date sport, that can sit alongside sports like football, golf, rugby. One that is as professional as the rest and not casting itself in a bad light every couple of weeks by poor stewarding decisions.

"It's holding racing back. I'm trying to make an improvement for 15 years down the line because it's my future, and Joseph O'Brien's future, and all of the other younger lads.

"It's perfectly fine for the senior trainers not to feel the same urgency but it's a sport where 90pc of the trainers and their staff are completely skint. That's not the way a sport should be run, especially not one with so much money and so much talent involved in it.

"I plan on being a very wealthy man. But whether I've €15m in the bank or holes in my wellies, I'd still be out there first thing in the morning because this is my passion, you can see this means a lot to me and your passion doesn't change according to your bank balance. Your hobbies might, but your passion won't."

There is much more to McNamara than a fall. Save the pity for those who try to stand in his way.

Irish Independent

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