Racing sometimes crushes us, and the news this week that Irish amateur rider JT McNamara has passed away at the age of 41 is still too raw to process. McNamara was an amateur in rank only; in every other sense he was a wonderful jockey, a Cheltenham Festival winner many times over, a brilliant horseman but much much more importantly, he was a family man.
I was there at the Cheltenham Festival on that fateful day in March 2013 when he was airlifted to hospital; I’ll never forget the eerie silence that signalled fear on the racecourse — a racecourse more famous for its crashing roars of acclaim. It was horrible, but to see McNamara emerge from his injuries — physically wrecked but somehow utterly inspirational — was perhaps the most moving thing any of us have ever seen in racing.
This week, we learned that he has passed away, and no words can do him justice. Our thoughts are with his family, for whom no words can provide enough comfort in their grief.
It’s probably not a huge secret that I’d rather spend a day National Hunt racing than out on the Flat, but one of the great puzzles of the summer code is that of pedigree.
I begin with a disclaimer that will come as no surprise: I am no expert in breeding, equine or — at time of writing — otherwise. When I approach a horse race, I seldom dial up the sire stats when it comes to how best to lose my money. I am far too emotionally attached to the racecourse exploits to worry about what happens in the breeding shed and the roll call of brilliant racehorses who have gone on to deliver very little as stallions is long and infamously illustrious. I feel let down when they are whisked away, sometimes at the end of their three-year-old careers.
One superstar racehorse — and one who gave us three glorious, undefeated summers before being packed off to the breeding barn — appears to be doing all he can to ignite the racing public’s interest in breeding. He is, of course, the mighty Frankel.
Few readers will be unfamiliar with his exploits on course under the late, great Sir Henry Cecil. Earlier this season at the Guineas meeting, a well-known and highly-regarded scribe whose blushes I shall spare told me that he’d heard that trainers were petrified about racing the first crop of Frankel juveniles lest they should flop on course and destroy the stallion career of one who could lay claim to being the greatest ever (don’t get me started again).
What has happened since is fast becoming the story of the season: Frankel’s offspring appear — almost without fail — to be very special indeed. It is hideously early to get over-excited, but frankly, dear Frankel, you’ve set your own high bar of excitement and I was lucky enough to be at Ascot on Saturday to see the Frankel filly Fair Eva win the Princess Margaret Stakes.
She was Frankel’s first Group winner and to see her streak away under the familiar silks of Prince Khalid Abdullah to leave likeable rivals in her wake was to conjure memories of a few years ago. Here was Frankel before our eyes, in blood, sinew and speed.
Fair Eva is already a short-price favourite for next term’s 1000 Guineas and the history books show that there’s many a slip twixt cup and mouth, but the start is auspicious and — for those of us who tend to skip over the bloodstock pages in our daily paper — wonderfully exciting.
Fair Eva’s trainer, Roger Charlton, is unmistakably a Flat-racing man. I don’t know what it is about the different codes that lends itself to physical trends but, with notable exceptions (I’m thinking of David Pipe and Dandy Nicholls), it seems to me that the jumping boys tend towards tubby and the Flat chaps are whippet-like.
Charlton is thin, almost angular, has the look of a stern headmaster and dresses as such. Irregular racegoers could easily be forgiven for failing to recognise his brilliant abilities as a wit, raconteur and — perhaps most relevantly — a pioneer of technology.
Charlton is active and irreverent on Twitter, bringing his many followers the latest news on his charges and joshing with the likes of ATR’s Matt Chapman across social media. His campaigning of Al Kazeem a few years ago was joyous, lowering the colours of the likes of Camelot and invariably running his heart out at all the big middle distance Group 1s.
In his care today he has Time Test who is on course to contest what already looks to be a thrilling Juddmonte International Stakes at York next month. Time Test, like Fair Eva, runs for Prince Khalid and, like Fair Eva, Time Test will evoke memories of the great Frankel in his prime if he sees off the likes of Postponed, The Gurkha and hopefully many more in a few weeks. Charlton deserves more high days in the sun; beneath his immaculate trilby is a character of great warmth and humour waiting to be uncovered.
This week is, of course, Glorious Goodwood and the weather — delightfully — appears to be playing ball. Perhaps it plays second fiddle to the Royal meeting at Ascot in terms of prestige but it is runner-up to nobody else in terms of raw, unadulterated and unapologetic British summer beauty. It reminds us that it’s a great time to be alive.
Hopefully, Brando can change my luck on Saturday; hopefully, Big Orange can warm the heart in Thursday’s Goodwood Cup; hopefully, Frankie Dettori can move one step closer to his 3000th winner onboard Galileo Gold in the Sussex and, hopefully, my linen suit will still fit when I dust it down. It’s a week of hope and a week to celebrate all that is great about Flat racing.