Donn's Articles » Robbie and Andrew McNamara

Robbie and Andrew McNamara

Robbie is happy to sit on the sofa there, beside Andrew.  Sure enough, nimble as you like, he flicks himself out of his wheelchair and onto the couch before you have the chance to feel even a little awkward about helping or not helping, before you have even had the chance to offer to help.  His brother Andrew sits down beside him, same smiles, same blue shirts, same team, same hymn sheet.

“I remember looking at my legs after the fall,” Robbie is saying, “and they wouldn’t work.  But it didn’t even register with me.  I was just in so much pain in my chest.  I couldn’t breathe, and I was more worried about that than my legs.  Even when I got to Wexford Hospital, they were asking me to move my toes, and I couldn’t, but I couldn’t really think about that, I was just trying to breathe.  It wasn’t until about three days later that I realised I was paralysed.”


It was on 10th April this year that Robbie McNamara’s life changed.  The actual fall from Bursledon in that handicap hurdle at Wexford was not that hard, but the impact of the horse behind him was.  Like a juggernaut hitting you at full speed, he tells you.  He means physically, but he could mean metaphorically too. 

Andrew was also riding in that handicap hurdle at Wexford.

“My horse had made a terrible mistake earlier,” he says.  “So I ended up wide of Robbie.  But for that, it actually could have been me who would have come up behind Robbie.  I don’t really remember much about after the race.  They told me that Robbie had had a bad fall.  They kind of said to me, it’s fine, you should ride for the rest of the day.  I knew that they were very worried, that it was very serious, but I thought that I should ride on.  I knew that if I stopped riding, it would frighten the life out of everyone.  So, for the sake of calm, for our parents, for our cousins, I decided to continue riding for the day.  There wasn’t anything that I was going to be able to do at the hospital anyway.”

Broken ribs, collapsed lung.  For two hours, Robbie struggled for breath, he struggled to get get his lungs to expand. 

“I don’t think Robbie realised it at the time.  We certainly didn’t realise it, but for about two or three days, they were afraid that he would die.  His lung was inflated in Wexford, but even after he was moved to the Mater in Dublin, they were still afraid that he would die.”

“I remember bits of all of that,” says Robbie.  “I remember being in Wexford, and I remember them moving me to Dublin.  When we got to the Mater, I remember telling them not to move me to the right, that there was nothing holding my right side together.  Then they went to move me onto the spinal board, they still moved me to my right.  My skin moved, my arm moved, but my body didn’t move.  It was like picking up a bag with knives in it.  I’ll never forget the pain.  I don’t remember a lot about those days, but I remember that.  I’ll never forget that.”

There was pain and there was reality.

“In the Mater, I had a little bit of feeling in my left hip, and I was thinking, the feeling is coming back.  But actually, that feeling was probably there all along.  I was giving myself false hope.  There was a little bit of spinal shock that might have worn off a small bit.  I knew after two weeks.  You’re still hoping, and that hope didn’t do me much good.  You’d be waking up every day, hoping for a miracle.  Once you accepted it, it was a lot easier.”

People who followed Robbie on Twitter at the time would have been encouraged by positive messages and photos.

“I don’t know if it was denial really.  I think I was on so many drugs, it generally didn’t bother me.  It was probably only after about five weeks that reality really set it.  Spinal shock can last up to five weeks, and that coincided with the drugs wearing off, I was being weaned off them.  I’d say either one of those on their own would have been tough, but the two together made it very difficult.”

And there was also the combination of the mental and the physical.

“When you are paralysed, you have to retrain your bowel and your bladder.  That started in Dun Laoghaire and lasted a fortnight.  That was just about the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life.  I’ve got the hang of it now thank God.  If it was just sitting in a chair and not being able to walk, you’d deal with that, but that was the toughest thing.  That would break any man.”

There was also the guilt that he felt when he saw those closest to him struggling, parents Andrew and Kathleen, siblings Andrew and Elizabeth.  They are a close-knit family.  You can see it even in the warmth of the interaction between the two brothers as they sit in front of you on the sofa.

“We went through it all at a completely different time to Robbie,” says Andrew.  “They call it a grieving process.  We went through it immediately, while Robbie was drugged out of it.  Me personally, I was probably starting to come around to the idea just when it was starting to hit him.” 

The brothers speak with candour, with pragmatism.  There is no hint of self-pity, no effort to play the victim, but nor is there an effort to dress anything up for what it isn’t.  They have experience.  They had been through it all before in March 2013 with John Thomas McNamara, Andrew and Robbie’s first cousin.

“Consciously, I don’t think it affected my riding,” says Andy.  “But sub-consciously, I’d say it did.  Every day I’d went racing, literally, I’m not joking, I could have been asked about Robbie 50 times.  I didn’t mind, it was nice that people were concerned, but it meant that he was always on my mind.”

Andrew was riding a horse at Clonmel in May, Just Call Me, trained by his dad, owned by JP McManus.  As ever, people were asking about Robbie before racing.  In the weigh room, outside the weigh room, everybody concerned about his brother.  Andrew fielded all the questions, answered all the well-wishers, then put on the green and gold silks and made his way into the parade ring before the race.

“Well, how is he?” asked Frank Berry, JP’s racing manager.

“He’s not bad,” said Andrew.  “He had quite a good day yesterday.”

“That’s great,” said Frank.  “And how’s the horse?”


The McNamara brothers have always been close.  There was that obligatory period that every person who has ever been an elder sibling goes through, when Robbie was Andrew’s annoying little brother, but even as kids they were a tightly-knit unit.

“Andy wouldn’t really have said too much when I was growing up,” says Robbie.  “He used to beat me up more than anything else.  I remember he threw me out over the bottom of the bed one day and I hurt my back.  Maybe it’s a bit ironic now, but I remember running down the stairs to my mother shouting that I was paralysed.”

“He was an annoying little fellow,” says Andrew.  “He always wanted to be a jockey, but I didn’t think he would ever make it.  He was small and fat.  He grew about six inches and lost about two stone within a year.”

It was at Kinsale on the final weekend of the 2003/04 point-to-point season that something clicked for Robbie.  Andrew was challenging for the novices’ riders’ championship.  He had ridden a treble at Clonakilty the previous weekend, and that gave him a chance, that put him on 19 winners, two behind Colman Sweeney and Robbie Moran. 

Andrew had 11 rides at Kinsale.  He won on five of them, finished second on five of them, and won the championship by two.

“I thought he was very good at Kinsale,” recalls Robbie.  “Very tidy.  It was from then that I started to think that I would like to be a jockey.”

There followed two sparkling riding careers.  Andrew turned professional a week after winning the novices’ championship.  He could have done whatever he wanted to do.  515 points in his Leaving Certificate easily secured him a place on a Computers and Maths degree programme in Limerick, but gradually horses and racing trumped college. 

There were many highs.  Hi Cloy’s John Durkan Chase, Sky’s The Limit’s Drinmore Chase, Catch Me’s Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, Tranquil Sea’s Paddy Power Gold Cup.  But two stand out: Newmill’s Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2006, and Beef Or Salmon’s Hennessy Gold Cup in 2007, when he surfed the roar of the crowd on the run-in and got up to beat The Listener by three parts of a length.

“I always knew that I was going to get there that day.  Really.  The whole race, I thought we’d win.  It might sound ridiculous now, but even when The Listener kicked clear, I still thought we’d catch him.  It was like Beef Or Salmon knew it too.  He just wore him down.  The crowd that day at Leopardstown was something else.  And then to win the James Nicholson Champion Chase at Down Royal on The Listener the following season was brilliant.  The Listener was just the most fun you could have on a racehorse.”

For Robbie, it was all about Cheltenham 2014.

“I’d probably built Cheltenham up a bit too much in my own head,” he says.  “To ride a winner at Cheltenham.  I’d ridden a good few fancied horses there, Rite Of Passage, Elegant Concorde, Abbeybraney, Becauseicouldntsee.  It was the one thing.  I’d say if I had had a winner ridden at Cheltenham, I’d have stopped riding two or three years ago.  Honestly.  There were years there when I’d be starting off again, at the start of the season, when I’d be having to lose weight, and the big thing that kept me going was the thought of riding a winner at Cheltenham.”

Andrew knew how much it meant to him too.

“If you’d asked me a few years ago if I gave a shit whether or not Robbie rode a winner at Cheltenham, I’d have said no, I’d much prefer if I rode another one.  I didn’t think it bothered me at all.  Then I was in the owners’ and trainers’ bar, watching him on Becauseicouldntsee in the Kim Muir in 2012.  He jumped the last in front and I started screaming at the television.  He was run out of it in the end by Sunnyhillboy.  I turned around, and everyone was looking at me, this eejit screaming at the television.  And I thought, I hadn’t realised I cared that much!”

It was before the Champion Bumper in 2014 that Robbie got the leg up on Silver Concorde.

“I have no memory in my life as clear as my ride on Silver Concorde that day.  I remember coming down the hill, just at the bottom of the hill Ruby was in front of me and Tony McCoy was just on his outside.  As we turned around the bend, I knew McCoy was going to come in on me around the bend, so I just gave my fellow a squeeze, to hold my position.  He took off on me.  I nearly stopped riding then, because I knew then that I was going to ride my Cheltenham winner.” 

He didn’t stop riding.  He rode Silver Concorde up the home straight, up the hill and punching and kicking all the way to the line.

“We hit the front about a furlong out, and he started to idle on me.  And I thought, ah no, don’t do this to me now!  But when we passed the line.  It was just something I had built up in my own head.  The elation, doing something I wanted to do all my life, finally doing it.  I’d had the moment.  On the way back in, I was looking around for my father, I knew he’d be there.  And I caught his eye.  He just did that.  (Thumbs up.)  That was all.  I went into the weigh room and I cried for an hour.”

The following day, he went out and won the Kim Muir on Spring Heeled. 


Ironic that the two brothers are to set up as trainers within a couple of months of each other.  Andrew has had problems with his back.  He always knew that he wouldn’t ride until he was 39 or 40. 

“I’ve been kind of preparing for it for a while,” he says.  “I’ve been learning as much as I could from different yards, picking up bits and pieces from different trainers.  I didn’t just decide, okay I’m going to do this tomorrow.  There are certain things that I will do.  I know that I’ll do a lot of flat work, for example.  Sharper work over shorter distances.” 

His last ride was a winner, Most Honourable at Tramore on 14th August.  It wasn’t that important to him initially that he would go out on a winner, but it was important on the day.  He just called the people that he thought he should call, he wanted to let people know that he was going to be retiring.  When he called Shark Hanlon, Shark said, right, leave that with me, we’ll get you out on a winner.  That was a great day.

“I had horses before I stopped riding.  I bought horses at the Land Rover Sale and the Derby Sale.  I’ve got a few more since, I’m busy away now with them, and I have a couple of others who are more forward than that.  I do the trainers’ course in November and I expect to have runners in December.  I’ll keep doing the RTE thing as well.  I enjoy that and it keeps my eye in.”

Robbie’s set-up is a little further away.  Next April, he says.  He knows what he wants to do.  He took in seven or eight horses last year and broke them, got them going.  He will base himself on The Curragh, and he already has promises of horses from some good owners, most notably from Silver Concorde’s owner Dr Ronan Lambe. 

“The facilities on The Curragh are second to none.  The key is to know how to use the gallops.  I know The Curragh very well.  I’ve seen how people like Dessie Hughes and Dermot Weld use the gallops, and I have a very definite idea in my head as to how I will do it.”

He spent a morning with Aidan O’Brien recently, and that was great.

“When I have been going around to different trainers over the last nine or 10 years,” says Robbie, “you’d always come away with one or two things that you could do, but you’d usually come away with three or four things that you shouldn’t do.  When I left Aidan O’Brien’s, I didn’t come away with anything that I shouldn’t do.”

Neither brother is under any illusion about the magnitude of the task that they face.  National Hunt racing in Ireland has never been more competitive than it is now.  Some very good trainers are struggling, others have given up.

“For me,” says Andrew, “it is similar to when I left college to be a jockey.  I wasn’t champion amateur or anything then, I was starting from scratch, everyone was telling me that I shouldn’t do it.  I very much want to do this, work hard at it, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.  But I want to give it a good go.”

“I’m very grateful to Dr Lambe,” says Robbie, “who is going to back me from the start.  That is a huge plus.  That will make it a lot easier for me.  If I can’t train winners, it will be because of the way I train horses, not because of any other reason.”


Robbie moved into a new house last week.  He’s getting his car on Friday.  Slowly, gradually, he is getting his life together and getting into a routine.  He tries to get out of the house as often as he can, three or four days a week at least.  It’s important to get out.  Important to be active.

“I have been living with Bryan Cooper for the last four years, that was grand, but it wasn’t a viable option to stay there.  I didn’t really want to go back home either.  It would have been very easy to go back there, my mother would have looked after me, but I wanted to get out on my own.  Even when I was in Dun Laoghaire, I got out as often as I could, so when I left Dun Laoghaire, out into the world, it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been.  I had done a lot of it already.” 

He hasn’t held back.  He went to the Galway Festival, he went to Navan, he went to see his old friend Forgotten Rules, he went to The Curragh on Irish Derby day, he went to Las Vegas.

“I had always wanted to go to Vegas.  There were five of us, myself, Tony McCoy, Carl Llewellyn, Alain Cawley, Dominic Elsworth.  That was some craic.  We had four full days over there.  They were a right few days.”

He has a golf machine, a machine that you drive around the golf course like a wheelchair, but when you want to take your shot, it stands you up so that you can swing.  He was playing off five when he had his accident.  He accepts that he probably won’t get down to five again, but there are a few lads he plays with who play off 14 or 15, and if he could keep his handicap at around that level, he will be happy.

He is getting on with things.  Good people around him and a good plan for the future in place.  A family and a brother who would do anything for him.  Content within himself.  Sitting on the sofa. 

© The Irish Racing Yearbook, 2016