• Cheltenham Festival

The most poignant of Cheltenham's victories

Rob Bartlett
March 13, 2014
Robbie McNamara and Spring Heeled led from start to finish to claim the Kim Muir Challenge Cup © PA Photos

High-profile racing may frequently provoke heated debate between its most ardent supporters and animal rights activists but, just once in a while, it also throws up a storyline which has more than a hint of Hollywood.

On day three of this year's Cheltenham Festival, known as St Patrick's Thursday, the Irish contingent had to wait until the concluding race to toast a winner - and their patience was rewarded with the most poignant of celebrations.

Twelve months ago, during the 2013 running of the Kim Muir Challenge Cup, John Thomas McNamara - the amateur jockey known as JT - fell heavily at the first fence from his mount Galaxy Rock and suffered an injury which eventually left him paralysed from the neck down.

This week his cousin, Robbie McNamara, rode to victory on Spring Heeled in the very same race.

The fact the win clinched his second Festival winner for trainer Jim Culloty, the former National Hunt jockey who guided Best Mate to a record-three consecutive Gold Cup wins, was sporting trivia.

JT's injury was the sad story which left a stain on last year's Festival, raising questions about jockey safety.

He suffered a fall which seriously injured his neck, had to be airlifted, in an induced coma, from the course to Bristol's Frenchay Hospital, and underwent surgery on fractures to his C3 and C4 vertebrae.

Two weeks later, it was confirmed that he had been paralysed from the neck down; a stark reminder of the dangers faced by jockeys on a daily basis.

"It's a high-risk sport and this is one of the things that can happen," ex-jockey Mick Fitzgerald, who was forced to retire after a fall at the 2008 Grand National meet, told Sky Sports. "As a jump jockey you go out to ride every day knowing it could be your last. You never think it could be you; it always happens to someone else."

JT was treated at the National Spinal Unit at Mater Hospital in Dublin before being moved to the North West Regional Spinal Injuries Centre in Southport.

Over the past 12 months, many of racing's familiar faces have visited him. They've donated to a trust fund set up in his name.

The Injured Jockeys Fund, an organisation in its 50th year, continues to do immense work towards the rehabilitation of injured riders and have been paramount in McNamara's treatment.

Sadly, injuries are commonplace in the sport. On the same day as JT's fall, Davy Russell punctured a lung which ruled him out of a ride in the 2013 Gold Cup. The following July, Irish rider Brian Toomey was induced into a coma after seriously injuring his head in a fall at Perth.

Even this week, the day before the Festival opener, Jason Maguire was in an induced coma after a horse kicked him in the stomach at Stratford. He fractured his sternum and has since had to have some of his liver removed.

Dr Adrian McGoldrick, senior medical officer at The Turf Club, released a statement on behalf of JT McNamara and his wife Caroline before Cheltenham begun this year. It said McNamara was "very conscious that many people are thinking of him".

"John Thomas, his wife Caroline and their extended families are extremely grateful for your ongoing support, prayers and generosity during the past year. He is in excellent spirits and looking forward to watching the festival."

On Wednesday, his cousin Robbie raised hopes that a happier twist could be added to JT's story when he crossed the line ahead of two of the finest Irish riders, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty, as he piloted 16/1 shot Silver Concorde to victory in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper Hurdle.

It was his first ever Festival winner but the victory 24 hours later was the one that meant everything.

McNamara led for three miles one-and-a-half furlongs on board Spring Heeled; the emotional win was never in doubt.

Whatever other storylines this year's Cheltenham produced, the image of Robbie McNamara jumping off Spring Heeled with a grin on his face and his hands held high in the air must have been the most heart-warming.

He knew his cousin was watching.

Rob Bartlett is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk

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