LIKE all jockeys, PJ McDonald’s first instinct as he hit the ground was to consider the rides that he would miss.
His horse Westward Ho had reared up in the Newcastle paddock and thrown McDonald from the saddle.
He could not walk and x-rays confirmed his worst fears – fractures to his left ankle and right heel. He was wheelchair-bound.
This was on September 3. Today the Leyburn rider partners Laurens in the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, one of the centrepieces of Qipco British Champions Day.
McDonald’s recovery epitomises how sidelined jockeys come to terms with their physical and mental injuries.
Trained at Leyburn by Karl Burke, and owned by John Dance, Laurens had taken the rider’s career to new heights thanks to three high-profile Group One triumphs.
He was in the form of his life and had ridden his 100th winner of the year just before he was unseated.
Then came the agony of travelling to watch substitute jockey Danny Tudhope, a friend and a rival, partner Laurens to a famous victory in the Matron Stakes.
The 36-year-old was pictured, in his wheelchair, shaking the hand of Tudhope in the winner’s enclosure – the forced smile of sportsmanship masking the rider’s inner torment.
The agony got worse. Twenty-four hours later the Burke-trained sprinter Havana Grey – another horse associated with McDonald – won a Group One prize in Ireland.
“Two weeks out and two Group One winners missed. It’s a very hard feeling to explain,” McDonald told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “I was absolutely delighted for the filly because she’s been so instrumental to my career.
“I was absolutely delighted for John for what he’s put into racing and the confidence he’s put in me. I was delighted for Karl and his daughter Lucy who looks after the horse. On the outer I was genuinely delighted for everybody. Inside I was absolutely dying. I’ve never experienced a feeling like it before and I don’t hope to feel it again.
“Horses as good as her don’t come along too often, you know what I mean, and it’s a massive opportunity for someone like me.
“If you look at the bigger picture there are a lot of people in a worse state. I’ve got a chance to ride another Group One winner on Saturday, some people don’t get the chance. I have got to be grateful that I have made a full recovery. When it happened I thought the season was over.”
Two weeks after his fall doctors allowed McDonald – a former jump jockey who has grafted his way to the top of the Flat ranks – to start walking again. When plans were drawn up to run Laurens in next month’s Breeders’ Cup in America it gave the jockey a comeback target – and a much needed focus.
He still missed the winning ride on Laurens in Newmarket’s Sun Chariot Stakes, the frontrunner’s fifth Group One triumph and the third big race win that McDonald had missed during his enforced break, but his rigorous fitness regime meant he had a chance to be race-ready when connections decided to take on Europe’s top milers at Ascot.
For this McDonald – who proved his fitness with a comeback winner at Wolverhampton on Thursday – is indebted to Jack Berry House, the Injured Jockeys Fund’s rehab centre in Malton.
“It’s been brilliant not only for the simple reason you’re getting fit again, but mainly because it gives you something to do,” he explains. “You are going round the country at 120mph, two meetings a day, and then it all stops. There’s only so much Jeremy Kyle and Loose Women you can watch on TV.”
As well as one-to-one physio and treatment to ensure that he did not aggravate his injuries due to the impatience that injured jockeys tend to show in such situations, the camaraderie of gym sessions with other stricken riders, like Paul Mulrennan, was another spur. “I could see him do things which I wasn’t quite ready to do, you know what I mean. That was motivating,” he says.
Those watching the rider’s progress included the aforementioned Berry, who inspired one of the top sports theraphy facilities in the country. “Laurens gave PJ an incentive to get back,” he said. “The staff have been brilliant. He’s fit as a butcher’s dog and everyone will be cheering him on.”
McDonald has every confidence that Laurens will do justice to her reputation after riding her on the gallops last Sunday. “She’s electric. She felt as good as she’s ever felt,” he reported. “This will be her toughest test. Win lose or draw, she’s earned the right to be there. She’s had an incredible year and the fact she’s staying in training next year is a great boost for me – and the North.”