When I read that JT McNamara had died, somehow the armour of de-sensitivity was pierced. He won't be remembered as the most iconic figure to pass this year, but on a personal level, though I never knew him, I am shocked and saddened.
I was there at Cheltenham on the day he fell from Galaxy Rock in the Kim Muir. The uncharacteristic quiet only broken by the arrival of the air ambulance. My mate Chris, with whom I had stayed overnight, was walking the path adjacent to the perimeter fence at the time, showing his young son some of the action. He witnessed the incident and heard a crack as rider and horse came down. His relief at the sight of the horse getting up was immediately replaced by concern that the jockey had not moved. The green screens were erected to shield the view from the stands – but curiously not from the perimeter fence – and as my mate saw medical staff and ambulances arrive, he realised it was time to move on.
Three years later and he has lost his fight. Maybe I'm shocked because I had assumed he was getting better. Saddened because it has been such a cruel three years.
At his funeral, people were describing him as one of the finest horsemen they had ever met. His victory aboard Rith Dubh in the 2002 National Hunt Chase has gone down in the annals of racing as a perfect demonstration of coaxing a winner up the famous hill.
I was there that day too and in an ancient blog I attempted to capture the thrill of that race. In its naive and simple narrative, it now serves as a tribute to JT McNamara.
"We've had a big, black blank day. Steve needs some space. I, too, need time to reflect. Brynaldo takes a look at me and thinks I may be gutted, an empty shell, a broken man, wrecked, all washed up. He’s only partly right. I’m also hungry.
I stomp off in search of a large pork and apple sauce bap. Comfort food at a time like this is a basic requirement. The plan is to give the next race - another amateur hatchet job with plenty of scope for disaster - a miss and meet back by the Guinness enclosure. But I can’t get within twenty yards of any of the superior junk food emporia. They are mobbed.
My mood darkens. So I sidle off to the parade ring and watch the horses emerge for the National Hunt Challenge Cup. Rith Dubh, a gelding as big and dark as my mood skitters onto the track with an aloof air. The jockey wears JP McManus’s famous colours. I swear the horse winks at me on his way past.
Right then. I can take a hint. Real or imaginary. That junk food failure has sent me over the edge. I’m all steely determination and bloody mindedness now. I find the best price on offer and slap down double my maximum win stake at 10/1. This is no time for strategy. I go off in search of the lads by the last fence and swallow hard. Can’t find them in the melee. I’m on my own for this one.
It’s a marathon 4 mile trip and plenty begin to drop away. But Rith Dubh is held up in mid division. He’s jumping like a stag. As he flashes by me with a circuit to go, he's picking off his contenders one by one.
Coming down the hill for the last time, there is barely a fag paper between three or four very tired horses. At the last, Rith Dubh is there, he flies it and challenges for the lead. It is surely too late though. I can’t breathe. I catch the finish on the big screen. It’s bloody close. Rith Dubh is a canny old bugger - a shocking idler in front. JT McNamara is aboard and asks him for more. He doesn’t want to hit the front too soon. But, again I say, it is surely too late? They stretch over the line. Looks like Rith Dubh to me from a furlong away. But the commentator calls a photo. More agony.
I switch from scanning the crowd for the lads to fumbling for my race card.
'Come on 19, come on 19.'
Christ I am really shitting myself. Here it comes - (the photo result, not the bowel movement).
'1st number 12, 2nd number 7.'
'What? WHAT?' I politely enquire of my neighbours. Rith Dubh not even in the first two? I think I’ve spotted Steve’s ten-gallon hat and I move towards him.
'Correction. 1st number 19, Rith Dubh. 2nd number......'
'Yeeeeaaahhhh. You fucking beauty!' They actually called the number wrong! I can't believe that.
I hurl myself at a rather surprised Steve in spasms of ecstasy. He deals with it very magnanimously. Safe to say I’m rather pleased.
I try, but can’t wipe the insane grin off my chops, especially as the bookie is counting out those juicy tenners in to my hot little mits. My jaw is starting to ache
What a ride..."
Rest easy JT.