How Brian Toomey came from having a 3pc chance to live to ride again
By and large selling hurdles are unremarkable races. Occasionally they generate a bit of excitement in the post-race auction of the winner but, by their nature, they are generally a good time to retire to the bar.
But the Southwell seller at 4.20 today will attract as much interest as any race this summer as it marks one of the most remarkable recoveries from injury in the history of sport when Brian Toomey lines up on Kings Grey, his first ride since doctors gave him a three per cent chance of survival following a fall at Perth two years ago.
If The Lancet has not got a racing correspondent, it is time to start employing one. For even in a sport like jump racing where jockeys continue riding with broken bones, soft tissue injuries are not considered injuries, and they are constantly returning to action from more compromising fractures and concussion, Toomey’s story is compelling.
On July 4 2013 his mount Solway Dandy fell at the third last hurdle at Perth. It was a tired fall, the horse grabbing for the obstacle and coming down in such a way it propelled the jockey head first into summer ground. Out went the lights.
The battle to save his life - Toomey was said to have 'died' for six seconds before paramedics revived him - began at Dundee Hospital as doctors cut out a hand-sized section of his skull to negate the effects of brain swelling while keeping him in an induced coma.
His parents were summoned from Ireland and told to expect the worst. The three per cent chance of him surviving the first fortnight was the good statistic; the chances of him coming through without a major disability was reckoned by doctors to be one in 60. It is hardly surprising those treating him now see him as a ‘miracle.’
Brian Toomey's horrific injuries required major surgery
Gradually, though, Toomey has returned to full health. The hole in his skull, for a while protected only by skin, was replaced by a piece of titanium the size of a side-plate. It is typical of Toomey’s sense of humour that he reckons the song ‘Titanium’ was written about him.
But while many might have quit in the belief that this was one shave too close, it has been the jockey’s obsessive determination to ride again which has driven his recovery.
“It’s crazy,” said Toomey, 26, earlier this week in Middleham in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. “I’m here and I’ve finally come out the other side of it.
“I tried to keep a positive attitude to it all along but it had never been done so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect.
"A lot of people, many of whom I respect, were telling me I had no chance and there was a lot of negativity but a top neurosurgeon said there was no reason why I couldn’t ride again and we’ve taken it from there. AP McCoy has been a very good listener though I expect I’ve done his head in with all my talk.”
Of course there were more battles to be fought in getting all the necessary clearances and the ultimate nod from the British Horseracing Authority, who saw no reason not to restore his licence in June.
In a way, however, his hardest battle begins today once the hoopla of his return at Southwell dies down, and that is re-establishing his riding career after a two-year hiatus. It hard enough for most jockeys to get going again after two months out.
“What are my goals?” he asked himself. “My main emphasis is on this ride at the moment. I’ve put a lot of work into it, there’s been a big build up but once I get on the horse’s back all I’ll be focused on is what I am doing. I want to do the horse justice although I won’t quite be the finished article.
“But beyond Southwell? I’ve lost most of my contacts in the north and I may end up going down south because there are way more opportunities down there. I’ll see how it goes, I have a few ideas but I want to be riding winners and going to the big festivals, Cheltenham, Aintree that would be the dream and I’m a dreamer. I can still claim a sneaky 3lbs against the likes of Walsh and Geraghty.”
The man doing his best to stage-manage today’s comeback is Middleham trainer and long-time friend Phil Kirby.
“I thought he’s going to do it and if that’s the case we should make sure we do it properly,” said Kirby who has clearly heeded the trainer’s advice to keep himself in the best company – he was at Sheikh Mohammed’s stallion parade on Friday – and his horse in the worst. He appears to have found a golden opportunity for Kings Grey to break his duck over hurdles and give Toomey a comeback and 50th career winner.
“We were looking for the right horse, the sort of old schoolmaster even I’d want to ride,” added Kirby. “We just gave him a run at Aintree to see if he’d still be competitive, he won it and although he has never won a hurdle before he’s won both starts at Southwell so he likes the track. He’s a big, gorgeous grey – just like Desert Orchid.”
He added: “We’ve not minded Brian; he schools the good ones and the bad ones just like anyone else. He’s hit the deck a couple of times, once half way up the gallop when one whipped round and the other schooling – no one would have sat on either - and for a split second it makes you think.
“I’m sure people will stand back and see how he gets on before they start putting him up but he’s ready to kick on now.”