Daragh Ó Conchúir
|Posted on 14 March, 2017 at 20:00|
"This wasn’t meant to be no sad song. We’ve heard too much of that before."
- Paul Brady, The Island
“I’d be a lot worse if it happened to me in a car crash” (Photos are stills from an ITV Racing video, which used some of the conversation from this interview)
YOU know about Galaxy Rock’s fall in the Kim Muir Challenge Cup at Cheltenham on March 14, 2013; the kick from a following horse that shattered John Thomas McNamara’s helmet and changed his life forever.
Earlier that month, McNamara had suffered significant shoulder damage after a tumble in Askeaton, so he was taken to Limerick hospital to have the shoulder popped back into its socket. This is a brutally painful process, as ligaments, tendons and bone squeeze, stretch and twist. Yet he was back in the saddle the next day, working the horses in his yard.
Here is a man that doesn’t go down easy. So it’s no surprise to see him figuratively standing tall, even if that will never happen in a literal sense.
Jump jockeys are a breed apart. They possess traits that are absolutely essential to catapulting horses over fences regularly. When you are one of the best amateur pilots racing has ever seen, you have these attributes in spades… attributes, it turns out, that are just as helpful when suddenly, you are paralysed from the neck down.
Caroline McNamara: “I think the absence of a fear factor definitely.” She looks at her husband. “You go in that chair… I think actually that’s where you don’t… what am I trying to say?
John Thomas: “More shite. Go on.”
Caroline: “There are people that would take their time about trying something and would start at it slowly…”
(JT rolls his eyes and makes faces, like the kid at the back of the class while a teacher is trying to explain calculus or algebra. I snigger like his 12-year-old sidekick. Caroline smiles at JT being JT and carries on undeterred.)
Caroline: “… and gradually get the pace up. John just goes at it full belt. If there was a type of a jump or hurdle that the chair could go over, he would go over it. Am I right John?
Caroline: “I can’t stand behind the chair anymore watching. ‘He’s gonna fall over!’ That is a huge aspect of you going forward. You don’t have that fear.”
JT: “Sure they can’t do too much more damage to me.”
Matter-of-fact analysis of the situation, acceptance and refusal to dwell on the past are other vital tools. The little touch of madness and the ability to laugh. Cutting through to the reality of a situation.
Caroline: “You’re living life. And what happen, happens.”
YOU can get consumed by the injuries, the sadness, the dice with death, the sacrifices, the loss of independence, the invasion of privacy... the astronomical cost of the 24-hour-a-day care that is covered by Irish Injured Jockeys and the Turf Club, and without which, JT would not be at home.
But you have to look beyond the chair. You have to look beyond the tube in the man’s throat and the whirring of the ventilator.
Look at the face and the life in those mischievous eyes. Hear the clarity of thought, the quick-wittedness. John Thomas McNamara doesn’t ride horses anymore but that wasn’t all of him. This is just another phase of his life. His knowledge, experience and expertise are all still there. So is the joy and the fun.
He turned 40 on April 8 and make no mistake, it was a celebration. It has been difficult in the past two years and it is still difficult. But this is the new normal. What are you going to do? Wallow in self-pity? Not if you’re John Thomas and Caroline McNamara.
They know the realities but are comforted beyond measure by the human reaction, the kindnesses. How people rallied around to raise €800,000 for the Jockeys’ Emergency Fund on behalf of JT and Jonjo Bright at Limerick Racecourse the October after the accident will never be forgotten. The myriad of fundraisers since and not just those of a large scale for the Emergency Fund, the IIJ and McNamara’s own trust fund. Locals rallying around. People they don’t even know organising coffee mornings. That sort of stuff touches your soul. It’s a life-giver and a life-saver.
Then there are the visits that continue to this day. JP and Noreen McManus, Jonjo and Jacqui O’Neill, AP McCoy, Michael Hourigan, Gordon Elliott, Dr Adrian McGoldrick, Liam and Pat Healy, Mikey Joe Cregan, Danny O’Connell… too many to mention but all welcome and held dear.
Jonjo O’Neill’s positivity and gentle smile is better than any drug. Liam Healy abuses JT verbally and gets abused back. It’s the normal routine if you’re spending any time around the Croom native and those two have been friends for more than 20 years.
“AP was very good to me in England. You could see him morning, noon or night. He could appear at any time. He’s great craic. He called in Dublin too.”
McGoldrick with the “heart of gold”, whose role as Turf Club medical officer is “not just a job”. He would visit just to help kill the time, bringing The Irish Field with him so JT could catch up on all the point-to-point news especially.
McNamara and Elliott go back a long way. “The year I was champion novice rider, it was Gordon that was challenging. For a long time we were neck-and-neck, winner-for-winner. Then I went to Ballysteen – I think it was the first year pointing there – and I rode four winners. That was it then.”
Again, people were so moved that they called in, even if they didn’t know him.
“There was a lady used to go into see you in Southport” recounts Caroline. “Eithne. She used to call in every now and then with dinner or a tin of biscuits. Her father was in the hospital and she’d call in after seeing him.”
These visits were invaluable as the boredom was the worst about his existence in the hospital, be it Frenchay, Dublin or Southport was torturous. Caroline would stay with JT for three or four days, return home for 10 to tend to the children and keep an eye on the yard.
JT: “It’s unbelievable the amount of people that came to see me. Unbelievable. Jockeys, trainers, owners. Everyone.”
JT: “You name it, they came to see me. And they’re still coming.”
Caroline: “The afternoons and the evenings can be long so it’s great, to kill a couple of hours.”
So now I know why I have been invited.
JT: “Talking shite.”
“I guess I had to go to that place to get to this one.”
- Eminem, Not Afraid
The McNamaras were well matched. Tough cookies. If you’re peddling pity, go somewhere else. They’ll see the humour in anything. Even the poor man who by reflex, put a hand out when greeting JT.
“John said ‘If you’re waiting for me to shake your hand, you’ll be waiting a long time’” says Caroline with a chuckle.
They met in Aunty Lena’s, the local bar in Adare where the likes of Hourigan’s staff, and people working at Clonshire Equestrian Centre tended to congregate. Caroline Maxwell liked horses but wasn’t a racing nut. She’d go to the local point-to-points alright and became a regular when going out with JT. They got married in 2003 and have three children: Dylan (8 ), Harry (6), Olivia (3).
He was never one for mushy words, not in public anyway but she gives as good as she gets. They’re the greatest tag team since The Road Warriors.
DÓC: “You’re always slagging Caroline but she is very important to you.”
JT: “At times.”
Caroline: “Would you like to say something nice?”
JT: “Nah. I’m fine.”
What a gift it is to see those twinkling eyes, the raised eyebrows, the feigned look of world-weariness. It’s all there. And Caroline smiling at the good of it all.
They’re here but it’s been a long and difficult journey. And it remains difficult. JT had a number of brushes with death and nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.
There have been so many issues, so much despair. Forget about the obvious fact that McNamara can only move his head and has to surrender himself completely. He is reliant on other people to wash, feed, clothe him. There isn’t a thing about him that he can keep to himself.
For Caroline, dealing with the spotlight was hard. A private person – they both are – suddenly there were articles and photographs everywhere, even if they didn’t make any public proclamations themselves. This is only their second interview.
With two carers living in the house 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is tough for the family to have their own space. At present, they are using the home of Caroline’s mother Phil, because it is more accessible. Plans on the redevelopment of their own place in Croom are scheduled to be submitted soon. Apart from making it wheelchair friendly, designs will provide living space for the carers separate to the family areas. These things are important and will make it all a little easier.
The only time he gets visibly emotional is when the discussion turns to the kids. And that’s not just because Liam Healy has Dylan wearing a Kerry jersey. It has been a lot for them to deal with and it as the conversation goes on about how events have impacted on them that you see his eyes moisten. He can take never getting up on a horse again no problem. He would love to be able to play with his children.
Caroline: “I’m sure it has affected them. It can’t have but affected them. Especially Dylan. But at the same time, they’re resilient, and when they ask the questions you give them a straight answer. They’re just happy he’s at home and as far as they’re concerned, that’s all they want.”
Is that the hardest?
JT: “Yeah. Yeah.”
You look at his chair, with bits of what seem like gaffer tape stuck around the side of it.
JT: “It’s a ball of shite.”
When it arrived at first in Southport from Ireland, it didn’t even have a reverse gear.
JT: “I couldn’t go into the lift down there because I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t reverse it.”
It was exasperating, maddening. For a man who had lost his independence, this was something so vital. Something he could do by himself, giving him a little bit of control back. And yet by the time he could go backwards and a number of other tweaks were made, it was only last February – 12 months after getting the chair and eight months after arriving at home - that he was able to drive it his own. What an indictment on the health system.
JT: “Everything is eight weeks. A screw missing it’s eight weeks.”
Caroline: “There’s plenty screws missing in it now.”
JT: “I’ll keep driving it. I’ll drive it into the ground.”
He has taken delivery of a new chair and has taken it for a test drive.
JT: “The new one is fast. I went down the road in it the other night and it was fairly good. It’s faster than this.”
Caroline: “We have to have a proper sense of reality. Life isn’t easy. But you get on with it. You have to take each day as it comes. We can’t look too far ahead either because of the nature of the injury.
“We were hoping if he could get off the ventilator but unfortunately that didn’t come. It is what it is. It just puts more of an obstacle in the way. You’ve so many different kinds of spinal cord injuries. Everybody’s different. It’s just that one little part of the injury, if he didn’t have the ventilator, then the picture would be very different. Wouldn’t it?
JT: “Yeah. But sure I’m stuck with it now.”
There’s no self-pity in that statement. Just fact.
The greatest cause for celebration of all when he had his birthday was the fact that he was home. In the bosom of those he loved and who loved him. Not independent but with a form of it, especially once the chair was fixed and he could start going to work without having to be pushed around everywhere.
He had set up the yard while still riding, planning for retirement. It was going well when the world caved in but Caroline, Kari Mohan, Brian Lenihan and Aidan O’Leary kept the show on the road for when he returned.
“I’d be so bored otherwise. You need something to get up and go to. It would be a very long day otherwise, sitting at home.”
A little momentum was inevitably lost but he is adamant about kicking on now, becoming more visible, having been at Limerick racecourse a couple of times and at the Lemonfield and Kilmallock point-to-points. He intends going to Goffs, Land Rover and Derby sales too, looking to pick up a bargain and letting people know that he is active. If you buy a store horse and want it prepared for racing before going to its trainer, John Thomas McNamara is your man.
This is a guy described by Davy Russell as the best horseman of all the jockeys he had ever ridden against. He was champion point-to-point rider five times before Derek O’Connor began his domination but continued to lord the western area, bringing his number of titles in the region to 10 when annexing a fifth in a row in 2008.
The following season, he qualified for senior status and farmed that category every year, including in 2013, when his career ended on Cheltenham turf. In all, he rode 602 winners between the flags. Only O’Connor and Jamie Codd, who he admires for changing the face of point-to-point riding, have surpassed him.
Carlingford Lough is just one example of his prowess in preparing future stars.
“I had him as a young horse, pre-training. He was a lovely horse back then. I’d say there would be plenty more races in him. He’ll miss AP.”
On The Fringe is another who has the McNamara stamp on him, with JT having won a couple of hunter chases on him for Enda Bolger. He told the trainer that he had a really good horse on his hands. He told everyone else while he was at it.
“He always let me down the fucker. But this year he seems a lot better altogether. He won with his head in his chest in Cheltenham. I knew he’d win in Liverpool, I’d been saying it for a while. I knew it would suit him.
“They rang me when he won in both places. They were just going into the parade ring. It was nice that they were thinking of me.”
Nina Carberry cried during her post-race interview. They had always been close.
JT: “I was glad to see her winning on him more than anyone else.”
Caroline: “Enda’s duo.”
It’s the same JT except he cannot physically get up on the horses. That doesn’t bother him and with the calibre of rider he can call in, it isn’t necessary. The mind is razor-sharp. The eye, the know-how, the ability to spot a kink, to sense the answer, the years of experience. They are all still there. It will be a case of ticking over during the summer but you would expect his Croom property to be buzzing with activity next September.
At present, he has 29 boxes in three barns, and about 14 horses in. He has a couple of his own and would like to build up a small team of point-to-pointers, given that his roots are in this sphere. As well as that, the industry has been revolutionised and if you can find a few nice ones, there’s money to be made.
“One nice one would do, not to mind a few.”
He does have a Kalanisi gelding called It Has To Be, who ran in Kilmallock recently but was badly interfered with and ran poorly as a result.
“I thought he was going to win. Them things happen. There’d be no sport if they won all the time. If we’re lucky we’ll be back in the autumn and hopefully we’ll win then.”
It Has To Be is a half-brother of the JP McManus-owned, Enda Bolger-trained My Hometown. Bolger is renowned as a Bruce Springsteen acolyte – JT is fan too but not on the Bolger scale. The trainer has named many of his horses after songs penned by The Boss but this one came at the suggestion of McManus, after Springsteen dedicated the song to McNamara at his concert in Thomond Park in July 2013.
He is highly promising too and after winning his four-year-old maiden at Dromahane last December, made a successful debut on the track in Limerick three weeks later, with JT in attendance on his first racecourse appearance since leaving Cheltenham in a helicopter. That was wonderful.
He goes to work every morning apart from Sunday, getting into his van at 7.45am. He loves the stimulation of the work, the fresh air, the wind brushing against his face and through his hair, the smell of the horses. His instinct kicks in as he interacts with his riders.
There is no sadness here. This is peace. McNamara has lost so much but has a lot more than when he was lying in a bed staring at the ceiling. He has more than when his chair could only go forward. Now he sees the good and the bad in the horses, works out how to fix them, make them jump, settle or lie upsides if they’re not straightforward. He revels in the puzzle, working that brain, using his genius.
On the way home, he might drop into the deli for a roll and will watch the racing in the afternoon and evening, making sure he is up to date with everything that’s going on. He can use his laptop too, by blowing on the keys and takes phone calls from anyone and everyone. He is a businessman now.
Caroline: “People can treat you as somebody who’s sick rather than treat you as someone who’s in a chair and can go out there and do something. It might be a different way of doing it but you can do it. It’s a different quality of life. It mightn’t be the quality of life you want or wanted. But this is what it is and you have to make the most of it.”
He is open for business.
JT: “Send them on.”
You don't always have a choice about what happens to you in life but you always have a choice about how you deal with it. It is a blessing to be focussing on John Thomas McNamara’s face because of how he and Caroline have dealt with their grievous misfortune, and the hurdles they have encountered in the past couple of years. You see the character. You see life.
He is out there now. Lemonfield and Kilmallock were a challenge as the terrain isn’t ideal of a chair. “I’m like Noddy” he smirks, doing a re-enactment of his head bobbing up on down.
If he decides he wants to go, he says he’s going. Caroline then works out if it’s practical, not in health terms, but when it comes to accessibility. Being at the Dunraven Arms Cheltenham preview night was enjoyable. He is really looking forward to Limerick today, where a charity race is being run raising funds for Irish Injured Jockeys. Sheikh Fahad Al Thani is taking part along with Johnny Murtagh, Kevin Darley, Kevin O’Ryan, Peter Molony and many others. JT might even try to stick the Sheikh for a horse, if the chance arises!
It is important to the McNamaras that they support the event but what is really has JT buzzing is the impending trip to Punchestown. It is no surprise, given the stamp he left on the festival, what he is looking forward to most.
“I’ve no interest in the Grade 1s although there’ll be some great horses. I’ll be there for the banks races, the La Touche and the Ladies Cup.”
Is there a knack to riding the banks?
“Have a good trainer behind you. I was mad for it. I loved it. I used to do a load of hunter trials. My favourite day was Bolger’s 10th La Touche on Spot (Spot Thedifference). He was an unbelievable horse. You’d never beat him if he was there at the bottom of the hill. Whatever it was, he changed gears and flew.”
Watching Carlingford Lough and On The Fringe compete will be a thrill too. He loves horses and that is why there is no regret or recrimination about what happened him and how. No one is to blame.
JT: “I’d be a lot worse if it happened to me in a car crash.”
Caroline: “You wouldn’t accept it I think.”
JT: “No. No way. I loved doing the racing and ‘twas always a risk.”
Caroline: “I think sporting people, who are so competitive, that’s why they are competitive. They can get their head outside of that picture. You wouldn’t do it. Us normal people that don’t have that streak wouldn’t be able to necessarily go out there every day knowing what might happen.”
So he is going to live life as hard and fast as he can. What tomorrow brings, let it bring.
Caroline: “You’ve had your medical trials and tribulations but you’re home, you’re out. You’re able to go racing. You’re able to go to work. So life is moving on. Whereas up ‘til you came home, it was at a standstill. Now, off with you.”
JT: “I need to drive on.”
This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Field, April 2016.