Perils of racing underlined as two jockeys hospitalised in pile-up
Seventeen days ago Jim Crowley stood in the parade ring at Ascot on British Champions Day and savoured a monumental feat.
A 66/1 shot at the start of the season, Crowley, a former jump jockey, had ridden like a demon to become champion Flat race rider for the first time at the age of 38.
Not just ridden, but driven too. Crowley reckoned he had covered 25,000 miles in his car since July alone. A sniff of the jockeys' title had sent him into overdrive. And on this autumn Saturday his weighing room colleagues formed a guard of honour for one of the most popular and hard-working members of their profession.
Crowley was a proud man. A happy man. "The harder the better," he told us, discussing his extraordinary workload. "The hard work - I've thrived on it. A P McCoy's work ethic rubbed off on me."
That reference to the retired 20-time champion National Hunt rider was also a reminder that Crowley had left the more perilous world of the jumps to ride on the Flat, where he took detailed fitness and nutritional advice to smooth the way.
The memory of Crowley's coronation returned as a brutal, shocking accident unfolded on a routine Monday at Kempton Park. Here it should be said that Crowley was not the only victim of an equine and human pile-up of unusual ferocity, in a race called the Breeders Backing Racing EBF Maiden Fillies Stakes.
The crash that put Crowley and Freddy Tylicki in hospital with suspected spinal injuries happened so fast that the eye can hardly comprehend the sequence.
If the eye struggled, the brain knew straight away that this was not a routine tumble. Horses and four riders are sent through a violent spin of plummeting bodies and drumming hooves in a way that sets the internal alarm bells ringing.
Among the many sentences filed subsequently, one had a particular clarity: "Crowley, 38, was taken by ambulance and Tylicki, 30, was flown to the major trauma unit at St George's Hospital in Tooting with suspected spinal injuries."
Air ambulances on racecourses are harbingers of doom. Those descending metal birds are the last things jockeys ever want to see. And while it would be deeply irresponsible to make assumptions about the extent of the injuries suffered by Crowley and Tylicki, the precariousness of race riding has seldom been more apparent at a British Flat racing fixture.
On the replays, you sense a heel-clipping sequence that took on a force of its own and left two of the four riders needing prolonged medical attention on the track, which, in Flat racing, is unusual.
As was the decision to abandon the meeting after consultation with other jockeys, who probably did not have the stomach to continue while their colleagues were on their way to a "major trauma unit" - one in a helicopter.
The clerk of the course at Kempton referred to the abandonment gravely as "a mark of respect" from the weighing room.
On this same routine Monday, I happened to be at Plumpton, where several National Hunt riders hit the deck. Always, the eye lingers for a moment to see whether they make it back to their feet. Nobody in that crowd could have guessed that a Flat race in the suburbs at Kempton could produce a tangle of bodies far more destructive than anything we saw in the Sussex countryside.
But racing, in both codes, is a sport where the pilots know there is a degree of risk, and accept it as a price worth paying for an activity they love.
Yet there is nothing to prepare anyone for a possible spinal injury, with its potential for lifetime impairment.
Mention of J T McNamara's fall at Cheltenham in 2013 (and his subsequent death, in July this year) is made only to face the reality that there are dire consequences at the furthest extreme of accidents involving horses and humans.
Steve Drowne and Ted Durcan walked away apparently unscathed , and how they must be reflecting now on the randomness of chance and geometry.
Riding Nellie Dean (Tylicki) and Electrify (Crowley) just happened to place two jockeys in a vortex beyond anyone's control while two others were able to walk back on their own two feet.
At Ascot, Crowley said he had been born 10 minutes away from the course and was honoured to pick up the title at his home track. He was developing a taste for it, too. He said that day: "It's a great feeling being champion. I wouldn't rule me out of coming back for another crack next year." (© Daily Telegraph, London)