to MANY, the 4.20pm race at Southwell tomorrow will be just another race on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon. To Brian Toomey, it will be the very moment when the back-from-the-brink jump jockey has completed the most improbable sporting comeback of all.
Two years and a week after he was left for dead after a fall at Perth in which his heart actually stopped beating for six seconds and he was given just a three per cent chance of survival, the 26-year-old will resume the career that has always been his life.
And he could not have a more willing partner for the Southwell Races’ Selling Hurdle – the 11-year-old Kings Grey has been trained at Middleham by Phil Kirby for this very race after the British Horseracing Authority approved Toomey’s riding licence last month after the most stringent medical checks.
It promises to be a day like no other. Toomey’s proud parents Johnny and Marian are flying in from County Limerick to see their son ride again. His brother and sister are doing likewise. And many other friends intend to cheer on the jockey who had a large part of his skull replaced with a titanium plate after surgeons performed emergency surgery to release the swelling on the rider’s brain.
The likable Toomey, who lives near Saltburn, accepts this. He has been inundated with media requests this week after his inspiring story was featured in The Yorkshire Post last Saturday – the second anniversary of the sickening fall when he was pitched head first into the turf as his luckless mount Solway Dandy lunged at a flight.
Even though many just want horse and rider to return in one piece, the jockey hopes Kings Grey’s winning course form at Southwell – and recent victory over fences at Aintree – will serve him well.
Toomey, who spent two weeks in a coma and 157 days in hospital after his fall, plans to walk the track ahead of the race and then keep his own counsel in the sanctuary of the weighing room – this, after all, is his job and he wants his riding to do the talking.
“I’m really looking forward to it – I can’t believe the day has finally arrived. I remain confident and determined,” he said.
“People can’t believe it. I’m made up that my parents and family will be there. Hopefully, in time, they will realise why I wanted to get back riding and I can make them proud of me.
“I’m also doing this because I want to inspire those who are coming to terms with similar injuries and that there can be light at the end of a dark tunnel. Most importantly, I want people to remember me for being a good jockey and not an injured jockey.”
As the rider seeks a fairytale win on Kings Grey – it would also represent Toomey’s 50th career success – he has received no special favours from the aforementioned Kirby.
“It’s been an unbelievable week,” said the trainer. “We’ve had amazing coverage from the media up here and I’m proud to play a little part in it. It’s just a case of trying to do everything right by Brian.
“When he first came back in, I was a bit worried. There was obviously a question mark about how he was, and when he was schooling our horses I was just hoping nothing went wrong.
“But now we treat him the same as all the rest of the lads. He comes in every day and rides two, three and four lots – just like the rest of the jockeys here. He schools the good ones and he schools the bad ones as this is what he wants to do. It’s a wonderful story to see him back riding, and riding so well.
“At the moment, everything is grand with the horse. He’s fit and well and ready to go. It should be decent ground at Southwell and that will help him, too. He’s the right horse for Brian to come back on.”
In one of racing’s ironies, Toomey now lives just a few miles from Guisborough – the North Yorkshire town made famous in 1981 when Bob Champion conquered cancer before winning a fairytale Grand National on Aldaniti.
Now a redoubtable charity fundraiser, Champion finds himself in awe of Toomey’s courage and determination. “He’s been on some journey, let’s be honest,” the Aintree legend told The Yorkshire Post.
“To get back is an amazing achievement, not just for Brian but the medical staff at Newmilns Hospital in Dundee and then James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough. Nobody thought he would ride again. He had no chance. They didn’t even think he would survive the night. I’ve met him a few times – he’s a nice person, very determined and never gave in.
“People must think jockeys – Flat and jumps – are mental. Look at AP McCoy who would be smashed up one day and riding winners the next. Yet we’re fortunate we’re doing the job we love doing. We’re in a privileged position and I wish Brian all the luck in the world.”
After tomorrow, Brian Toomey is hopeful that his life can return to normal. He knows he will only get more rides if he can prove to trainers and owners that he can do justice to their horses, starting with Kings Grey.
He also harbours dreams of winning a big race to help deflect attention away from the torment and trauma of the past two years. “I don’t want to say it because it sounds cocky, but I genuinely believe I was kept alive for a reason,” he added. “Bob Champion won a Grand National so I’ve got a long way to go, but riding is my job and I’ve given myself a second chance by proving everyone wrong to get this far. I intend to take it. The past is the past.”