(Joanne McNamara, shown reaching into her pocket for a peppermint to give her horse Mojo after a show in Florida. Photo courtesy Patricia McNamara )
Joanne McNamara — the first to be dubbed by the turf media as Exercise Rider to the Stars for the long list of champions and world-class horses she rode in morning training — passed away this past Sunday in Ocala, Fla., after a short battle with cancer. She was 67.
McNamara was born on May 17, 1956, to Edward and Mary McNamara in the town of Bedford, NY, where she and her sister Patricia began showing ponies and finding a niche in the hunter jumper world. Joanne McNamara ultimately found her true calling in the world of Thoroughbred racing, where she excelled with her skill quickly on full display.
From the beginning, McNamara proved she knew how to pick out talent. Working for Hall of Fame trainer MacKenzie Miller and Rokeby Stables in her first racetrack job, she galloped her barn favorite Rokeby Rose, a multiple stakes winner who closed out her career with a win in the G2 Flower Bowl at Belmont Park. Rokeby Rose also became a prominent broodmare, producing Kentucky Oaks winner and $3 million-earner Silverbulletday.
McNamara trained a small stable for her dad and a few other clients for several years, one memorable win being her dad’s homebred Campbell Hall in a maiden-claimer at 67-1 odds in 1984 at Aqueduct. But the lure of working with top horses won out, and she returned to riding and working to help develop horses in the mornings.
“She was more interested in riding than running a training business,” Patricia McNamara said. “So she went back to what she truly loved: galloping fast horses.”
McNamara went to work for record-setting trainer D. Wayne Lukas in the late 1980s in what proved a long and fortuitous association for both.
Some of the outstanding horses McNamara got on for Lukas were Triple Crown race winners Thunder Gulch (1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont, 3-year-old champion), Grindstone (1996 Derby), Horse of the Year Charismatic (1999 Derby and Preakness), Tabasco Cat (1994 Preakness and Belmont), 2-year-old champion Timber Country (1995 Preakness) and Editor’s Note (1996 Belmont) as well as 1995 3-year-old filly champion Serena’s Song (2002 Hall of Fame inductee) and Breeders’ Cup winners Cat Thief (1999 Classic) and Cash Run (1999 Juvenile Fillies).
“Joanne had such a passion for the sport,” said Lukas, who called her Buttercup. “There was never a day she would come to work and not like what she was doing. There were several of the horses she rode for us that she truly bonded with. One horse that comes to mind is Editor’s Note and how well he was doing before the Belmont Stakes in 1996 when he defeated (3-year-old champion) Skip Away and the Preakness winner Louis Quatorze.
“Cash Run was another one that Joanne truly was a big part of her success,” Lukas continued. “When Cash Run was training up to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, we also had Surfside (the 2000 3-year-old filly champion), who was outstanding. But Cash Run really stepped up and we secretly were not surprised when she won the race, defeating (2-year-old champion) Chilukki and Surfside. And later in the day we won the Classic with Cat Thief, and boy did he beat a good field in that race.
“I truly loved her and her passion for our animals.”
Patricia McNamara said her sister was never a gambler, but Joanne certainly knew when a horse was going to run big at a big price. That 1999 Breeders’ Cup at Florida’s Gulfstream Park with Cash Run ($67 to win) and Cat Thief ($41.20) proved that in spades, creating a special afternoon with her family on hand.
“I will never forget my Dad and I went down to Gulfstream to watch,” Patricia McNamara said. “She mentioned that Wayne’s third-string filly, Cash Run, was training great, and if we wanted to bet, we should put a couple of dollars on her. So we did. She went off 32-1 and won the Juvenile Fillies! She also said put a few dollars on Cat Thief, that he was feeling good. We did and he won at 19-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. What a day we had — all because Joanne knew her horses and when they were ready to win!”
McNamara later went to work for trainers Dallas Stewart (a former Lukas assistant) and Nick Zito before returning to Lukas’ barn. Among the horses she got on for Stewart were 2001 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Unbridled Elaine and the multiple stakes-winner Nasty Storm, who upon retirement sold for $1,075,000 as a broodmare prospect.
“She was unbelievable,” Stewart said of McNamara, who became one of his assistants. “All that pressure was nothing to her. Pressure just rolled off her back. She could handle Wayne Lukas, all the great horses like nothing. She was just that good. She knew everything about what needed to be done. She was one of a kind, Jojo. I don’t really know if she knew how good she was. That’s what she did, and she did it well. She cared about things, cared about people. You talk about other ‘exercise riders to the stars.’ She was the real deal.”
McNamara retired a decade ago to move to Ocala to be closer to her family. She is survived by sister Patricia and brother Edward. It was Joanne’s wish to be cremated. A future memorial and life celebration is being planned.
“Joanne had horses in her blood and was still showing horses in some local shows in Ocala,” said longtime horsewoman Cathy Riccio, a close friend and colleague. “If you saw Joanne reaching into her pocket, there was usually a peppermint to reward her equine athletes.”
Story written by Cathy Riccio and Jennie Rees