JT McNamara: A tribute to the much-admired Irish jockey

JT McNamara
JT McNamara was known as one of national hunt racing's most hardy riders

Former colleagues and one-time rivals who visited John Thomas - JT - McNamara when he was lying in hospital, terribly injured, in the days and weeks after his paralysing Cheltenham Festival fall, understandably found it difficult to contain their emotions.

This guy that they'd known for his fearsome reputation as one of national hunt racing's hardest, and most difficult opponents to beat, was now motionless from the neck down, and struggling at times to breathe let alone speak.

But, remarkably, McNamara and his wife Caroline refused to be downcast, preferring to confront their plight head-on, politely asking visitors to take any tears they might care to shed outside the room.

It was that attitude of bloody-minded determination not to give in - AP McCoy had a tone of awe in his voice, I thought, when describing his friend on BBC radio as "very mentally strong" - that made him such an inspiration to so many.

And, my goodness, strength of extraordinary quantities was needed after the winner of Cheltenham Festival trophies and holder of point-to-pointing records was so cruelly propelled from saddle to 24-hour care that March afternoon in 2013.

Miraculously, when you consider the gloomy prognosis as the air ambulance took him away from the racecourse, he eventually got home to County Limerick, the area of his birth, to a specially-designed bungalow, and started working with a small number of horses and even making occasional trips to the races.

His changing room colleagues have, of course, felt it all most keenly, in the knowledge that this fate could so easily have befallen them; horses fall in jump races every day of every week, and an inch here or an inch there can make all the difference in terms of walking away or not.

But in addition, McNamara's story resonated across the racing world and on to the wider public probably to a large extent because of its poignancy.

When Galaxy Rock fell, at the first fence, in the Festival's Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase, the then 37-year-old was considered to still be very much at the top of his game, and memories of great days and celebrations with Cheltenham winners like the prolific Spotthedifference and Teaforthree were fresh in the memory.

Although he'd never turned professional, the principal reason had nothing to do with ability, but, crucially, that amateur status allowed him to remain a big riding fish on Ireland's renowned point-to-pointing circuit, something of a show window for potential buyers.

JT McNamara
JT McNamara's win on Grand Champetre in the 2011 handicap Steeple Chase was one of his Cheltenham triumphs

So, he was, as they say, going well, but he'd also spoken to friends about the possibility of retiring in the not too distant future; heartbreakingly, the decision was never his to make.

And then last year, in a barely believable twist, his first cousin Robbie McNamara was confined to a wheelchair by a fall, in Ireland, on the eve of the Grand National at Aintree in which he was due to take part.

Happily, Robbie has recovered enough to be training and, to considerable all-round pleasure, saddled his first winners in July to create some rays of light in what has otherwise been a desperately sad series of events.

The story of JT McNamara will, however, never be forgotten: memories of his rampant success in the saddle won't allow that, nor will his extraordinary courage in the face of adversity.

He leaves behind three young children and their loving mother, all of whom have much to treasure.