THE poignancy of horse racing’s tributes to Sharron Murgatroyd can be explained by the Yorkshire-born jump jockey’s unfaltering optimism after she was paralysed from the neck down following a final flight fall more than 20 years ago.
Despite being left wheelchair-bound, she became a tireless fund-raiser for the Injured Jockeys Fund and other charities, and once put her plight in perspective when she observed: “The boldest and most ridiculous hope has sometimes been the cause of extraordinary success.”
Given Murgatroyd’s sunny disposition, it was entirely fitting that her death was marked on Saturday by a rousing minute’s applause at Doncaster Racecourse – the town where her racing odyssey had begun. All jump jockeys wore black armbands as a mark of respect.
“Hooked on horses” since the age of three according to her mother, Thelma, the former rider suffered a heart attack last Tuesday and died three days later from pneumonia. She was 54.
Racing’s sense of loss was summed up by Channel Four Racing’s Clare Balding, who actually rode against Murgatroyd. “She made the weighing room a place of love & laughter,” she tweeted.
Born near Halifax, riding became Murgatroyd’s life when she was given her first pony by her parents. Her first involvement in racing came at the stables of Doncaster trainer Bob Ward who then recommended that his ambitious stable lass, a young woman determined to make her mark in a male-orientated sport, should join the then Gisburn yard that Tony and Monica Dickinson ran with their son Michael, who later became a record-breaking trainer.
She was entrusted with riding out acclaimed horses such as the only three-time winner of the prestigious Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham Festival. Yet, because Mrs Dickinson was a traditionalist who was averse to female jockeys riding competitively, Murgatroyd moved to Newmarket to pursue her career.
She had won 14 races – this at a time when female riders were still regarded as a novelty – and held realistic dreams of being a champion female rider when she headed to North Wales in August 1991 to ride Independent Air in a moderate claiming hurdle at Bangor. Well-beaten and approaching the final flight, the three-year-old fell heavily and left Murgatroyd paralysed from the neck down.
But rather than bemoaning her fate after her dreams were shattered in the blink of an eye, she became an accomplished author – she wrote her acclaimed book Jump Jockeys Don’t Cry by using stabilising pegs on her traumatised fingers – and even undertook a tandem parachute jump in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund.
Ironically, Murgatroyd had been due to join the charity’s patron Princess Anne on the first day of Aintree’s Grand National meeting this Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the charity’s inception following Yorkshire rider Paddy Farrell’s fall in the 1964 National.
“She was a brave lass,” the charity’s Leeds-born vice-president, Jack Berry, said. “I held an open day at my stables and she did a parachute jump from 10,000 bloody feet strapped to an instructor.
“I went up in the plane with her. When they opened the door and threw her out, she screamed ‘yeehaa’ like a cowboy. She was a typical Yorkshire lassie. So brave.
“It would take her two hours to write a sentence, but she never gave up. She seldom complained... she just said ‘what can you do?’ and got on with life.”
This spirit was summed up by Murgatroyd herself: “My dreams and ambitions would never be realised. I would never ride or walk again, but neither would I just sit in a wheelchair.
“I was determined to prove there should be no restrictions in my new life, after all I was still the same person – I was still Sharron.”