SOME people say that when you have a life-changing moment, it replays in your head forever. In jockey Brian Toomey’s case, it doesn’t have to. He can watch it whenever he wants on his mobile phone.
“Some people think it’s a bit funny that I’ve got the video saved, but it’s a part of who I am now,” said Toomey, who is based at Carlton, near Stokesley. “It happened, and that’s that. Although I suppose it was a bit hairy at the time.”
‘A bit hairy’ doesn’t even come close. Last July, Toomey was riding Solway Dandy in a handicap hurdle at Perth when the horse tumbled to the ground three flights from home. Toomey was flung headfirst into the turf and sustained injuries that, for quite some time, looked like they would end his life.
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Airlifted to a hospital in Dundee, he was in an induced coma for more than a fortnight because of swelling on the brain. His parents, Marian and Johnny, were instructed to travel from their home in County Limerick in order to prepare for the worst.
Gradually, however, Toomey’s condition improved. He was transferred to James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough, and a substantial section of his skull was removed and replaced with a metal plate.
The procedure has left a slight depression on the right side of his head, but sitting on the steps of the winners’ enclosure at a sunny Sedgefield Racecourse, it was impossible to square the bright, talkative 25-year-old with the stricken horseman who was fighting for his life less than a year ago. Time is a great healer, but no one could have predicted Toomey recovering so quickly or completely.
“I don’t think the doctors believe it to be honest,” he said. “My main surgeon is called Professor Kane, and he’s one of the most experienced people in the country when it comes to something like this. He says there’s basically a one in 60 chance of improving like I have. And I’ve seen enough 60-1 shots to know they’re not great odds.
“I’ve spoken to Brian Hughes and James Reveley (fellow jockeys), they were two of the first people to make it to the hospital after the fall, and they just say that what the doctors were saying at the time wasn’t great to hear.
“I don’t think they held out much hope for me to be honest, but I’ve always been a fighter and I guess I just wanted to fight. Once I’d started to improve a bit, everyone was so nice and so good to me that there was no way I was going to give in.”
Toomey’s former girlfriend, Amy Ryan, was a strong ally at the time, although help and support flooded in from all quarters of the racing community. A group of northern jockeys altered their racing schedule to be able to visit Toomey in Dundee, Sir Alex Ferguson sent a handwritten card expressing his sadness at the accident, and Irish owner JP McManus offered Toomey’s parents his private helicopter to transport them across the Irish Sea whenever they wanted to visit their son in hospital.
“If you’re involved in National Hunt racing, you know that unfortunately accidents and injuries happen,” said Toomey. “That means you look out for each other. When you’re out on the track, you’re riding against each other, but once the race has finished, you’re just a big group of friends.
“The way people rallied around me was brilliant, but to be honest, it’s what you’d expect within racing. And then while I’ve been recovering, the Injured Jockeys’ Fund (IJF) and BHA (British Horseracing Authority) have been a massive help too.”
The IJF, racing’s self-supported charity, devotes a great deal of time and money to rehabilitating injured jockeys, and Toomey has been on a number of programmes and courses designed to help him carve out a new career.
He has performed a number of media roles, including with BBC Five Live and William Hill, and was at Sedgefield last week to show potential clients and sponsors around the racecourse’s facilities.
Given the racing world’s desire to look after its own, there will always be a job for him somewhere. But despite all that has happened, he only wants one thing.
On July 4, exactly one year after Toomey’s accident, the BHA will meet to discuss whether the jockey should be granted a license to ride again.
He has already been back on his own horse and felt perfectly at home. Earlier this month, he made the Racing Post when he won a bucking bronco event at an IJF charity night at Doncaster Racecourse, staying on for one minute and 11 seconds. “If anyone needs to learn how to stay on a horse, it’s probably me,” he joked.
An old adage states that if you fall off a horse, it’s best to get straight back on. But when that fall has almost cost you your life, might it not be better to admit defeat and walk away?
“It’s still all I’ve ever wanted to do,” said Toomey. “Even after all that’s happened, the first thing I was talking about when I came round was when I could get back riding.
“Unless you’ve been involved in it, I don’t think you can appreciate that it’s a total way of life. Yes, you miss the thrill of riding a winner. But it’s more than that. It’s the craic with all the lads, the early mornings riding the horses on the gallops and the picking through the form to see how you’re going to ride a race.”
Even so, hasn’t Toomey seen enough pain and suffering to convince him there are easier ways to make a living? Four months before Toomey’s accident, his cousin, Irish jockey JT McNamara, suffered an even more debilitating fall at Cheltenham that left him paralysed.
Toomey visits his relative on a regular basis, and admits he finds the experience hard. “You walk into a room, and it’s not just JT,” he said. “There’s a whole room of people who are paralysed and you do wonder how you would cope if it was you. JT was fit and healthy for more than 30 years, and then suddenly one day, he can’t walk anymore.”
Still, though, the burning desire to ride again remains.
“If I can get back – and I have to be honest and say it’s a pretty big if – I’ll be going back into racing thinking, ‘Well I can’t have that bad luck again’,” said Toomey. “That’s the only attitude you can have. What will be, will be, and I want to prove to people that this didn’t break me.”