A good day for the Irish ends on a sombre note

Leading amateur jockey in hospital after crashing fall

Horses jump a water fence during the Novices' Steeple Chase  yesterday. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Horses jump a water fence during the Novices' Steeple Chase yesterday. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters


There was a fresh type of chill across Cheltenham last night. An icy silence spread through the grandstands as leading amateur John Thomas McNamara was airlifted to a local hospital.

The Croom man’s crashing fall on Galaxy Rock in the penultimate chase was a horrifying reminder of the dangers of the racing game. Over the Tannoy, festival organisers assured the crowd that the jockey had left the course conscious but signals from the hospital were more worrying last night.

Until that point, another injury had been grabbing headlines. Davy Russell’s punctured lung had put him out of contention for his plum ride of the festival – Sir des Champs in the Gold Cup.

Earlier, the horse’s owner Michael O’Leary said he was disappointed the Gigginstown House Stud jockey would miss out, but, somewhat prophetically, he added: “Davy’s health is more important than any of the horses.”

Describing his injury, he said: “It’s a punctured lung, which they have had to drain. It’s quite serious, I think . . . it’s not the usual jockey got a knock and he got up again.”

From his hospital bed, Russell saw one of his previously planned rides come good yesterday in Solwhit, winner of the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.

The horse’s Limerick-based trainer Charles Byrnes said Russell’s absence was the only sour note of a victory which formed part of an unusual Irish publicans’ double.

Solwhit is owned by the four- strong Top of the Hill Syndicate, named after Gaynor’s pub, located on an elevated spot above Wexford town. The pub’s owner Ger Gaynor and three other drinking buddies Hugh Martin, Tomás Power and Pat O’Hanlon led the horse into the parade ring with Tricolours aloft.

Mary O’Hanlon, whose co- owner husband is a retired farmer, said: “I don’t know where the flags came out of – they were thrown at us.” But she was happy for the gifts and tucked one of them into her handbag as a souvenir of a day the family won’t forget.

Tasting victory earlier was Aidan “Red” Shiels, the owner of the Irish Rover pub in New York, and fellow US resident Niall Reilly. In what was surely the first Cheltenham winner plotted from the city borough of Queens, the pair delivered the wildest celebration of the meeting when their massively backed gelding Benefficient won the opener.

At least the 20/1 shot was massively backed by the exuberant pair, who moved to the US 20 years ago from Westmeath and Meath respectively. “It was the biggest bet I ever had,” Shiels said. “I’m not getting paid back in cash, so figure it out yourself.”

Reilly, who works in construction, gave all the credit to trainer Tony Martin who, he said, had forecast how the race would turn out.

“I said ‘Aidan we’re going to earn some respect after this race – not us, I mean the horse – because people used to say, he’s lucky, this one fell, that one fell.’ We knew this guy was going to have his big day.

“We’ve been known to celebrate when there’s hardly anything happening – so this is a big emotion, a big day for us.”

It took a few security guards to finally usher the owners and their 10-strong US entourage out of the winner’s enclosure.

The two winners, combined with Big Shu in the cross-country chase, brought the tally of Irish-trained winners to 10, five more than the entire festival last year, and three short of joining the record of 13 set in 2011.

As night fell in Cheltenham, however, there was cold comfort in such statistics.