Danger never more than a stride away in sport of kings

Brian Moore was co-commentator for the BBC at the Stade de France last Saturday as Ireland and France pounded into each other for 80 of the most intense minutes of sport you could ever watch through your fingers and he was prompted to remark at one point on the copious quantities of claret oozing from the heads and faces of the players involved.

That Moore should notice the loss of blood was significant given no-one had symbolised the resolute Anglo-Saxon warrior more than the hooker who played for England in the 1980s and 1990s during what was a particularly feisty and even bloodier period in the sporting relationship between those old enemies from either side of the English Channel.

Rugby has changed beyond recognition from Moore’s day when the violence was casual and even a flair player like Pierre Berbizier could declare that if you weren’t able to take a punch then you should maybe try table tennis instead. These days the physical dangers are more associated with attrition caused by the sheer size of the participants and the violence of the collisions but then danger is inherent to all sports.

Step on a field or track or jump in a pool or off a board and the odds are that, sooner or later, you will be visited by injury and its brother pain and, if we’re all being honest, that is one of the attractions to playing and watching sport as we do. “Without danger the game grows cold,” said the English playwright George Chapman 400 or so years ago and there is certainly an element of that in horse racing.

Five years ago a study carried out for the Medical Journal of Australia came to the conclusion that being a jockey was more dangerous than being a boxer. Skydivers and motorbike racers were among those deemed less at risk of being killed. In fact, only offshore fishermen were deemed to be more likely to lose their lives.

The study examined four years of stewards’ reports amounting to more than 75,000 races throughout Australia over a four-year period in the mid-00s with 3,360 falls resulting in 861 serious injuries and five deaths. Those rates were on a par with, or lower than, those in Ireland and the UK. Though falls were found to be more common in jump racing, it was on the Flat where the five fatalities had occurred. None of those stats took into account the injuries received in yards or on the gallops.

Or those pre-race.

Like last Friday, when Daryl Jacob and Port Melon were ambling along before the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle when the horse spooked and threw the Wexford jockey onto the railings. Ruby Walsh had already suffered a serious dismounting from Abbyssial that day while Bryan Cooper had been taken to hospital earlier in the week after a horror landing when Clarcam came tumbling down. The Turf Club’s Dr Adrian McGoldrick said the injuries Cooper received were akin to those you would associate with a motorbike crash.

It should be noted here that the consequences for horses can be just as damaging and all too often even more catastrophic although it is difficult to find fault with the remarks made by Walsh last week differentiating between the well-being of what he termed pets and humans even if various animal welfare groups did just that. The fact is that, regardless of sides in that debate, danger and tragedy are never far away.

The 2013 festival was marred by a fall suffered by JT McNamara who was ultimately left paralysed and the latest event got underway on the back of an injury suffered by Jason Maguire at Stratford when he suffered a fractured sternum and subsequently had to have a part of his liver removed. AP McCoy spent most of last week in agony after taking a kicking in a bumper late last Wednesday and most others will have left rubbing bumps and bruises of some sort or other.

Dick Francis, the late author and a former steeplechase jockey in his younger days, once remarked that jump jockeys are required to throw their heart over each fence and then go fetch it. Davy Russell, who suffered a punctured lung at the festival 12 months earlier, summed up the dangers in a more prosaic and bald manner after his first winner last Friday.

“You don’t want to see anyone getting injured,” said Russell after riding a winner whose saddle he only assumed after Cooper’s misfortune. “When we get up in the morning, the last thing we think about is injuries. But, at the same time, it’s always a stride away. That’s the line we live on. It was me last year, it’s the boys this year. There’s nothing we can do. It’s our job and they are the risks we take.”

Whatever your view on horse racing or the animal welfare debate, there is no denying the courage it takes to compete.

Moore would no doubt respect that.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob

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