February 24, 2018

The jockey who raced again after reading his own obituary

v4When National Hunt jockey Declan Murphy suffered a disastrous fall at Haydock Park in 1994, after winning all the major races that season, the Racing Post published his obituary. But as he explains here, a furious determination got him back in the saddle.
I was probably four when I sat on my first pony. Where I was brought up, in a little village in County Limerick, we had access to ponies the same way as kids in other countries have access to bicycles.
I learned to ride bareback and when you fell off nobody picked you up. You had to be courageous. I remember trying a saddle for the first time thinking, “Why do people use these?” It didn’t seem natural.
I’d been a leading amateur jockey, but I’d never really wanted to be a professional, the only thing I’d ever wanted to be was a lawyer. I used to read the Jenny Bannister American Diary – about the lives of Irish people who had emigrated to America – in the Irish Independent every Thursday morning before going to school, and I was convinced that that’s where I would be as soon as I had graduated.
In fact I did go to study law at the University of California. I was going to become a criminal lawyer and I had this idea in my head that I was going to put everything right in America.
But then I was invited to England to ride for a famous horse trainer called Barney Curley. He was a gambler and had trained to be a Jesuit priest. The man intrigued me. If he had sold carrots I would probably have gone and sold carrots for him, I was that intrigued by him. It was Barney Curley that introduced me to professional racing.
The greatest sensation one can ever get on horseback is to achieve a perfect rhythm with your horse’s stride pattern – you’re actually at one with half a ton of horse flesh, galloping at 35, 40mph. You get a sense of adrenaline at that speed, calculating the pace exactly to get the horse to finish the race at his strongest. By the end you are completely drained emotionally but you have this feeling of elation – a feeling that carries you, it lifts you.
On that fateful day I was riding the favourite, Arcot, in the last big race of the season. It had been a fantastic year, I had ridden 60 winners.
When Arcot jumped the second last hurdle I was in position to win the race, but suddenly things started to unfold.
My mother had never wanted me to ride horses, but my father loved it and was terribly proud of all my achievements. Both of them were at home watching on TV. Joanna, my girlfriend, was watching on TV too. She had seen me fall many times before and you knew everything was OK when the commentator, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, would say, “And Declan Murphy is up on his feet now.”
But the broadcast that day ended with Peter O’Sullevan saying, “We have no news of Declan Murphy. We will bring it to you when we have it.”
I was put on a life support machine at Warrington Hospital then taken by ambulance with a police escort to the Walton Centre of Neurology in Liverpool. When Joanna arrived she had to wrestle her way through the paparazzi.
The surgeon who had operated on me told her that I had had a very major trauma to the brain and that there was a chance that I wouldn’t survive the next three hours. If I did live for those three hours, I had a 50/50 chance of surviving for the six hours after that, he said. And if I did live after those six hours I would probably be very badly brain damaged.
When they drew back the curtain she says the person she looked at on the bed wasn’t me. My head was huge, distended, my eyes were black as soot.
Joanna was told to talk to me to try to get some kind of reaction from me, but there was no reaction.

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