Safety to the fore after ‘traumatic’ year

JT McNamara is ‘looking forward to setting a date’ for his return home a year after breaking his neck in a fall

Teaforthree (left) ridden by JT McNamara on his way to winning the Diamond Jubilee National Hunt steeple chase race at Cheltenham on March 14th, 2012. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

When Dr Adrian McGoldrick arrives at Cheltenham today his focus will not be on the front runners or the finishing post.

“Most times I go to the racecourse I don’t know what horse has won,” says the Newbridge GP, who is senior medical officer of the Irish Turf Club. “I’m picking up injured riders, getting them back for the next race, checking they’re okay to carry on.”

Last year’s festival brought one of those days he’ll never forget. Leading amateur John Thomas (JT) McNamara suffered catastrophic injuries when his mount Galaxy Rock fell, and it was Dr McGoldrick’s job to break the news to the jockey’s wife Caroline. “I was in [the] emergency room when he came back in. It was known straight away it was going to be bad.”

McNamara (39), a father of three, is paralysed from the neck down, and is being “weaned off” a ventilator.


Initially airlifted to a hospital in Bristol for emergency surgery, he was transferred to the Mater hospital in Dublin before being moved six months ago to a spinal injuries centre at Southport, Merseyside, where he is being helped towards “getting into a wheelchair, and getting him to use a computer with his head and eyes”, says Dr McGoldrick.

“One of his big aims is to get home. He is looking forward to setting a date.”

While Dr McGoldrick has a long association with the racing industry, stretching back to 1985 when he started helping out at the Curragh racecourse, he doesn’t ride himself and never ceases to be astonished by the courage and resilience of his patients.

Of McNamara’s injuries, he says: “JT has always said, ‘I fully accept it; it’s one of the risks.’ Not once did he ever have a negative word about his injury. The positivity is quite extraordinary.”

McNamara's fall came just two weeks after Jonjo Bright (20), an aspiring amateur rider, was left paralysed following a fall in a point-to-point at Tyrella, Co Down. It was "a very traumatic year for racing", says Dr McGoldrick, although the industry has rallied around the two jockeys, raising more than €800,000 for them on one day alone at a special fundraiser meeting in Limerick last October.

“I have been going racing for 29 years and I have never experienced a day like it,” says Dr McGoldrick. “People were almost on a high raising money; the goodwill was quite unbelievable. One man came up to me outside the medical room and said, ‘This is confidential, I don’t want my name attached to this’, and he gave me a cheque for €50,000. The man had me in tears.”

The gestures keep coming, and today the fund could receive another boost as Barry Connell, owner of Champion Hurdle contender Our Conor, has pledged to donate any prize money he wins this season from the horse.

Bright’s determination to get back working on his father’s farm in Co Antrim has been inspiring. In an interview with the industry-sponsored, he said he had been injured “doing something I love” and so had no regrets. Other people, he said, had been paralysed in everyday accidents or simply “bending down picking something off the floor; to me that would be a lot harder to deal with”.

With the support of the Jockeys Emergency Fund, set up in 1998 after leading jump rider Shane Broderick was paralysed in a fall, Bright is now travelling to a specialist clinic in London for a week each month and has just completed his second session of "very intense physio", says Dr McGoldrick.

“He has exceeded all expectations. Initially, we were saying the best you can do is shrug your shoulders. He is now feeding himself – with difficulty but he’s doing it – and he has power in his lower limbs. There is no reason why he would not make further improvement, slowly but surely.”

“For a young lad his spirit is amazing,” the doctor added. “Within a week [of the accident] he was cracking jokes.”

Among Dr McGoldrick's duties for the Turf Club is to oversee safety on Irish racecourses, and he goes to about 70 meetings a year, taking time off from his Co Kildare practice to attend the Galway and Punchestown festivals. Over the past decade, he has also conducted research projects with DCU sports scientist Dr Giles Warrington and others on how to reduce hazards in the sport.

Horse racing is “inherently dangerous” but risks can be reduced by good track management, and particularly by making sure the ground has not turned firm. “I was petrified last summer when temperatures were reaching the high 30s. In Galway, there is a watering system but at a peripheral track on a lesser surface it might not be possible.”

National Hunt jockeys fall in an average of 5 per cent of their rides, and are injured in about one out of every five falls. Last year, the number of recordable injuries in Ireland was up 30 per cent to 179, albeit this was against a low base in 2012. In 2010, one of the worst years on record, there were 287 injuries with an injury rate per fall of 28 per cent, and an injury rate per ride of 1.5 per cent.

Falls are more frequent in point-to-point racing – about 13 per cent of rides come a cropper – but the injury rate per fall is much lower (6.6 per cent last year).

Andrew Coonan, secretary of the Irish Jockeys Association, said it was “unfortunate that catastrophic or fatal injuries are a catalyst in developing things” in the sport. It took Broderick’s injury for a levy to be placed on prize money to look after disabled jockeys, and it took the deaths of Seán Cleary and Kieran Kelly in 2003 for a review of apprentices and the preparedness of young horses for racing. Other serious accidents led to the removal of fixed posts and railings from tracks.

Vigilance is the watchword now, says Coonan, a solicitor and former amateur rider. “There is a need for implementation of a continuous professional development of riders” from diet to further education. He also cites a need for “increased helmet research” to complement a stricter regime of concussion testing.

Progress, he says, is reflected in the fact that “the top pros now tend to be older than the top pros 20 years ago; that is a reflection of their ability to continue.”

Part of McGoldrick’s role is to educate jockeys about health and safety in conjunction with a Turf Club nutritionist and a sports physiologist. While the profession had once been associated with hard living, he says “that has all changed. They do now see themselves as real athletes”.

One of the biggest health challenges is making racing weight. And while Ireland has increased minimum weights in recent years, “if you don’t have France and the UK doing the same it’s very hard for us to go any further on that”, says McGoldrick. “I would love to see the weight structures increase worldwide.”

Since 1973, the minimum riding weight has gone up 9lbs, but the average weight of a young adult has gone up 33lbs. “These young guys are riding two stone below their natural weight,” says McGoldrick and this contributes to short- and long-term problems from dehydration to bone thinning. The latter has been linked to a proportion of fractures among flat jockeys in particular.

One of McGoldrick’s current campaigns is to improve the quality of food on tracks as poor nutrition can lead to a cycle of binging and then starving. “For the average jockey, the only meal of the day is at the racecourse. And if the food is bad on the track he will stop off for a burger, which is totally inappropriate for an athlete. Having a balanced meal, and a good balance of protein, is one of the keystones of making weight.”

He lists Galway, Navan Gowran Park, Ballinrobe and Mallow as among a number of racecourses which have made progress, but "the food at some tracks is still appalling. It's unacceptable; the amount of money the food costs is so small compared to what they get from TV rights".

Another track for which he has praise is Cheltenham, where his main role this week is liaising between course medical staff and the Irish jockeys. “They have a superb team of doctors. When JT had his fall the helicopter was there in half an hour to take him to Bristol.”

As for his hopes for the festival, there is no surprise in his answer: “My aim is just to see the riders are getting back safely.”


Donations to the Jockeys Emergency Fund can be made at