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'Declan Murphy dies in horror fall': The jockey writes about that fall, reading his own obituary and his long recovery

More than twenty years after his accident Murphy, who spent four days in a medically induced coma, decided to tell his story.

Declan Murphy and Ami Rao

In 1994 at a May bank holiday meeting at Haydock Park, Declan Murphy was riding Arcot, the favourite in the Swinton Hurdle.

As they headed into the final hurdle, the pair stumbled and fell. Murphy lay unconscious on the ground and another horse galloped over him, shattering his skull in a dozen places. A few days later a newspaper ran his obituary, writing: “Declan Murphy dies in horror fall.”

More than twenty years later Murphy, who spent four days in a medically induced coma, decided to tell his story. Centaur is written with Ami Rao.

I HAVE ALWAYS followed this beat when I ride, moulding my body to the rhythm of my horse’s stride pattern. And in this way, we have understood each other, my horse and I, our bodies in perfect sync, the energy between us reverberating like the silent echoes of an unspoken voice.

This is how I have always ridden. By an instinct, deep and wonderful. It never failed me. Until the day it did.

May Day – Monday, 2 May 1994 – was a typical spring day at Haydock Park. The sun was shining brightly through a cloudless azure sky, the stands were packed with holidaymakers looking to have a grand day out. A gentle breeze blew across the racecourse, carrying happy voices, the tinkling of glasses, the familiar, very particular, scent of the horses…

Ominous feelings seemed improbable in an atmosphere like that. And yet, I was troubled. Just the day before, Ayrton Senna had died in a fatal crash at the San Marino Grand Prix.

I was haunted by this, by the emotions swimming around inside my head like demons. I couldn’t quite compute them. At the most simplistic level, a life had been lost. That in itself was profoundly tragic. But it was more than that. Senna was no ordinary man. Three-time Formula One World Championship winner, he was considered by many to be the single greatest racing driver of the modern era. And yet, he had died.

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What was more ironic, adding to the layers of sadness and confusion I felt over Senna’s passing, was that Senna himself had been under immense emotional pressure on the day he died, following the death of Formula One colleague Roland Ratzenberger just one day prior. It was later revealed that a furled Austrian flag was found in Senna’s car, which he had presumably intended to raise in honour of Ratzenberger after the race. That was never to be.

It was little wonder that Senna’s death had cast a pall over the entire sports world. After all, we are all conditioned to believe that our heroes are invincible.

To me, it was deeply unsettling, perhaps because for the first time in my life, it brought home the stark reality of my own mortality.

I don’t say this lightly. I don’t say it with ignorance and I certainly don’t say it with arrogance. I am just telling you the truth.

Yes, of course I knew that, like Senna, I was in a dangerous sport. But if you asked me if I had ever thought about death, I could look you in the eye and honestly say I hadn’t. Not because I didn’t think it possible. Only because I did.

My teammate was a 1,200-pound animal, whose will I attempted to control at 35 mph. So to say that my profession was fraught with danger would be an understatement. But I was acutely aware of this. I approached race-riding with intuition and intelligence, equally split; there was no room for fear in this equation. I am not saying that I was fearless. How could I be? I’m only human.

But I couldn’t afford to consider fear as part of my reality. Fearing fear would have been as good as quitting. So I conquered fear with belief. I rejected fear. I shunned it. And to the extent I could, I tried to keep it at bay.

That I had suffered fewer falls than most of my colleagues was no coincidence. I was deliberate, measured and tactical. I would ride, feeling my horse’s rhythm, the beat of its movement; I would time my every stride, approaching my obstacles with almost academic precision.

But the horse is an animal. An intelligent, unpredictable animal; a combination that can be as exhilarating as it can be deadly. And not even the most controlled and skilled jockey can predict which one it will be and when. So while I knew, as all jockeys do, that broken collarbones were lucky, death sad but not impossible, I certainly didn’t want to think about it.

But Senna, uncomfortably, had forced me to.

Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao which is published by Doubleday and is out now.

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Declan Murphy and Ami Rao

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