The jockey who raced again after reading his own obituary
When National Hunt jockey Declan Murphy suffered a disastrous fall at Haydock Park in 1994, after winning all the major races that season, the Racing Post published his obituary. But as he explains here, a furious determination got him back in the saddle.
I was probably four when I sat on my first pony. Where I was brought up, in a little village in County Limerick, we had access to ponies the same way as kids in other countries have access to bicycles.
I learned to ride bareback and when you fell off nobody picked you up. You had to be courageous. I remember trying a saddle for the first time thinking, “Why do people use these?” It didn’t seem natural.
I’d been a leading amateur jockey, but I’d never really wanted to be a professional, the only thing I’d ever wanted to be was a lawyer. I used to read the Jenny Bannister American Diary – about the lives of Irish people who had emigrated to America – in the Irish Independent every Thursday morning before going to school, and I was convinced that that’s where I would be as soon as I had graduated.
In fact I did go to study law at the University of California. I was going to become a criminal lawyer and I had this idea in my head that I was going to put everything right in America.
But then I was invited to England to ride for a famous horse trainer called Barney Curley. He was a gambler and had trained to be a Jesuit priest. The man intrigued me. If he had sold carrots I would probably have gone and sold carrots for him, I was that intrigued by him. It was Barney Curley that introduced me to professional racing.
The greatest sensation one can ever get on horseback is to achieve a perfect rhythm with your horse’s stride pattern – you’re actually at one with half a ton of horse flesh, galloping at 35, 40mph. You get a sense of adrenaline at that speed, calculating the pace exactly to get the horse to finish the race at his strongest. By the end you are completely drained emotionally but you have this feeling of elation – a feeling that carries you, it lifts you.
On that fateful day I was riding the favourite, Arcot, in the last big race of the season. It had been a fantastic year, I had ridden 60 winners.
When Arcot jumped the second last hurdle I was in position to win the race, but suddenly things started to unfold.
About 200m before the final hurdle I sensed that my horse did not have the energy within him to sustain the stride pattern that he was on.
I made a tactical assessment that I needed to shorten his stride to clear the last jump. I had calculated everything in my mind perfectly, but in a moment of madness the horse took off a stride too soon. His pelvis cracked with the hyperextension and he crashed on the hurdle.
Propelled forward by the momentum of his stride pattern, my head collided with his head, knocking me unconscious before I hit the ground. Another horse, galloping up from behind, had no way to avoid me – the jockey did everything he could. They managed to avoid my stricken horse and tried to jump over me, but the horse landed on my head.
My mother had never wanted me to ride horses, but my father loved it and was terribly proud of all my achievements. Both of them were at home watching on TV. Joanna, my girlfriend, was watching on TV too. She had seen me fall many times before and you knew everything was OK when the commentator, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, would say, “And Declan Murphy is up on his feet now.”
But the broadcast that day ended with Peter O’Sullevan saying, “We have no news of Declan Murphy. We will bring it to you when we have it.”
I was put on a life support machine at Warrington Hospital then taken by ambulance with a police escort to the Walton Centre of Neurology in Liverpool. When Joanna arrived she had to wrestle her way through the paparazzi.
The surgeon who had operated on me told her that I had had a very major trauma to the brain and that there was a chance that I wouldn’t survive the next three hours. If I did live for those three hours, I had a 50/50 chance of surviving for the six hours after that, he said. And if I did live after those six hours I would probably be very badly brain damaged.
When they drew back the curtain she says the person she looked at on the bed wasn’t me. My head was huge, distended, my eyes were black as soot.
Joanna was told to talk to me to try to get some kind of reaction from me, but there was no reaction.
The doctors came and told her they were going to try to take me off the life support machine, they called it a “sink or swim trial”.
Joanna asked them, “What happens if he sinks?”
The first time that they took me off the life support machine she said it was horrific – everybody was shouting at me, trying to get a response out of me, and with a gasp I opened my mouth but I could not breathe, I couldn’t get any air. Joanna thought I had died. She says she still has nightmares about it today.
They tried to revive me on three occasions and failed every time. After the third attempt the doctors said, “We think it’s time to switch off the life support machine.”
At that point the hospital stopped issuing press bulletins about me and the newspapers took that as a sign that I’d died.
My eldest sister, Geraldine, decided it was a parent’s prerogative if my life support was to be switched off, but at that moment, my father declared a morbid fear of flying and decided that he and my mother would have to come from Ireland by boat.
So the decision about whether to turn off my life support or not, which could have been made in three hours had they flown, was now not reached for 10 hours since they were coming by sea.
I regained consciousness seven hours later.
I was 28 when I had my accident, but when I woke up from my coma I was mentally 12 years old.
I was very unwell. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t eat. I was paralysed, tubed-up on a hospital bed. I couldn’t do anything.
The surgeons came and asked me questions like, “Who is the taoiseach?”
“Jack Lynch,” I answered, because he had been when I was 12. The doctors scratched their heads and walked away thinking something wasn’t quite right.
There were many moments that I thought, “I’m not going to make it,” but I had this way of fooling my mind by doing everything in little increments. If I could walk 10 yards with sticks or with someone holding me today, tomorrow I’d walk 12.
Belief is self-fulfilling, the more you believe that you can do something, the more you give of yourself to achieve that.
Joanna and I had been in love before the accident, we’d been together for five years. But when they cut open my brain to operate they’d torn out the pages of our love story, and when I woke from my coma I couldn’t remember parts of my life – there is a period of four years, six months and four days that is still missing. And I couldn’t remember that part of myself.
In my head I was 12 years old and Joanna was like a sister to me, not a lover. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life, to own up to that and walk away.
For quite a long time after my accident people always referred to me in the past tense. “You were so great, you were so good at riding horses, you were so stylish, you were so eloquent.”
That really, really disturbed me, because I wanted to be a “now”.
There’s a very thin line between sanity and insanity, and I walked along it, I ran along it, I danced along it. I tilted to the other side on many occasions. I was losing control of my own mind, and without something to focus on I think would have ended up being taken away by men in white coats.
So in my head I decided I wanted to ride again.
When I first sat on a horse after my accident it was a surreal experience. I just sat on the horse – just to feel its body underneath me, to feel its breath, to feel its muscles, to feel everything about the horse.
The first time I ever had a gallop on a horse after my accident I got off that horse and I walked along next to him, with him nuzzling his head in to my shoulder. I could hear those two sounds, his hoof beat and my heart beat.
And that’s when I decided I was going to make a comeback.
When I rode at Chepstow that first time I thought: “I have to do this, I have to prove myself.”
I wanted to win and fortunately I rode a good race and I did win.
For the first time since I’d come out of my coma I felt the burden of expectation had been unleashed. I had nothing to prove to anybody any more, least of all to myself. I had that final endorsement that I could still do everything I had ever done. I had placed my flag on my mountain.
When Prof John Miles was interviewed for my book, Centaur, he said that the level of risk that I took in just getting on a horse again was monumental, because had I had any kind of fall, any kind of incident, I would not have survived.
People were amazed that I could get back on a horse and that I could win. And they were surprised that I could then walk away from it as if it had never happened and just get on with my life.
I’m married now and I have a seven-year-old daughter, Sienna. I see my youth in her. I feel very fortunate, having been through what I have but having been able to rebuild my life and reach a state of contentment. That touches my heart.
Declan Murphy’s book, Centaur, is published on 27 April