JOCKEY Robbie McNamara who enjoyed success on the double during the Cheltenham Festival has been named the Limerick Person of the Month.
The 25-year-old Croom man recorded a memorable first win at the famous festival when partnering the Dermot Weld-trained Silver Concorde to victory in the Weathersbys Champion Bumper on March 12.
And he continued on his winning ways just 24 hours later when he stormed up the Prestbury Park hill aboard Jim Culloty’s Spring Heeled in the Kim Muir Chase.
Poignantly, it was in the same race that his cousin JT McNamara was seriously injured the year previously.
“I didn’t ride in the race that year. I remember seeing the fall and I knew straight way that it was fairly serious. It was lovely to ride a winner but it meant something to win the race that JT got the fall in,” said Robbie this week on being presented with his award at the Clarion Hotel.
After nine years of riding for Dermot Weld – he joined him the morning after finishing his last exam at Crescent College Comprehensive – and after competing in something like 16 or 17 races at the Cotswolds track, winning the Champion Bumper for Weld, Robbie said, was something special.
“It was brilliant. I rode there when I was 17 and growing up, it was somewhere I always wanted to ride a winner. I had ridden plenty of favourites and none of them had won.”
Growing up in Croom, the young Robbie McNamara was surrounded by horses.
Robbie’s father Andrew trained Boreen Prince to win the Arkle Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 1985.
“I played a lot of rugby – I played prop for Crescent Comp, and hurling and football, but they were off my own bat – I was supported in anything I was doing but horses were the only thing at home. If you asked my father what age some fella was, he would say ‘well, he was born the year such and such won the Champion Hurdle’ – everything is related back to horses so that is always going to rub off on you.”
Even though the family is steeped in horse racing, the young Robbie didn’t seriously consider becoming a jockey for some time. He felt his frame and weight - he now stands at 6’3” – wouldn’t fit the bill.
A trip up to Niall Madden, a trainer in the Curragh, one summer however, changed all that.
“I ended up losing around a stone-and-a-half and when I came back I was offered a chance to do it so I grabbed it with both hands, worked hard at it and got down to a light weight. I got taller over the years and filled out.”
Robbie’s brother, Andrew Jnr, is also a well-known jockey – he partnered Newmill to victory in the 2006 running of the Queen Mother Champion Chase - and Robbie recalls having to watch him on the television at home with the rest of the family which is completed by his mum Kathleen and sister Elizabeth.
Robbie’s first trip to Cheltenham was not as a spectator but as a competitor.
“I was 17 or 18. It was a brilliant feeling,” he recalls. “I had been in school every other time - my mother would be strict enough, she wouldn’t allow me over. I remember seeing Andrew riding over there and winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase and from that day on I really wanted to ride a winner.”
As soon as the last of the Christmas turkey and ham has been digested, thoughts turn to Cheltenham for the racing faithful, Robbie included.
“It is the highlight of the year,” he points out. “You are looking forward to that for three to four months. On my first trip over I didn’t ride until the Thursday – I went over on the Tuesday and I couldn’t believe how big the place was - the crowd was humongous... then to hear the roar at the first race. I have ridden in that race a few times and you are a good quarter of a mile away from the stands and you can hear the roar as clear as can be.”
The amateur jockey is based at Dermot Weld’s training yard at the Curragh.
“I live about two minutes from the yard – it’s very central for racing around the country. We don’t start until 7.45 so you are in for 7.30. In a few of the yards you could be starting at 6 or 6.30. I would be fond enough of my sleep,” he smiles.
“I wouldn’t be in every day. I would be in maybe three days a week. I’m in Mallow on Sunday, Roscommon on Monday, and then we have a break for two days and I’m looking forward to Laytown on Thursday, the beach – that’s on once a year. It’s something different – I rode a winner there two years ago.”
If he could ride any horse from the past it would have to be Harchibald - “I would be very considerate on horses and easy on them and he was a horse that you had to come very late on and be very easy on him” - and from the present day he would love to ride Sprinter Sacre “a class act” and “brilliant to jump”.
He admits that keeping his weight down can be a struggle and finds golf to be a godsend in terms of keeping him away from the kitchen table.
“Come Christmas, I would always work very hard with my weight. I eat healthily and eat as little processed food as I can. I do an awful lot of exercise – I would run maybe eight or 10 kilometres every day and cycle something similar, maybe 15 kilometres. I love playing golf. I eat plenty but healthy food and I try and burn it off rather than starve myself. It’s working for me – my weight is coming down the whole time.”
It’s not all work however - despite their strict regime, jockeys can let their hair down and enjoy the odd beverage.
“I wouldn’t be drinking pints - you’d have a vodka and slimline tonic,” says Robbie of the calorie counting that’s involved.
As a jockey, he is well aware of the dangers associated with the sport but fortunately he hasn’t suffered any serious injuries.
“You get used to it. Last year I broke my collarbone and you’re watching it for a while, scared of breaking it again but after a week in, it goes out of your mind.”
Do jockeys have a higher pain threshold which enables them to bounce back quicker? According to Robbie, the quick recovery rate can be put down to the adrenalin that is pumping through their system at the time of a knock or fall.
“You’re in the heat of it,” he explains. “I broke my collarbone seven times - once at home. The pain at home was terrible but the other six times it was just like getting a punch in the arm.”
Acknowledging that the working life of a jockey is relatively short, Robbie - whose dream race to win would be the Grand National - says he is going to try at some stage to turn professional.
“It’s not ideal with the weight I am but there are still plenty of rides there every week to be got. It will be a little off yet but I will try to turn before I retire.”
The Limerick Person of the Month award is sponsored by the Clarion Hotel, media agency Southern and the Limerick Leader.