For ambitious jump jockeys, the long goodbye of Mick Fitzgerald has turned this winter into the most exhaustive job interview imaginable. Fitzgerald's announcement last summer that this season would be his last has given Nicky Henderson ample opportunity to mull over a successor - and few candidates will have made a deeper impression than Andrew McNamara, a young Irishman who reminds admirers of Fitzgerald himself.
Still just 23, McNamara turned professional only two years ago, but even the present, golden generation of riders have been unable to contain his ascent. Last spring he won the Queen Mother Champion Chase with a fearless display on Newmill, whose trainer acclaimed him as "a top-class jockey and future champion".
McNamara's Grade One success on Hi Cloy at Aintree the following month was their third of the season and his trainer, Michael Hourigan, has since rewarded him with the mount on Beef Or Salmon - the flawed jewel who defends a cherished place in Irish hearts at Leopardstown next week.
Last winter Shane Donohoe brought six horses over to Musselburgh from his yard in Co Cavan. McNamara won on four of them at combined odds of 556-1. "Andrew's very like his father, who's a man I know well," Donohoe said yesterday. "He's a deep thinker, thinks through everything, things that wouldn't occur to you. He lets a race unfold, gets into a rhythm. You won't see him flapping, second one minute and fifth the next, inside one minute and outside the next. He has an excellent eye for a stride, and plenty of bottle."
McNamara's father, also Andrew, trained Boreen Prince to finish second in the 1983 Champion Hurdle and win the Arkle Trophy two years later. He still trains over 30 horses, and the clan is well known in the south west of Ireland. McNamara's cousin, John Thomas, is a record-breaking amateur and it was in point-to-points that he first made his own name. Hourigan, also based in Co Limerick, soon noticed him and the endorsement of such a wily, tough operator is not lost on anyone.
Beef Or Salmon, after all, is one of the most coveted mounts in Ireland. "To you in England maybe he's a bit of a failure, but here he's a hero," McNamara said. "After he won over hurdles at Fairyhouse last weekend everyone was getting very excited about the Lexus Chase. He has won nine Grade Ones already and sometimes doesn't seem to get enough credit for that, just because of his record in the Gold Cup. But the Lexus is our biggest chase of the winter, and he has won it three times already. It would be an amazing achievement to win it again."
Beef Or Salmon has beaten the past three Gold Cup winners, including War Of Attrition at Down Royal in November. McNamara considers the rematch next week very much a home game for Beef Or Salmon.
"He has been mixing up hurdles and chases so that he didn't get hard races in between his big targets," he said. "If there is a reason for the way he has sometimes run in England, it might not be the travelling but the different style of racing. When he was second to Kauto Star at Haydock he was struggling for rhythm from flagfall. Even at Fairyhouse he needed a slap three out and then suddenly came there very easy.
"But we know he loves Leopardstown, and I thought War Of Attrition had a hard enough race at Punchestown the other day."
McNamara witnessed that finish from fifth on Hi Cloy, a possible for the Stan James King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. "He needed the run but we knew that going there, so were happy enough," McNamara said. "Unfortunately, he has since had this problem with a bruise and so missed a couple of days he could hardly afford. If he does run, I can definitely see him being suited by the easy three miles at Kempton. He's a quick jumper and really took to the flat track at Aintree."
* Today's Fakenham card was abandoned due to frost.