Toomey back in saddle as he defies all odds

Jockey Brian Toomey at his home Carlton-in-Cleveland. Picture by Simon Hulme
Jockey Brian Toomey at his home Carlton-in-Cleveland. Picture by Simon Hulme
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six days to go. The saddle is polished and the riding breeches laundered. Brian Toomey is counting the hours. Next Friday cannot come soon enough.

One year on from the calamitous fall that came within a fraction of claiming the jump jockey’s life, he will attempt to get his career back on track.

Lucky Landing ridden by Brian Toomey on their way to victory in the Equinity Novices' Chase during the day one of the Grimthorpe Chase Meeting at Doncaster

Lucky Landing ridden by Brian Toomey on their way to victory in the Equinity Novices' Chase during the day one of the Grimthorpe Chase Meeting at Doncaster

He cannot wait. He will be allowed to ride out on the gallops again. If he continues to progress, he is hopeful of being given British Horseracing Authority medical clearance to resume his career, the only job that he knows.

“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m possible,” says Toomey as he recites a motivational quotation from iconic actress Audrey Hepburn that has already helped the 25-year-old to win the greatest race of his life.

This is the interview that the North Yorkshire rider was never expected to give after he was pitched head-first into the turf when his horse, Solway Dandy, fell at the third-last hurdle at Perth on July 4 last year.

Horse and rider were already beaten – Toomey intended to pull up immediately after the flight in question – but he never had a chance and racing’s tight-knit community held its collective breath as the jockey, who hails from County Limerick, was rushed to Newmilns Hospital in Dundee.

Family and friends were told to brace themselves for the worst. His plight was headline news and he was not expected to survive the night.

The right side of his skull had to be cut away to ease the swelling on his brain. Toomey also suffered three seizures.

His skull had to be plated back together last November. The only difference between the horseman and Michael Schumacher is that the Formula 1 legend suffered bleeding on his brain following his high-speed skiing accident.

It is why Toomey, who lives in a village on the edge of the North York Moors, is in a position to contemplate the unlikeliest of sporting comebacks – he owes the remainder of his life to the brilliance of the National Health Service and his personal positivity.

He intends to keep riding out on the morning gallops at a Yorkshire stable low-key, though this did not stop him from supervising the training of recent Carlisle winner Senor George from the saddle.

Just a gentle hack across the fields near his cottage was sufficient to convince Toomey that his own racing dream is a realistic one and that he is not scared of suffering another serious fall in, arguably, the toughest sport of all.

He describes his chances of being granted a racing licence as “80 per cent” before recounting another quote – “Being positive does not mean ignoring the negative. Being positive means overcoming the negative” – which means the world to him.

This has a special resonance. Toomey, whose cousin JT McNamara was paralysed three months earlier in a fall at the Cheltenham Festival, knows that his recovery is not yet complete,

After all, it would be astonishing if he was in the peak of health.

One glimpse of a photo of the stricken rider in hospital, the right side of his battered and bruised head missing, puts the extent of his recovery into perspective – and the poignancy when he returned to Perth recently to be reunited with the medical team whom he regards as ‘life-savers’.

“It was grand. This sounds strange, but I don’t remember anything about the race, the fall or the weeks in intensive care,” Toomey told The Yorkshire Post.

“One of the nurses said she had worked for the hospital for 22 years and had witnessed just two miracles in that time, and I was one of them. My neuro-surgeon, Professor Philip Kane, put my chances on pulling through at one in 60. Not quite one in a million, but still not great odds.

“My family and friends, they were told a couple of times that I would probably die in the morning if I made it through the night. That’s why the nurses were so pleased to see me – and why I wanted to say thank you. They were so happy. They were saying ‘Oh, you were in some state’. Without them, I would be dead.”

They were pleasantly surprised to learn that their one-time patient passed his driving test six months ago – another symbolic moment on the road to recovery.

He hopes this will strengthen his application to the BHA. “If you can drive on the road, sure you can ride a horse.”

Toomey has occasional memory lapses – he has to write down ‘prompts’ to minimise any forgetfulness, though this does not seem to be an issue if there is a horse to be bought or sold.

He draws comfort from the experience of Guiseley-born jockey Dominic Elsworth, who was sidelined for more than a year with a concussion; his most significant progress came after 12 months.

Unlike most riders, Toomey wishes he could put on seven pounds in weight – he is 9st 5lb at present. He believes he would look, and feel, even healthier and the rowing machine in the sitting room is indicative of his desire.

“The past year, it’s been a wake-up call,” explained Toomey, who paid special tribute to the Injured Jockeys’ Fund’s almoner Helen Wilson for her constant support.

“I appreciate just being alive. Before, stupid things got to me. Now I know I’m the lucky one.

“I hope it makes you realise you have to go through some bad times to get some good times. As much as I want to come back, I really hope that I can be an inspiration for people.

“I’ve been on a horse about 40 times and I feel it hasn’t affected my confidence. When I’m back racing, my parents, Marian and Johnny, will be very nervous, but they will also be happy because they know I will be happy.

“I’ve made it this far and I can go on further. I love racing. I’m competitive. I hate not being competitive. There’s nothing like winning a race, going over the final fence and making all the connections happy, from the lad or lass who brushes the horse in the morning to the owners.

“I’ve spoken a lot to people like AP McCoy. He’s the 19-times champion but he’s had a fair few falls. Nothing in comparison with mine, he says. AP spoke about getting depressed when injured – and I told him I kept being positive, even if I was hurting inside, because racing means so much. He said I was a hard so-and-so. That’s praise coming from the ‘champ’.”

Encouragement, too.

Although Toomey’s 50-plus career winners under National Hunt rules are modest in comparison to McCoy’s record-breaking successes, the passion they share for horse racing’s adrenaline rush is comparable,

It was epitomised by the response of JT McNamara when Toomey visited his cousin in hospital to talk about his comeback. “He said to me, ‘If you want to do that, fair play to you. Don’t let anyone stop you’.”

Toomey will not. For weeks, he has been counting down the days.

Asked about the best aspect of the past year, apart from just being alive, he said: “I’ve learned. I’ve learned Rome wasn’t built in a day.” The toughest? “The wait.”

It is nearly over – and this extraordinary young man knows it. The race is on.