Twenty-three years ago next month Newmarket-based jockey Declan Murphy sustained such severe head injuries in a fall he was given the last rites and the Racing Post published his obituary.
Kicked in the head after he came crashing down at the final hurdle in a race at Haydock Park, his skull was shattered in 12 places and any betting man would have given extremely long odds that he would survive.
But survive he did and with the help of debut author, Ami Rao, his book Centaur tells the story of how he defied medical thinking and of his “miraculous recovery and what became a journey into uncharted mental and physical waters,” and how, 18 months later, he got the leg up for what was to be his final race.
Murphy was about four when he sat on his first pony, Roger, in the little village in County Limerick, where he was bought up. He had never intended to become a jockey but dreamed of being a lawyer. All that changed when he came to England and was introduced to racing by Newmarket trainer and gambler Barney Curley.
But it was as stable jockey to the late Josh Gifford at Findon that he achieved his most notable success on Deep Sensation in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, and probably his most memorable win, when he partnered Bradbury Star to victory in the Mackeson Gold Cup, though exhausted to the point of collapse following an earlier fall.
That same year, he won the Bula Hurdle on Staunch Friend, a horse that just two years later was going to play a pivotal part in his recovery.
In the 1993/94 season Murphy had achieved his best ever total of 60 winners but it was then that the constant danger which stalks all jockeys almost snatched his life away as he and Arcot crashed at the last flight at Haydock in the Swinton Handicap Hurdle.
After sustaining such life-changing injuries a return to race riding had seemed an impossibility but Murphy seemed driven to get back in the plate.
“Perhaps anyone who had escaped the jaws of death the way I had had no right to tempt fate,” he said. “Another fall involving any kind of trauma to my head would kill me. It was that simple. So they warned and cautioned, coaxed and cajoled, reasoned and rationalised, pleaded and prayed, but they didn’t understand.
“This was no show of bravado. I wasn’t anybody’s hero. I was just a man searching for his soul. My decision to ride was driven by one desire and one desire alone - not to be seen as someone dead.”
That decision to race ride again and then to quit the saddle immediately after winning his comeback race, a jockeys’ Challenge at Chepstow, on Jibereen, had, in part, been nurtured by the afore mentioned Staunch Friend, who, 15 months after his accident, had been the first horse Murphy had galloped on.
It was after his victory at Chepstow, Murphy realised that as far as race riding was concerned, he had nothing left to prove.
“I had done it - I had placed my flag on the top of the mountain. There was just one last thing left to do. My name was Declan Joseph Murphy. I needed to find myself,” he said.
His book also reveals the devastating effect his accident had on his personal life and, in particular, his relationship with his devoted girlfriend Joanna Park, one of the two people without whom Murphy said “very simply I wouldn’t be alive.” ... the other being brain surgeon Professor John Miles who operated on him following his fall.
“When I woke from my coma, I didn’t remember Joanna in the way I was meant to,” said Murphy. “I loved her but she felt like a sister not a lover, I was 12 years old in my head, what did I understand of romantic love?”
And with that came the sad realisation that they would have to go their separate ways. “You cannot live a lie. She deserved more than that, and what she deserved I couldn’t give her - that privilege was taken from me,” he said.
“When the surgeon cut open my skull to save my life, he also did something else. He cut open our lives and tore out pages of the story that should have been ours to have.”
For Murphy today the only physical reminder of his accident is the ridged crescent-shaped dent on the top right side of his forehead, the mark of the incision where his skull was cut open.
“My friends often joke about it where they introduce me to people who don’t know who I am,” he said. “‘Can’t you see he rode horses,’ they say, ‘he’s got a hoof-print on his head.’”
*Declan Murphy’s book, Centaur, is published on April 27.