Saturday 24 March 2018

'I've bruised my heart, I've punctured my lung, dislocated my ankle, broken my fibula and tibia'

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Nina Carberry was asked if her working life ever felt "odd," being endlessly pursued by an ambulance. She chuckled at the question, insisting that she was quite happy to be trailed by people who might know how to put her back together again if it happened to be broken.

Impassively, Nina recounted an accident in which a railing went clean through her boot. "There was kind of blood everywhere," she smiled.

Elsewhere, Davy Russell offered a stoic audit of his own physical travails. "I've had to get surgery on my face and my teeth and ribs," said the champion jockey. "I've bruised my heart, I've punctured my lung, dislocated my ankle, broken my fibula and tibia."

Andrew Lynch raised Davy a couple of broken cheekbones, jaws, nose, arm, leg and, as he put it, "all my teeth."

Andrew McNamara admitted: "I would be a bit conscious that I've probably had too many concussions to be healthy."

When you spend time in close proximity to National Hunt jockeys, you come to see the rest of sport as just a pile of delicate crockery, backed up in a sink.

RTE's first episode of 'The Irish Road to Cheltenham' on Thursday night captured that starkness perfectly. This column is closing in on its 10th Festival, yet still finds it almost impossible to reconcile the parade of narrow, willowy bodies that will step from the weigh room about 1.40 next Tuesday with the absurd fearlessness of what follows.

Some years ago, I interviewed David Casey with about three weeks to go to the big day. He'd just broken his collarbone and recounted a gentle stand-off with the doctor who put things back in place.

"Six weeks, David."

"No doc, have to be back in three!"

"That's not possible."

Casey pretty much moved home to sign himself full-time into a cryotherapy chamber for those three weeks and he rode that March at Cheltenham.

"Being stood down is just the worst thing in the world," said Nina on Thursday night.

And the cameras followed Lynch to Gormanston strand on a coal-black night, where he walked barefoot in the sea to assist circulation in a leg broken last May.

The bottom line for all of these people is a terror – not of injury – but inactivity. They embrace the hardness of their lives as a small price to pay for regular interaction with some of the most beautiful creatures on this planet.

Cheltenham, clearly, means different things to different occupants of the jockeys' room. For high kings like Ruby Walsh, the Festival brings the pressure of often unreasonable expectation in trying to coax precious victories from the best of the Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls yards.

Likewise, Barry Geraghty for Nicky Henderson, AP McCoy for Jonjo O'Neill and Russell for the powerful Gigginstown operation.

But even those with little or no chance of a place in the enclosure seem to become almost nauseous at the thought of missing Cheltenham. It is the nearest thing to religious worship you will see in sport.

I have often thought that a combined X-ray of all the jockeys competing (and maybe 80pc would be Irish) would show up more carnage than the Low Countries when Hitler reckoned Europe would look nice on his mantelpiece.

With more than a thousand falls a year in jump racing, everybody spends some time on the ground.

As Russell put it: "You curl yourself up into a ball, make yourself as small as you possibly can and take the hit then."

Nina likened it to finding yourself inside a washing machine. "You're chucked around a little bit," she said, "and you're waiting for the next hit. When that doesn't come, you're thinking, 'Thank God for that'!"

There was no false bravado in the words spoken, no attempt to mythologise what it is they do. Robbie Power recalled the "terrible" day Kieran Kelly lost his life and reflected flatly: "Every day you walk out of a racecourse is a good day."

Not many people go to work shadowed by such danger, yet they embrace it because nothing makes them feel more alive.

For four days in the West Country, it will be our privilege to watch.

Irish Independent

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