Declan Murphy - The jockey who read his own obituary

Twenty-three years ago, Limerick jockey Declan Murphy’s skull was so badly fractured in a fall at Haydock Park that his death was confirmed by the Racing Post. Prematurely as it happened, writes Colm Greaves.

Declan Murphy - The jockey who read his own obituary

The precision of a brain surgeon and the determination of a maverick jockey brought him back from death’s door. There’s been casualties along the way, and stuff he still can’t remember, but Murphy won’t forget Monday May 2, 1994 any time soon.

The fifth hole of Heswall Golf Club on the Wirrall Peninsula in Lancashire is a bit of a monster. A long par five, over 600 yards, it looks across the Dee Estuary towards the hills of North Wales on one side and towards the more prosaic sights of Liverpool and Manchester on the other.

It was on this hole that Professor John Miles was battling to save par on a May bank holiday Monday in 1994 when the call came. His skills were urgently needed elsewhere – there was something more important to be saved than par.

When Miles wasn’t playing golf he was a brain surgeon at the Walton Centre for Neurology, about 25 miles from Haydock Park racecourse where a short time earlier a gelding called Arcot was being ridden in the Swinton Handicap Hurdle by 28-year-old Irish jockey, Declan Murphy. The Professor now had a life-or-death decision to make.

There had been a catastrophic breakdown in communication between man and beast on the approach to the last flight. Man decided that beast needed one more stride before jumping but beast disagreed.

Beast won the argument and made his own decision. Arcot took off soon, paddled the air frantically in search of the hurdle, didn’t quite reach it and snapped his pelvis trying. In his fall he cracked heads with his jockey and they both collapsed helplessly to the turf.

Cockney Lad, ridden by Charlie Swan, arrived at the scene a couple of seconds later which wasn’t nearly enough time to swerve the prostrate jockey. Hoof hit helmet and head was shattered in a dozen different places. It had only been about three seconds since Arcot had disobeyed instructions and Murphy’s future now lay in the hands of the golfing surgeon.

“John Miles made that decision on his way from the golf course,” Declan Murphy recounts. “He knew they only had about four minutes to keep me alive on a life-support machine but he’d already decided that they had to open the skull right away and that he would go straight into suction the blood clots when he arrived.

How fortunate was I to get a Professor of Neurology who had the bottle to make that decision? He told us when we were preparing the book that this is a situation that happens over and over. All surgeons have a great dexterity with a scalpel but not all of them have the stomach to make the decision. He’s a bit like me. That is the exactly kind of thing I would do.”

Confidence

The book Murphy refers to is ‘Centaur,’ co-written with Ami Rao, which tells the compelling story of his somewhat accidental, Haydock Park disaster and the long journey of recovery. The sub-title is ‘the memoir of the jockey who came back from the dead,’ but long before his death there was a richly interesting life, nurtured in a dreamily idyllic childhood in the village of Hospital, Co Limerick, where he was born in 1966.

A son of Tommy and Maura and one of eight children, it was a solid, loving upbringing that bestowed Murphy with the self-confidence to build a career in the saddle and from which he drew the strength to face the horrors that came to visit at Haydock and beyond. It is a confidence he still embraces.

“When we were kids I was one of eight living in a rural village. There were ponies to be kept, cows that needed milking by hand,” he says. “When we rode ponies we just got up and rode them — nobody told us how. If you fell off nobody was there to pick you up. If you milked a cow nobody told you how to do it, you just did it. You become a confident person when other people trust in you do to things they think you can do. Confidence comes from looking like you belong, that way you will be accepted.”

From an early age, he looked as if he could belong anywhere, no more so than when amongst horses, riding winners of pony races, graduating to point-to-points and eventually to summer work at the stable of Kevin Prendergast who provided his first winner under rules when Prom won at Tralee in 1983.

“You have to remember, when it came to riding horses I never wanted to be a jockey. But Pat Hogan, who is an institution in the sport, saw something in me and started me in point-to-points and then Kevin Prendergast forced me to take out an amateur licence when I didn’t want to.

"The only thing I ever remember wanting to be was a criminal lawyer in America. He saw I had the confidence to ride a hard-pulling horse and deliver him to win, but for me, it was just like a piece of work. I never set out a stall and said that was what I wanted to do.”

But unknown to young Murphy, greater forces had also noticed the young Limerick man, forces attracted by both his character and confidence and his ability to steer reluctant horses. Forces that were about to shape the direction of the rest of his life.

By now it was now the mid-80s, ten years since the sulphuric Barney Curley had masterminded the legendary Yellow Sam betting coup at Bellewstown and just a short time since he picked up a criminal conviction for illegally raffling his Mullingar mansion.

Barney had decided to pack up all his baggage and move it to England to set up as a trainer and as he wrote later, “putting fears in the minds of the establishment that I had only one mission in mind: to destroy the fabric of British racing.”

Curley needed trustworthy soldiers for his upcoming campaigns, including a dependable jockey who was also reliable as a man. Murphy was duly summoned and recalls the slightly bizarre job interview that followed.

“When Barney said he wanted to meet me I had no idea why. He said later that I spoke so confidently that he didn’t need to see me ride a horse. When he asked me to go with him I agreed because I was fascinated by the man and he seemed as interested in me as I was in him. If he’d asked me to sell vegetables at that meeting I’d have sold vegetables.

"That’s why I went to with him. I think I was leading the amateur championship at the time and yet walked away from that to go work in England, against the strong advice of almost everybody I asked. Not many kids who really wanted to be jockeys would do that.”

His interview with Curley lasted for three hours. At the end of the conversation, Curley asked him if he thought that he was good enough. “Don’t worry” replied the confident 18-year-old amateur, “I’ll be good enough.” Received wisdom dictates that opposites attract. Not in this case. Two intense, intelligent, intolerant and inscrutable peas had just found a comfortable pod.

The Racing Post reported that Declan Murphy was dead when he had a horrific fall at Haydock.
The Racing Post reported that Declan Murphy was dead when he had a horrific fall at Haydock.

Gale again

At the end of April 1994 Declan Murphy rode the second last winner in his career as a jockey. It was far from his biggest win but was fully indicative of the blend of skill and substance that had taken him ten years to finesse. The race was a two and half mile chase at Cheltenham and the field of six included top-class horses such as the Gold Cup winner Garrison Savanah and Elfast. Murphy was on Gale Again for Tommy Stack.

“I had developed a way of riding that I really admired,” he asserts. “I had a style of riding to suit my horse and it didn’t matter to me what else was going on, even if they’d gone 20 lengths away from me. I had developed a way of understanding a horse’s cruising speed and it requires skill and understanding to know when to change gear. They key to me, the art of race riding, is to understand a horse to get him running past the winning post, not to the winning post.

“Barney Curley said that I could drop my horse back a hundred yards and still win and Charlie Swan once told me that he remembers the first time he ever saw me racing ponies, he thought I rode with my head. I wasn’t aware of riding with my head, to me it’s just common sense and If I’d any one criticism it’s of jockeys who ride as if the last hurdle is the winning post. When a horse jumps the last and is decelerating — that to me is a cardinal sin on the jockey’s part.”

His policy of riding to a pace rather than a race inevitably meant that he was subjected to regular scrutiny under the distrustful searchlights that the British Jockey Club shone on the Curley operation and Murphy was often collateral damage. His style and tactics polarised opinions.

For example — when he won on The Hacienderos at Kempton Park on St Stephen’s Day 1984, commentator Grahame Goode mused: “I hope that Mr. D Murphy realises where the winning post is.” Added analyst John Oaksey: “Declan Murphy pulled the fat out of the fire, unnecessarily. It was a grossly overconfident ride.”

Said Declan: “Barney asked me to win by a length — I won by a head. I just couldn’t help myself.”

Curley said “it was as good a ride as I have ever seen.”

Conflict was inevitable and it came in droves. While Murphy wasn’t exactly thrilled be to cast as the villain in the pantomime, he wore his anti-establishment cloak with some pride. Still does.

“I went through a period with Barney when I was being victimised and I was told this directly by Bruce Hobbs (Senior Steward at the Jockey Club) that they were picking on me to get at him through me. I was ready to walk away and would have been happy to, because I had done my bit for Barney and had taken racing as far as I wanted to take it.

"I was quite intolerant when something was not quite right. For example, when I won the King George on Bradbury Star, I was given a two-day ban for the ride. I appealed and represented myself at the hearing and won. Then I took the two days off anyway.”

Over time, suspicion was gradually replaced by respect and admiration. Murphy’s remarkable career statistics show that he parted company with a horse during a race at only a quarter of his peer group average. After several years with Curley he accepted a job as stable jockey for Josh Gifford and rode Grade One winners on champions such as Deep Sensation, Kingsmill, Bradbury Star and Fragrant Dawn.

When he was legged up on to Gale Again on that Cheltenham evening he had reached the pinnacle of a trade for which he had often professed indifference. Declan Murphy was now a world-class jockey and was about to show why. He dropped his horse out the back, pace judged on his internal clock, rhythm achieved, jumps met accurately, winning run delivered late, reserves kept to catch Elfast up the hill, accelerating past the winning post.

He says now that it was the greatest race he rode. A race where it finally dawned on him that he might actually want to be a jockey. A race that made him feel alive.

The last race he won before The Racing Post announced his death.

You’re amazing when you die

The day before Arcot fell at Haydock Park, Ayrton Senna braked late on a bend and collided with a concrete wall at 145 miles per hour during the San Marino Grand Prix. Like Murphy it, took only a few seconds from decision to calamity. Like Murphy there was an emergency evacuation to a local hospital. Like Murphy there was an announcement of his death. Unlike Murphy, this one was true.

The death of Senna hung heavily at Haydock Park the following day, nowhere heavier than on the shoulders of Declan Murphy. Senna was no ordinary man and his loss had brought as sense of mortality to a jockey in a sport where fear is a very unwelcome guest.

He sat next to his friend Charlie Swan in the changing room. They somberly discussed the loss of Senna but when the time came for his only booked ride that afternoon, he quickly banished it from his thoughts. At the start Murphy purposely kept his mount in the rear.

The first time that commentator Peter O’Sullevan mentioned him was to note that he was positioned at the back of the field in the early stages. The second was when he announced that Murphy was delivering him to challenge on the approach to the final flight. The last time he said his name on air that day was when he told viewers before just sign off that “unfortunately, Declan Murphy is not yet up on his feet.”

Rushed to the operating theatre, Murphy provides graphic detail of the complications that confronted Professor Miles. Two blood clots, the first one lying between his skull and the dura – the outermost, toughest and most fibrous of three membranes covering the brain. The second one was inside the dura and much more dangerous.

“When you cut the dura the chances of survival are practically nil,” he says. “Many surgeons are reluctant to operate because they don’t want a fatality.” But Miles didn’t hesitate and because of his skill, nerve and judgement his patient survived to write the story of his subsequent fight for health and sanity in all its harrowing detail.

He describes the public uncertainty of his condition for friends and family, the emotional rush to his bedside by the then love of his life Joanna Park, and the later tortuous struggle to walk again, one step at a time, the depression, the hallucinations and terrors that were with him every step of the way.

Doctors 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?”

Murphy told the BBC: “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. After the third attempt the doctors said, “We think it’s time to switch off the life support machine.”

And that’s how his death made the front page of The Post.

This part he still recalls with a chuckle. “I always had a fascination with reading obituaries particularly in The Times and Telegraph. I loved reading about scientists, artists and the things they did. But reading your own one is the weirdest thing and it was amazing the things people said about me. To be honest it now makes me question all the obituaries I now read. You are amazing when you die.”

Reflection

After the operation, he was kept in a medically-induced coma for four days. When he woke up he was 12 years old and back in Ireland in 1978.

According to Joanna, he had rediscovered the broadest Irish accent she had ever heard. He was anxious for his childhood pony, Strawberry, and convinced the Taoiseach was still Jack Lynch. There were four alternatives offered to him — paralysis, brain damage, blindness or recovery. He chose recovery, but later revealed that he had in fact lost all memory of the previous four years and could only reconstruct his races by endlessly watching them on video and by reading about them in newspaper cuttings.

His relationship with Joanna, in many ways the hero of the tale and who contributes a passage to the book, didn’t sustain in the long term, but the warmth of his appreciation for the part she played in his recovery is palpable. “Honestly – the hardest thing I have ever done is to read what she wrote,” he says.

“I must have read it 15 times and I cry every time. Because I haven’t seen her for ten years, I had no idea she would even come forward and what she contributed it was a perspective I had no idea of. To have that one period in two different perspectives was a unique thing and when I read what she wrote it renders me useless.”

She was by his side throughout his ordeal but a different man had come back from the dead. A man that had chosen not to feel emotion as a matter of self-preservation. A man that become impatient and selfish. A man that had recklessly stopped taking his medication because he sensed it dulled him.

“I had been spared my life and now I had to save it.”

A man intensely fighting against his greatest fear – that he would lose the intelligence that defined him.

Frustrated by people referring to him in the past tense he resolved to race ride again and 18 months after his accident he was strong enough to take part a flat versus jump jockey challenge at Chepstow, and duly won on Jibereen. He immediately retired.

He eventually did get to America to pursue business interests and now lives in Barcelona with his wife Zulema and seven-year-old daughter, Sienna. He now only goes racing a couple of times a year, to Cheltenham or Royal Ascot.

He says he came back a different man, but is he a better man?

“Different? Better? I don’t know, because there is still a part of me I can’t remember. What I do know is that I am now a strong person at my core and good to those around me. And I think that we all go back to where we began and I am still like the kid I was brought up to be.

“I’m content and lucky to have the life I have, my family gives me an immense sense of pride. I am lucky to have that life, lucky I could walk away from racing and rebuild. Start again.”

Centaur, Declan Murphy and Ami Rao, Doubleday Press, €15.99, is published this week

More in this section

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox