Brave Matt turns the corner

HAVING an ambulance trail you in the course of an ordinary day’s work would, it’s fair to say, be something of a distraction to most of us.

That’s if you’re an ordinary mortal. Having paramedics in your slipstream is a fact of life for a jump jockey.

They’ve got to get on with the job at hand regardless: letting their minds drift away to consider the significance of having trained medical professionals a few seconds behind them could be... a distraction.

However, when someone like Ruby Walsh comes straight out to say that death is always around the corner for a jump jockey, he’s not being dramatic. If anything he’s being over-literal.

For another jockey, Matt O’Connor, the proximity of those medical professionals was significant for all the right reasons last month. When the 21-year-old Wexford native came off Colm Murphy’s Walken Aisy in a beginners chase in Thurles at the tail-end of March it was immediately apparent he’d sustained a serious head injury.

O’Connor was rushed to hospital in Clonmel, and then to Cork University Hospital, where he was kept in a medically-induced coma. His family were by his side, and they weren’t the only ones thinking of him.

Trainer Colm Murphy rushed back from Austria when he heard the news. That same Ruby Walsh, interviewed in an English newspaper a few days after the accident, reduced the situation to its component parts: “Matt is fighting for his life now.”

O’Connor’s season had begun promisingly and been nourished on 31 winners and a first riding appearance at the Cheltenham Festival. Now it had suddenly turned bleak and people braced for what looked like an inevitable conclusion.

HERE the story takes a positive twist, however. Last week O’Connor emerged from the coma and was taken off the ventilator which had been helping him breathe. He has full movement of his upper and lower body and has responded to commands.

Good news at a time when good news generally is in short supply.

“The situation is that since I briefed the press in the Curragh last Sunday week,” says Dr Walter Halley, “Matt has made significant progress. He’s now out of intensive care and he’s been moved into a ward.

“It’s worth stating that the evacuation from Thurles Racecourse by the Order of Malta and John Downey, who’s one of the Turf Club medical team along with myself, was very good. They did a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”

If Halley, former senior medical officer with the Turf Club, sounds particularly chipper delivering that news it’s hardly a surprise. Seeing a jockey recover from a serious fall is good news. When that jockey is a relative — Matt O’Connor’s mother Caroline and Halley are first cousins — the news gets even better.

“It’s been a very difficult time for the family,” says Halley, “But everyone is delighted with his progress.”

True enough. Ask trainer Colm Murphy to gauge the reaction around the racecourses to news of O’Connor’s fall and his response is emphatic.

“It’s been unbelievable — no matter where you go, people are asking about him. It’s no surprise, he’s very popular with all his colleagues.”

Murphy didn’t dawdle when he got the initial call about O’Connor’s tumble, returning to Ireland from Europe the following day. Since then he’s been tracking O’Connor’s improvement.

“I was down to see him last week in Cork,” says Murphy. “He’s improved immensely and the doctors are very happy with him. He’s improving every day by leaps and bounds, which is great.”

Murphy’s respect for the jockey is evident: “He’s a grand fella, riding-wise the talent is there. We were lucky — we got on well, he clicked when he came to the place, horses ran well for him.

“He was lucky for us, we were lucky for him, and you couldn’t meet a nicer guy. He’s easy-going, everyone likes him and you can understand why.”

What’s harder to understand, when you step back and look at exactly what these men are doing, is the raw courage needed to face the jumps.

“There’s always a risk,” agrees Colm Murphy. “You always think it’ll happen to someone else and not to you. Unfortunately, it did in this case.”

When Ruby Walsh says situations similar to O’Connor’s stare jump jockeys in the face all the time, in races from the Aintree Grand National to a beginners’ chase at Thurles, he’s not exaggerating.

Those ambulances probably don’t look quite as distracting now, do they?

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