Tributes paid to ‘courageous’ jockey JT McNamara

‘A proud Limerick man’ who ‘was a legend in his own lifetime even though it was a short one’

Tributes have been paid to renowned amateur jockey John Thomas McNamara who has died aged 41.

The top rider, known as JT and from Croom, Co Limerick, had victories at the Cheltenham Festival and was paralysed from the neck down after a fall at Prestbury Park in 2013.

Mr McNamara spent about 15 months in various hospitals after the devastating fall from Galaxy Rock, including Bristol's Frenchay, Southport and in Dublin, before being allowed to return home.

Adrian McGoldrick, senior medical officer for the Irish Turf Club confirmed that Mr McNamara “passed away peacefully during the night.”

Everyone’s worst nightmare

“I suppose racing is a fairly close-knit community,” Ruby Walsh said on Tuesday afternoon. “Everyone seems to know each other so when a guy that’s as liked and respected as John Thomas suffers the injury he suffers, of course it shakes everybody. It is everyone’s worst nightmare to suffer total paralysis from the neck down and all the complications that go with that. It’s a tall price to pay. And unfortunately for John Thomas, he paid the ultimate price.

“I knew him from the time I started riding when I was 16. He was a tough man, but very fair, very honest. He was just a great guy. There was nothing to dislike about him, he was very frank and very honest and there was no hidden agenda, he was just a great man.

“He was a great horseman, he worked very hard, he was extremely dedicated. He just had a natural talent for it. I suppose he would be described as a great jockey, but if the world could be full of people like him, it would be a much better place.

Mr Walsh remembered some of Mr McNamara’s best performances. “I suppose on the track his ride on Rith Dubh at Cheltenham was a brilliant ride, but John Thomas did that, day in, day out, all over Ireland in the point-to-point fields. He was just a brilliant rider.

“But I guess he showed his true mental strength for the last two and a half years. I guess it showed just how good a judge he was by marrying his wife Caroline when you see how she has coped in the last three and a half years.

“I can’t imagine what would be going through your head in a hospital having suffered those injuries, but you would imagine it was the hope or the wish that you would get home to your family that would keep you going, I mean he managed to do that. But to survive the fall and the initial weeks of the injury and get into a condition where he could go home, shows just how tough a man John Thomas was, and I guess everything that goes with shows just how great a woman Caroline McNamara is.

“It just shows what kind of people they are and they’re the people who you feel most sorry for today.”

‘Proud Limerick man’

Paying tribute, Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, Patrick O’Donovan TD said: “A proud Limerick man, JT has been an inspiration to us all in the very dignified and courageous way he adapted to his vastly changed circumstances following his devastating fall in 2013. He will be fondly remembered and sadly missed by everyone in the horse racing community and beyond .”

Limerick Mayor, Cllr Kieran O’Hanlon said “JT’s drive to not let his injuries define him can only be described as courageous. Despite being paralysed, JT was determined to use his vast knowledge of horses to continue to pursue a career in the racing industry and turned his attention to training and he operated the Springfield Stables in Croom”.

Mr O’Hanlon said that he would talk to the McNamara family and the local horse racing community in the coming months to see how Limerick can best commemorate him.

‘Made of steel’

The former jockey turned trainer Ted Walsh expressed his admiration for Mr McNamara. "He was everything you would want to be in a man. Honest, hardy," he told RTÉ's Today with Seán O'Rourke show.

“He was made of steel. He had a great will to live and to try to get better. He went through three and a half years of torture and he was so well looked after by his wife and family. There was no weak side to him. I met him a few weeks ago in Limerick and he was in good form. He will be sadly missed. He was an inspiration to anyone who knew him.”

Fellow jockey AP McCoy said on the same programme that it was a very sad day for everyone in the racing community and especially for the McNamara family.

“He could be grumpy enough, but he was also good humoured and a fantastic rider. I will never forget the day of his accident. Adrian McGoldrick the jockeys doctor came and told me because I’m involved in the injured jockeys fund. When he told me, I looked across at JT’s locker and I knew he’d never be back here.

"He would love to think that some good will come of what happened to him. He would always want to think positive things and would like to think that he did some good. His passing will put a dampner on Ballybrit, but when I think of him I will smile and think of all the great rides he gave there."

Left a mark on the racing world

Frankie Ward, regional secretary of point-to-points in Limerick, knew Mr McNamara from a young age and followed his career from ponies to racecourses. "He was a hero, there's no doubt about it. He was a legend in his own lifetime even though it was a short one," she said. "We will all miss him desperately."

Ms Ward said Mr McNamara had undoubtedly left his mark on the racing world. "His colleagues at Galway today will be devastated but let's celebrate his wonderful life because that's what we should be doing," she told Newstalk radio. "And I'm sure God has probably got him as first jockey up there this morning."

Mr McNamara enjoyed many of his big-race successes in the colours of owner JP McManus, riding Rith Dubh to victory in the famous green and gold colours in the 2002 National Hunt Chase at the Festival and partnering Spot Thedifference in the 2005 Cross Country Chase.

He also wore McManus' silks when riding Drombeag to win the 2007 Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham and the owner's racing manager, Frank Berry, hailed McNamara's fortitude.

“It’s so sad and all our thoughts go out to Caroline and the rest of the family. A nicer fellow you couldn’t wish to meet. He was in great form up until maybe a week ago and he’s definitely been a fighter. He fought a great fight. The boss and him and myself had so many great days together. He was a great rider, but he also did a lot of pre-training of a lot of our younger horses and was a great man to tell you whether they were good or no good.”