Saturday 18 August 2018

'I was very lucky the way that I came out of it' - jockey Ana O'Brien on fall which left her with multiple fractures

Jockey Ana O'Brien suffered a crushing fall last year that left her with multiple fractures. She tells Michael Verney about her remarkable recovery and a family life that revolves around horses

Back in the saddle: Ana has since watched TV footage of her horrific fall last year. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22
Back in the saddle: Ana has since watched TV footage of her horrific fall last year. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

Luck would not be the overriding emotion for most people having suffered vertebral fractures in their neck (C1) and back (T5 and T6) following a crushing fall at Killarney last year, but Ana O'Brien knows how much worse it could have been.

The date was July 18, 2017, the horse was Druids Cross, trained by her older brother Joseph. It was just another race as Ana, daughter of the champion trainer Aidan, looked to cement her place at the head the Irish apprentices' jockey's table, but her world was about to get turned upside down.

Her mount tumbled just inside the two-furlong marker and she lapsed in and out of consciousness as racecourse doctors - she pays special thanks to Dr Adrian McGoldrick - and officials tended to her and ensured she was swiftly transferred to Cork University Hospital via helicopter, which was clapped away by the anxious Kerry crowd.

In a sport where ambulances follow the horses in case of accidents, injuries are always going to happen but Ana isn't one to dwell on the past, although she did look back on the television footage to assess what had happened.

Her memory of the incident is sketchy but once there was movement in her feet and arms, panic was averted while her all-important brain scan came back all clear. From there, braces were applied on her neck and back, which she stayed in for two months.

It wasn't an ideal scenario but when you hit the concrete-like turf at speeds of 40mph, some people don't get back up so the 22-year-old feels fortune was definitely on her side.

"I think everyone realises how bad it could have been so I was very lucky the way I came out of it. I don't think about it too much, I notice my back and that, but you just try to get on with it really. There's no point looking back, you always try to keep looking forward," Ana says.

"I didn't remember anything about it. It was nearly two weeks before I started remembering patches of it. I was better off not remembering because apparently I was in a good bit of pain after it happened, thankfully I don't remember that. That was the first time I've ever broken a bone, I didn't half do it. Having your health and getting back to full health is everything, but there's a lot of ups and downs in this game so you're fairly well grounded."

Rarely has there been such an outpouring of emotion and support like that which followed Ana's accident as it highlighted the unique camaraderie of those involved in horse racing.

"The support was unbelievable, I can't thank everyone enough for the support they gave me, the amount of cards and flowers and everything I was sent was just unbelievable. It really helped me to get through it," she outlines.

Having grown up "tipping away with ponies with someone holding on to me" and remembering walking alongside three-time Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq, trained by father Aidan, down their Ballydoyle gallops, racing is ingrained in Ana's psyche.

Her secondary school principal in Presentation Thurles jokingly referred to her as "a part-time student" as racing often took preference while she rode out every morning before making the trip from their base in Rosegreen (just outside Cashel).

Having grown up immersed in racing, the dangers of her chosen profession aren't given a thought.

"No, it can't when you're going out riding, you can't think about that. It's just second nature, that's just what you do and there's no point in thinking about that or there'd be no point in doing it," she says candidly.

The one-year anniversary of her fall occurs next Tuesday and she has reached some major milestones working regularly with Enda King in Santry Sports Clinic - who is also helping to nurse top jockey Ruby Walsh back to full health after a broken leg.

Ana, who notched her first winner aboard Fairylike in Dundalk (February 2013) for her dad, now rides twice a day in Ballydoyle - as well as helping out with some assistant trainer duties - but there is no date set on a competitive return to the saddle.

"It's just a long recovery and I think the key is to not rush it so I don't set it back again, so we're getting there slowly. I started riding my pony Bailey for about a week and then I started riding out one lot a day and now two a day," she says.

"I'm just slowly getting back into it. That was the longest I hadn't ridden in years so I was delighted. I had a time when I wanted to get back riding out, but that got pushed back a few times with setbacks, but it was definitely a major aim.

"There's no real plans to go back (horse racing) yet, just keep tipping away at the riding out and see how it goes. I still get a pain in my back but it's slowly getting better and hopefully I'll get it to disappear in time. Doing Pilates helps with it."

Last year was a remarkable one for her father, who broke the world record for the number of Group One victories with 28, but 2017 is remembered for Ana's fall and nursing her back to full health more than anything else.

Horses came first

Mild mannered, modest and gentle, the racing bug has certainly passed through the genes.

Brother Joseph has made an astonishingly fruitful switch to the training ranks from a successful career as a jockey as he follows in his father's footsteps with the Melbourne Cup, Irish Derby and Grade One prizes over jumps already on an impressive CV.

Younger brother and jockey Donnacha has plundered two Classics this season while sister Sarah is also immersed in the equine industry. Ana simply couldn't imagine life without racing.

"People always asked how I balanced education and horses but there wasn't much of a balance, horses always came first. Even before we would have been riding out racehorses, the ponies would have come first," she says.

"It never stops, never. It can't really. With horses, if you miss a day with them, it's not good for them so it's every day, all of the time. We were brought up with horses so it's all we know and it was always my intention to stay involved in some shape or form. We love it."

While leading jumps trainer Gordon Elliott doesn't answer his phone from 1.30 to 2pm because he's watching Home and Away, the O'Briens rarely switch off horses, although she's unsure whether she will eventually follow Joseph and her father into the training ranks.

"There's no point in us all going training either so we'll see what happens. I would like to be back riding on the track sometime, but I'm not making any decisions either way yet, I'm just going to keep going and see what happens. I'm not making any big plans or big decisions yet."

After a life-changing fall, there's no rush so Ana is just taking it one step at a time.

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