FIRST THOUGHTS: Mud-spattered story of a talented horseman

IT can’t be pleasant, reading your own obituary, but jockey Declan Murphy’s injuries were so severe after falling at Haydock Park in 1994 that the Racing Post subsequently led with the headline ‘Declan Murphy Dies After Horror Fall’.

Declan Murphy at the weigh-in before the annual Flat V Jump Jockeys Challenge on October 10, 1995. Picture: Phil Cole/ALLSPORT

Centaur
Declan Murphy & Ami Rao
Doubleday, €16.00, PB

Catapulted from his horse, Arcot, at the second-last fence, Limerick man Murphy was already unconscious on the turf when Cockney Lad’s hoof crashed down on his skull, fracturing it in 12 places.

The BBC cut its live feed. The racing world held its breath.

No one comes back from those kind of injuries, and the Racing Post obituary only confirmed what everyone already knew.

Perhaps the one person to ignore the impossibility was Declan Murphy, largely because he was deep in a coma and, for once, too busy fighting for life to worry about the odds.

But Declan Murphy didn’t just survive.

He learned to walk again, to feel again, to sit on a horse again.

He raced again, and he won again, coming home on Jibereen in the Jump Jockeys Challenge at Chepstow a mere 18 months after he was written off as dead.

Ghost-written by Ami Rao, Centaur is Murphy’s remarkable tale of an improbable triumph over the odds.

A vivid account of the racing world, and particularly in terms of Murphy’s most notable rides — in 1993/94 alone, he won the H&T Walker Gold Cup, the Irish Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Melling Chase, the Mackeson Gold Cup, the Bula Hurdle, the Tripleprint Gold Cup and the Cheltenham Silver Trophy Chase, among many others — it’s a mud-spattered story of the rise and rise of a young Limerick boy who only ever rode for fun, and whose most fervent ambition was to become a criminal lawyer in America.

An instinctive horseman, innately talented, with a rare gift for establishing a rapport with his ride, Murphy’s trajectory was meteoric, until it all came crashing down in seconds.

What makes Centaur such a gripping read, however, is Murphy’s struggle to re-establish his sense of identity in the wake of his horrific injuries; when he had finally recovered to the point where he could make sense of the world again, Murphy discovered that his memories of the four years previous to the accident — the pinnacle of his career — were entirely gone.

His wins, the glory, the professional relationships he had developed, his relationship with his girlfriend Joanna, his very sense of who he was: all gone, never to be recovered.

Ami Rao’s prose can be uneven in places, at times unnecessarily purple — celebrated US trainer Charlie Whittingham is ‘reverentially alluded to’, for example — and at times hackneyed to the point of cliché, such as when we are informed about ‘the truth of grown-up love — it’s not always a fairy tale.’

Readers who aren’t racing fans, meanwhile, might find the tale veering occasionally into the realms of fantasy, as when Murphy claims that the horse Staunch Friend not only senses his pain, but wants to take it away.

For the most part, however, Rao and Murphy spin a fabulous yarn from ‘the stuff to make fiction go pale in the face’.

Murphy’s mental and emotional recovery are as absorbing, if not more so, than his agonising physical rehabilitation, particularly when he speaks movingly of the ‘umbra’ of memory loss, and way in which his sense of self has suffered an eclipse.

Littered with references to racing’s greats, among them Peter Scudamore, Martin Pipe, Barney Curley, Willie Shoemaker and Josh Gifford, Centaur is by turns heart-breaking and heart-warming, an occasional tear-jerker that is ultimately a life-affirming account of a spirit that simply refused to be broken.

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