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Heartfelt tributes paid to 'unique' jockey JT McNamara

By Caroline Crawford

A jockey who broke the mould and broke records others didn't think possible and a man "unique both in and out of the saddle".

John Thomas McNamara passed away at his home in Croom, County Limerick on Monday night, surrounded by his family.

The 41-year-old had battled valiantly after suffering a devastating injury at Cheltenham in 2013 which left him paralysed from the neck down.

After intensive treatment both in Ireland and the UK, JT finally returned home in June 2014 determined to carry on and working as a trainer from his wheelchair. But on Monday night he lost his battle.

As the world of horse racing mourned a much loved son, tributes to the record breaking amateur jockey flowed from some of the greats in the sport, gathered in Ballybrit for the Galway Races.

Among them was renowned trainer and pundit Ted Walsh who said he was "admired, liked and respected by everybody in the racing industry."

"I couldn't pay him a high enough compliment.

"He was an honest to God fella, that's for sure. What you saw was what you got, there was no bad side to JT.

"He was a tough man. I admired him as a rider and I hugely respected him as a man. He was great company and he was the kind of fella you just wish there was more like him in the world," he added.

The thoughts of everyone were with his family, wife Caroline and children Dylan, Harry and Olivia yesterday where the inspirational career of the amateur jockey, who had 600 winners including four winners at the Cheltenham Festival, was also remembered.

Jockey Ruby Walsh told how he had looked up to JT when they met at Enda Bolger's stable when he was just a teenager and JT was a few years older.

"He was a genuine guy and someone whose opinion you respected," he said.

"Honesty was one of his main characteristics and if he had something on his mind, he wasn't long about letting you know. I appreciated that in him back then and all the times since. It's such a sad loss."

Commentator Richard Pugh, founder of Irish Point to Point Services, was a close friend of the jockey for over 20 years.

"He broke the mould," he said. "He broke records which we didn't think were possible, Enda Bulger had a record of 400 winners, John Thomas rode 600, he added 50pc to the previous man's best and the previous man was a good man so he was exceptional."

A close personal friend for 20 years, yesterday was "a hard day" for him and many others. He told how his pal had transferred his resolve and mental toughness to battle against his injury.

"I think the hardest part for us was his mind remained so desperately sharp since the accident, absolutely clinically sharp. I do commentaries and if I made a mistake, the first person who would tell me was him. So to see that his body wasn't able to keep up with his mind was clearly hard for him but it was hard for us his friends watching it too," he said.

"The fact that he was able to battle it for three years was testament to his toughness and his resilience."

Trainer Bolger was also quick to pay tribute to the gifted jockey. McNamara enjoyed a special relationship with the Bolger-trained Spot Thedifference, steering the popular gelding to 11 of his 14 victories under Rules, including seven races at Cheltenham. Bolger said: "It's a sad day. He fought a great battle.

"He was one of those guys who only ever said three words but none would do.

"He was very unassuming and just a great person to have anything to do with.

"We had a lot of great days together and those are what I'll remember him for.

"He was an incredible horseman. I would say he was more of a horseman than a jockey."

Dr Adrian McGoldrick, senior medical officer for the Irish Turf Club, confirmed McNamara passed away peacefully during Monday night, just hours after the first day of the Galway Festival, another meeting where he enjoyed success.

"I remember him winning the big amateur riders' race on the Flat in Galway and that was a great feather in his cap as riding over fences was really his forte," said Bolger.

"He rode some very good horses in bumpers as well, including Like-A-Butterfly, who went on to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

"He had an unbelievable record in Cheltenham.

"I think the Kim Muir was the only amateur race he didn't manage to win.

"He was a great guy and a great jockey and he'll be sorely missed.

"I know the last three years have been hell for him and his family and if there is a heaven, he'll be the first one in, that's for sure."

Spot Thedifference, Rith Dubh and Drombeag were among many horses McNamara steered to big-race success for JP McManus.

The leading owner's racing manager, Frank Berry, said: "It's so sad and all our thoughts go out to Caroline and the rest of the family.

"A nicer fellow you couldn't wish to meet. He was in great form up until maybe a week ago and he's definitely been a fighter. He fought a great fight.

"The boss and him and myself had so many great days together."

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