Monday 21 August 2017

Comment: Catastrophe and death - daily perils of racing

Ana O'Brien's fall galvanised all in the sport but illustrates the dangers riders must live with

Ana O’Brien – who is recovering from injuries sustained in Killarney on
Tuesday – drives Arya Tara to victory at Leopardstown last July. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ana O’Brien – who is recovering from injuries sustained in Killarney on Tuesday – drives Arya Tara to victory at Leopardstown last July. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Johnny Ward

Davy Condon found a friend in the silent sky, his world on the verge of collapse, after Flaxen Flare fell late in a hurdle event at Cork in 2014.

"It was such a strange experience, like nothing I'd ever felt," he said. "I'd this weird sense of calm, though I was thinking I'd never ride again. I was conscious the whole time.

"For around ten minutes I couldn't feel anything below the neck. Soon afterwards, I could move my feet again, which was obviously a huge relief. They call it spinal shock and it happened when I landed on my head. It felt like I was electrocuted."

Condon had to retire - and could consider himself fortunate. "I am very good friends with John Thomas and Robbie McNamara," he said then. "They are obviously going through a lot tougher time than I am. I actually feel very lucky."

JT, who suffered an horrific fall at Cheltenham, died almost a year ago. Robbie, his cousin, is training now without the use of his legs.

The timing of the death of Seán Cleary in November 2003 was brutal. Two months earlier, Kieran Kelly left us after a fall at Kilbeggan; a week after Seán's death his friend, Timmy Houlihan, took his own life - riddled with guilt over what had happened to his buddy. Timmy, whose tragic story has been forgotten, had been on the horse in front of All Heart when Seán suffered his fall.

Ana O'Brien being congratulated by her father, Aidan, alongside her brother and trainer, Joseph, in the winner’s enclosure. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Ana O'Brien being congratulated by her father, Aidan, alongside her brother and trainer, Joseph, in the winner’s enclosure. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

There's that episode of 'Only Fools And Horses' where Uncle Albert's apparently accidental fall down a cellar prompts Del Boy to sue the brewery, only for evidence to emerge at the trial that the pensioner had been falling down holes for much of his life, gaining the nickname 'The Ferret'.

Inevitable

"You learn how to fall without getting hurt," he reasoned afterwards.

In a somewhat similar way, jump jockeys know that it is inevitable. They are used to it, they expect it, they generally deal with it. On the Flat, there is no hurdle, no fence - and being catapulted off a horse is so rare that it is next to impossible to prepare, a bit like reading the paper in the passenger's seat of a car going 40 miles an hour and being chucked out onto the road unprovoked.

So when Ana O'Brien's mount, the ill-fated Druids Cross, lost his footing after being impeded on Tuesday evening in a mile race at Killarney, the apprentice was at the whim of the gods. Apparently unable to move, she was eventually airlifted to hospital, as a summer meet at Ireland's most scenic track became enveloped in a sick feeling.

Colm O'Donoghue, who has ridden for Ana's father Aidan for years, promptly darted out of the weighing room, leapt over some wiring and sprinted down the track to get to her, like the maternal rage of a mare sensing her foal is in peril.

In peril is what jockeys are - and there is only so much that can be done to prevent serious injury, which can stretch to fatalities, when a human moving at 40 miles an hour hits summer ground. The Turf Club seems to leave nothing to chance in its pursuit of safety; the mass admiration among jockeys for senior medical officer Adrian McGoldrick - who was overcome with emotion on Tuesday night - tells more than a million press releases.

He is like that doctor in the trenches, waiting for the next soldier to fall.

Riders since January 1 must wear a 'Level 2' back-protector, mandatory for amateurs and pros; Ireland is the only jurisdiction in which this is so. The jockeys swear by them, Ruby Walsh having done trials before they were introduced.

Moreover, the standard of the helmet introduced three-and-a-half years ago is the highest in the world. Chris Hayes' appraisal is succinct: "The gear we have is the highest level."

Lest we create false gods of these sportsmen and sportswomen, the bottom line is that the thrill of riding horses is why they cannot and will not escape its urge, just like Ayrton Senna da Silva and his love for the sport that would kill him at San Marino in 1994.

They know that death is highly unlikely but it happens. Kieran Kelly never woke up. JT McNamara battled with what little was left after his grotesque fall for over three years until the fall eventually saw him lose his fight in front of his family in Co Limerick.

Last October, Freddy Tylicki - who spent many years learning his trade in this country - was involved in a four-horse melee at Kempton, and was later diagnosed with T7 paralysis (from the waist down). Colleague George Baker suffered bleeding in the brain and has since undergone a long rehabilitation process after falling during a race on the ice in March. Both rode on the Flat.

Irish horsemen are uniquely gifted, boasting a natural affinity that traces its way back to years toiling with the animal on the land - yet for all of that they do not treat equine deaths with greater gravitas than that of any animal.

In England, however, the animal rights brigade are afforded respect at once questionable and damaging, resulting in a front-page 'Racing Post' article of late which advocated a discontinuation of the whip's use by riders. This was widely derided by Irish jockeys and trainers.

The whip may not have saved Ana on Tuesday night but the care she was given was singled out by her parents in a manner that went a long way beyond words of duty, of the token variety. The injuries and deaths that befell some of Aidan's runners of late became trivial and one wonders will he and his wife, Anne Marie, worry about their daughter riding again despite it being all they know. Some argue the coverage Ana got was far more prominent than if she were less well-known. Such is life and she is a daughter of the world's biggest trainer. Above all, she is a young woman with her life in front of her.

A woman, indeed, of humility; one would never know how privileged she has been. But she knows how privileged all in racing are to have McGoldrick and such first-class medical assistance.

Irish Independent

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