Sunday 19 November 2017

Meet the jockey who read his own obituary

Limerick jockey Declan Murphy was thought to be dead after a horrific fall in 1994. He tells our reporter the ­astonishing story of his near-death experience - and how he tried to piece his life together

Back in the saddle: Declan Murphy with his girlfriend Joanna Park after winning on Jibereen in 1995, a year after his horrific fall
Back in the saddle: Declan Murphy with his girlfriend Joanna Park after winning on Jibereen in 1995, a year after his horrific fall
Racing Post headline saying he had died
Declan Murphy and Ami Rao
Centaur by Declan Murphy
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Not many people get to read their own obituary in the paper. Declan Murphy, the former jockey from Hospital, Co Limerick, is one of the privileged few.

On May 2, 1994, the Racing Post had written the story of his life with a headline in bold capitals: "DECLAN MURPHY DIES AFTER HORROR FALL".

But there was Declan, lying on his hospital bed, reading his own obituary over a cup of tea and a ginger biscuit just a few days later.

There in front of him was a factfile of his life and death. He read of his career highlights, his glorious days at Cheltenham when he won the Queen Mother Champion Chase and other illustrious moments.

Racing Post headline saying he had died
Racing Post headline saying he had died

But what interested him most was to read about how he would be remembered - as a jockey, as a person and as a friend.

As he puts it in his remarkable new memoir, Centaur, "I was so astonished by it all, I nearly toppled off the bed, wires and everything. Here I was - not quite alive and kicking but alive nonetheless."

As with Mark Twain, rumours of his death had been exaggerated.

"It's amazing the things people say about you when you are dead," says the former jockey with amusement.

Declan Murphy and Ami Rao
Declan Murphy and Ami Rao

Murphy says he faced a struggle to reconstruct his own life for this autobiography, written with Ami Rao.

Events are lost in his memory bank. Time is blurred, and a period of four-and-a-half years has been wiped clean from his brain.

Although his intellect is razor sharp, he tells Review: "Putting together my life story has been like trying to find the right pieces in a jigsaw puzzle - some of the pieces are still missing."

Declan was one of the most renowned jump jockeys of his generation when his life was all but taken away - with the sickening thud of a horse's hoof against his head at Haydock Park, Merseyside on May 2, 1994.

Brought up in rural Ireland, and placed upon ponies from the age of four, he had been a champion amateur. Declan was a reluctant but naturally gifted jockey, who studied law at UCLA in California, but seemed destined to live a life in the saddle in the remorselessly tough occupation of National Hunt racing.

That Bank Holiday Monday at Haydock Park, there was a sense of foreboding among the jockeys in the weighing room, a place of camaraderie where a shared sense of mortal danger brings riders together.

On the previous day, the Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna had been killed at the San Marino Grand Prix. At Haydock, Declan felt unsettled by Senna's passing and discussed his death with his friend the Irish jockey Charlie Swan.

Like Senna's demise, Declan's disaster was played out on live television. His long-time girlfriend Joanna Park was watching, as were his parents back in Ireland.

Centaur by Declan Murphy
Centaur by Declan Murphy

On YouTube clips, you can follow the eerie commentary of the distinctive BBC presenter Peter O'Sullevan as Declan's horse Arcot came to the last hurdle.

As he approached the fence, he felt he had to adjust the horse's stride to make it leap clear. But then, just as he reached the hurdle, the horse suddenly took off a moment too soon. The hyperextension of his body snapped Arcot's pelvis in mid-flight. There was a deafening crash as his legs smashed into the timber of the fence.

Just as Declan's head flew forward, the horse's head flew back, and their two skulls collided. The jockey lost consciousness before he was catapulted off and hit the ground.

Declan's friend Charlie Swan, galloping from behind, tried in vain to avoid hitting him, but the hoof of his horse hit Declan on the head.

Arcot died in the fall, meeting a fate that is all too common in the sport - and Declan was taken to hospital unconscious. Declan's girlfriend Joanna was horrified as she watched on TV. Peter O'Sullevan signed off his broadcast with an ominous message: "Sadly, Declan Murphy (has had) a crushing fall at the last… we hope to have favourable news of him soon."

There was to be little favourable news in the hours that followed. But split-second decisions worked in Declan's favour. As he lay on a stretcher at Haydock, a paramedic put his hand under the right side of his head to stem the flow of blood from his brain.

"I never met this man, but I know that his expertise helped to keep me alive," Declan says.

He was put on a life support machine at Warrington Hospital and then a decision was taken to transfer him under police escort to the Walton Centre of Neurology in Liverpool. Again it was a lifesaver.

By the time Joanna arrived at the hospital, most people feared the worst, including the crowds of journalists and photographers who had assembled.

A priest, Father Patsy Foley, was brought in to read Declan the last rites.

At one point the doctors were considering turning off the life-support machine, but his sister, Geraldine, insisted that Declan's parents had to be there.

It was fortunate that Declan's father had a fear of flying and refused to board a plane.

As a result, it took Declan's parents much longer to get there by boat, and in the intervening period, he suddenly regained consciousness.

When Declan woke up in the hospital, he had ventured back in time. It was as if he had returned to his childhood.

"The only things I could remember and talked about was when I was a 12-year-old boy," he says.

He recalls how three men stood above him asking him questions:

"What country do you live in?"

"Ireland."

"Who is the Taoiseach?"

"Jack Lynch,"

"What age are you?"

"Twelve,"

He couldn't walk, he couldn't eat and he was paralysed.

Physically, he started to recover, slowly but surely, but the knock to the head and the operations afterwards left him with severe mental difficulties that were not apparent to many who knew him.

As a couple, Declan and Joanna had been extremely close, but after he regained consciousness, it was impossible to rebuild the relationship. He still talks of it with a deep sense of regret.

With the mentality of a 12-year-old when he woke up from his coma, he related to her more as a sister than as a lover.

"It was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life - to own up to not being able to remember her in the way I was expected to," he says.

As he made his recovery, Declan and Joanna became the subject of intense media scrutiny, because his story was considered to be one of triumph against adversity.

He was the jockey who had come back from the dead. But, despite appearances, both were suffering an inner turmoil.

Although Joanna went to great lengths to look after Declan following the accident, the relationship was ultimately doomed.

Declan recovered most of his memories, but there are still four-and-a-half years that are missing. He can pinpoint the dates - from October 12, 1989 until the disastrous fall in May 1994.

That was the period of his greatest riding success. He recalls how he looked around his house at the gallery of memories from his past - framed photos of himself in famous races, his moments of glory in the saddle.

"I wanted to feel something when I saw them. But I felt nothing. Because I didn't remember any of it."

Declan was overwhelmed by confusion and bewilderment. In his earlier life, he had not wanted to be a jockey. So he wondered how he had become one.

"I tried to be the person that I was meant to be."

He watched back the video of the fateful race, and tried to imagine that he was the jockey on board Arcot. But he still felt like a third party, looking on.

Declan was disturbed to find that people considered him a figure from the past. At least, that was the way he perceived it.

They told him: "You were a great jockey… you were the most stylish of riders."

But Declan was determined to recover as a man of the present. He thought to himself: "Maybe if I can race horses, I'll become me again."

Remarkably, through grit and determination, the jockey made a comeback at Chepstow racecourse, south Wales in October 1995.

After winning the race, he felt free from the burden of expectation, and free from the shackles of his mind - and he then walked away from racing. "I had placed my flag on top of the mountain," he says.

In writing the autobiography, Declan and co-author Ami have had to piece together the jigsaw. Up until then, he had kept it a secret from other people that there was a gap in his memory.

"Ami was stunned when I told her that I didn't remember four-and-a-half years of my life. She just froze on the spot.

"Talking to Ami became a form of therapy for me because I was able to talk to her about things that I had never talked about before with anyone."

The pair had to reconstruct the lost years of his life, by whatever means possible.

They assembled reams of press cuttings about Declan. They put together the missing pieces by talking at length to his friends and family about incidents on and off the track. Fellow jockeys remembered the races he had won and lost.

They painstakingly watched YouTube videos of his races.

When he watched the races to reconstruct his life, he began to feel a sense of pride.

Declan now lives in Barcelona. He is married, and has a seven-year-old daughter.

Looking back, he says:"The man who fell off the horse that day never really came back. A different man did. I consider myself fortunate. I am living a life that I may not have had."

Centaur is published by Doubleday on April 27

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