Ruby Walsh believes horse racing has been well ahead of other sports in its treatment of concussed athletes but admits that jockeys will continue to try to fool the protocols, in order to avoid the mandatory suspensions.
Speaking at the launch of the first Irish research study into the long-term effects of concussion in sport he said: “As a jockey, to the day I retired, I’d have ducked it, hidden it, or gotten away with it because you want to be back riding the next day.“He says this is particularly prominent in racing because jockeys are self-employed, but he also believes racing’s athlete care has been “very far ahead” of other sports.
“We have independent doctors and none of them ever take chances with concussion. The standard procedures for concussion are seven and 21 days since I started riding 24 years ago.”
A new collaboration between Dublin’s Beacon Hospital’s Research Institute and the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation (ICHIRF) will produce the first Irish research on the long-term effects of concussion in sport.
Its first subjects will be retired jockeys (aged 50-plus) but it eventually hopes to expand to include boxers and rugby and GAA players.Eminent concussion expert Dr Michael Turner — chief medical advisor to British horse racing from 1993-2013 — founded the ICHIRF in 2014.
He said their tests to date on retired jockeys in Britain “have not shown up the same pattern of concussion — depression, suicide, dementia — that has been found in American football but comparisons with control subjects (non-athletes) can highlight differences if they exist and help assess the risks”.
US research on 111 former NFL players’ brains found that all but one of them had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) but CTE is not detectable without an autopsy.Research with retired soccer players in Scotland has found that they had three-and- a-half times more dementia than the general public.
But that rate was still only 2.9% and Turner said that there could be multiple reasons for the higher rate among the footballers, including their medical histories and genetics. The ICHIRF’s research in Britain is still in the early stages with no post-death examinations but prominent jockeys like Bob Champion and Stan Mellor have already donated their brains to the foundation.
“The only way to diagnose CTE is through ‘slice and dice’ but our research is about assessing the risk levels in contact sports,” Turner said.Irish racing’s former senior medical officer Dr Adrian McGoldrick (already a trustee of the ICHIRF) said:
It will be another 10 to 15 years before we get any conclusive evidence but there is a lot of misinformation out there about concussion and this is a really worthwhile project.
The project needs funding of €250,00 to €500,000 and Ruby Walsh presented it with a €50,000 cheque from the Irish Injured Jockeys Fund.He said he was knocked unconscious four times in his career of approximately 13,500 rides, and estimated that he probably had one fall in every 25 races.This research will look at cumulative effects, if any, of such falls and Dr Turner confirmed rates of concussion among female jockeys are four times greater than in males.
“I’ve never felt any serious side-effects and hopefully I never will,” Walsh said. “I’ve had cognitive tests every second year for the last 10 years and when I started, there was none of that.“Whenever you ride a horse it’s a risk but where do you stop in sport? Do you take the header out of football?
"If a hurl comes down on a plastic helmet in hurling, is that sufficient (safeguard)? I don’t know. But if this research can show that X amount of concussion can lead to Z, then we can try and prevent that, and prevent guys finishing up riding with any side-effects.“If we can make one person’s life better then, as a charity, we’ll have done a good job.”