'Exercise Rider to the Stars' Joanne McNamara Passes at 67

Joanne McNamara & Charismatic | Getty Images

by Cathy Riccio and Jennie Rees

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.

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 also became a prominent broodmare, producing Kentucky Oaks winner 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 D. Wayne Lukas in the late 1980s in what proved a long and fortuitous association for both.

“Joanne had such a passion for the sport,” Lukas said. “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 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, who was outstanding. But Cash Run really stepped up and we secretly were not surprised when she won the race, defeating 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.”

McNamara later went to work for trainers Dallas Stewart and Nick Zito before returning to Lukas' barn. Among the horses she got on for Stewart were 2001 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Unbridled Elaine.

“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 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.

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