Weekend Interview: Jockey Adam McNamara motoring in racing’s fast lane

Jockey Adam McNamara
Jockey Adam McNamara
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THE Ebor-winning jockey Adam McNamara might just – in normal circumstances – have purchased a sleek new sports car after his fairytale win aboard Heartbreak City in Europe’s richest Flat handicap.

After all, the talented teenager would not have been the first up-and-coming rider to spend his share of the £174,300 first prize on a luxury following a breakthrough triumph which saw him become one of the youngest ever jockeys to land this historic race. There’s just one problem – McNamara is still to take his driving test.

And, more importantly, this most driven of 19-year-olds hasn’t even time to book motoring lessons because the Malton-based jockey is too busy accumulating winners and enhancing his status as one of the discoveries of the racing year.

Even the absence of four wheels of his own is proving no handicap – McNamara is simply travelling the length of Britain on horse boxes, even if it means leaving early for the races early and arriving back at the yard of Richard Fahey, his primary trainer, in the dead of night.

Take the past seven days in McNamara’s round Britain tour – Goodwood (Saturday), Beverley (Sunday), Newcastle (Monday), Epsom (Tuesday), Carlisle (Wednesday) and Newcastle yesterday. He heads to Haydock today for two rides before hitching a lift down the M6 to Wolverhampton’s evening meeting. It will be a late finish.

“It’s a good job that I’m one of those people who could sleep on a washing line if they had to,” says the engaging McNamara in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post while on the road to Carlisle where he recorded his 38th win of the year courtesy of Twentysvthlancers.

“I didn’t drive myself – I have to hitch lifts. I’m riding everywhere since the Ebor so I don’t even get the chance to book driving lessons – I might have to cancel them! When the season’s over, I’ll do it. If it’s that, or riding good horses, there’s only one choice...”

There’s no arrogance in the voice of the upwardly mobile Irish-born rider who then landed winner 39 at Newcastle yesterday aboard Lotaro; just a steely resolve to make the most of his talent while also conscious of the potential pitfalls as he makes the transition from promising apprentice entitled to weight allowances – one reason why he is so in demand – to a fully fledged rider competing on equal terms against the likes of Frankie Dettori.

At 5ft 7ins tall, weight is not a perennial issue – though there are times where he has had to lose a couple of pounds in the sauna because a horse has been slow low in the handicap. “The toughest thing about being a jockey is making the weight,” he acknowledges. “I can do 8st 7lb. I’m careful on what I eat.”

There’s a discernible levelheadedness to McNamara whose mantra is simply “to keep improving” because there will always be young riders wanting to fill his boots. “I haven’t set any personal goals other than to be a better rider at the end of the season. The more rides, the better. I’m in a lucky position that I am riding every day. I’ve had six winners since the Ebor – it helped raise my profile.”

Contrary to perception, this proud son of County Limerick was not born to be a rider. His parents Martin and Rachel work in engineering and he caught the riding ‘bug’ when he took up polo-crosse as a 13-year-old. “It’s a mixture of polo and lacrosse. Like polo with nets,” he says. “The rules are very hard to explain. It was very competitive. Great experience. I got picked by the Ireland under 16 team to play in an international tournament. From then on, I was always going to work with horses.”

Time spent riding point-to-point horses in Ireland for John Gleeson, one of McNamara’s early mentors, progressed to summer holidays in Ryedale under the aforementioned Fahey’s tutelage. Not just one of the best academies in the country for Flat riders – the once unheralded Paul Hanagan rose through the ranks to become a two-time champion jockey – but the beginning of the McNamara family’s love affair with York.

“We started going to the Ebor three or four years ago,” he said. “I was riding for Mr Fahey and my parents had come over to pick me up. We just happened to be in Yorkshire and stopped off for the race. We’ve come to the meeting ever since, we never realised how big it was. At no point did I think that I’d be riding in the race so soon.”

A spell working in Ireland for retired jockey Johnny Murtagh, who saddled the 2014 Ebor winner Mutual Regard, led to McNamara making a permanent switch to Yorkshire at the start of the year. Still not qualified to drive a car, McNamara’s rapid rise to prominence even more remarkable because he only rode his first winner on January 21 when Summerinthecity prevailed at Chelmsford. He hoped 2016 would be a year of steady progression. He did not expect to be riding Fahey’s Mayfair Lady to victory on the hallowed Knavesmire before his boss was asked, quietly and confidentially, by Ireland’s top trainer Tony Martin about McNamara’s availability for the Ebor.

The first that the young rider knew about his big race booking was when he checked the declarations 48 hours before the Ebor – his potential, and his five pound weight concession, had been spotted by an eagle-eyed member of the horse’s aptly-named Here For The Craic syndicate. He took all the build-up in his stride – a quick call to the aforementioned Murtagh for some quiet counsel and a detailed chat with Martin about tactics, being no more than three wide entering the home straight and then trying not to hit the front too soon.

They were delivered to perfection before delirium engulfed the York winner’s enclosure. The horse’s owners were soon in need of alcoholic lubrication as they dared to dream of further big race success in Newmarket’s historic Cesarewitch, and possibly Australia’s Melbourne Cup, while McNamara’s parents were overcome with emotion.

Only the horse’s fresh-faced rookie rider kept his cool. Many teenagers would have been embarrassed when hugged by their mother on TV. Not McNamara after landing the one race that he wanted to win more than any other – and at the first attempt.

“I can’t remember what Mum said. It was all a big blur. She was crying. It wasn’t embarrassing, in fact I was proud of her when she went on Channel Four to say what the win meant to her. It made me realise I had done something special,” he said. “It was great for the owners too. That’s what racing is all about – the underdog winning the big prize. I hope to ride Heartbreak City again, but that will be up to Mr Martin. There are no guarantees.”

McNamara missed the raucous post-celebrations – his parents were flying home while he had to get ready for the long road trip to Brighton where he was beaten a short-head in his only ride.

Twenty four hours after winning the Ebor, he spent much of the 290-miles on the road home pondering if he should have done anything different. As Adam McNamara says, all he wants to do is keep improving...and then learn how to drive a car as effortlessly as he rides a horse.

The Adam McNamara story...

THERE was a poignant postscipt to Adam McNamara’s Ebor win when Tom O’Ryan, a top racing journalist and stalwart of the Richard Fahey yard, passed away four days later.

A former rider, O’Ryan, 61, was renowned for mentoring young riders and he had already formed a special bond with McNamara before succumbing to lung cancer. His brother Robin is Fahey’s assistant.

“I spoke to Robin after the Ebor and he said it put a smile on Tom’s face,” said the jockey. “He wasn’t just a mentor and friend, but he was always at the end of the phone, whether you had had a good day or a bad day.”