Donn's Articles » Eric McNamara

Eric McNamara

Eric McNamara thought that his horse had won all right, but he wasn’t certain.  Standing in Leopardstown’s parade ring, fixated on the big screen as they showed the finish of the Paddy Power Chase again, his horse Real Steel on the far side, Noel Meade’s horse Diol Ker on the near side, the two horses’ heads bobbing as they stretched for the line. 

He had watched the race from the parade ring with Real Steel’s owner Tadhg Moynihan but, in a heartbeat they were surrounded by well-wishers, back-slaps and well-dones and congratulations, but he didn’t want to accept them, not before the result was called. Not with so much at stake.  One of the feature races of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, one of the most valuable races on the Irish National Hunt racing calendar.  They showed the finish again on the big screen in slow motion and it looked like Real Steel’s head was down on the line all right but, well, photo finishes, you know?  

“You can never be certain,” says the trainer.

Eric McNamara was going through the catalogue for the Goffs UK Spring Sale in May when he saw that Real Steel was entered in it.  He was looking for a horse potentially for the Kerry National, a race with which he has a particular affinity, given that he has won it three times, twice with Ponmeoath, and once, famously, in 2012, when he had the 1-2, with Questions Answered chased Faltering Fullback home.

“Real Steel had been a very good horse with Willie Mullins,” says the trainer, “and then he had lost his way a bit.  He was a gorgeous horse too to look at, he looked to be sound.  I had 25 grand in my head for him.  I had to go to 27 in the end, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to leave him behind.”

Real Steel had his first run for his new trainer and his new owner at Listowel in September, when he put up an encouraging performance in finishing fourth in a handicap chase.  He stepped forward from that next time at Galway, when he finished second behind Flash De Touzaine. 

“We were happy with his run at Galway, and we knew that he had improved from Galway.  His last couple of pieces of work before Leopardstown were extraordinary.  I knew that he was rasher-fit, and I knew that we had him as good as he could possibly be.”

He discussed the race beforehand with his son Conor, the horse’s rider.  Have him in mid-division, not too handy.  Have him passing horses.

As it turned out, there was a false start and, when they lined up for the second time and the starter said go, Real Steel hesitated a little, lost his position at the start, and was further back in the field early on than they had intended.  But his rider didn’t panic.  He got him into his racing and jumping rhythm from early, allowed him make his ground gradually.

“I think that helped the horse actually,” says Eric.  “I think that he enjoyed that, being out towards the outside, lots of space, and passing horses.”

Eric’s other horse in the race, Donkey Years, departed at the fifth fence.  It was just one of those things, you hold your breath, but horse and rider Mark Walsh were fine afterwards.

Real Steel made good ground at the end of the back straight, but he got in tight to the second last fence, and Conor McNamara had to ride him for a stride or two.  No better than 10th as they raced away from the second last fence, Real Steel responded to his rider’s urgings and made good ground around the home turn.  By the time they got to the final fence, he was level with the leader Ain’t That A Shame.  And then the run-in, where Conor McNamara was strong, drove his horse home.

Eric McNamara has trained many big-race winners.  All those Kerry Nationals, graded races with Larkwing and Little Green and Marhaba Million, lots of good handicaps with good horses, the Grade 1 Prix Alain Du Breuil with Strangely Brown.  He watched from home as his son Emmet won the behind-closed-doors Epsom Derby on Serpentine.  But to train a Paddy Power Chase winner at Leopardstown at Christmas, the crowds, the occasion, with your son riding.  This one was right up there.

He sat in the passenger seat in the car on the way back down the road and, between the time that they left Leopardstown’s gates and the time that they arrived in Adare, he answered calls and messages.  Two hours in the car, non-stop on the phone, responding to well-wishers.

By then, of course, they had announced the result.  First number 27.  Exhale.

© The Sunday Times, 1st January 2023