Saturday Interview: Brian Toomey - Back from the brink and defying all the odds

BRIAN Toomey’s face is a study of unflappable concentration as he schools Kings Grey under a simmering sun. “Good. Back in one piece,” says the visibly relieved rider after safely negotiating four obstacles.

Brian Toomey at Phil Kirby Racing, Middleham. Picture: Gary Longbottom

It is no different to any schooling session; horse and jockey in perfect unison on Middleham’s historic Low Moor gallops where champion thoroughbreds have been put through their paces since time immemorial.

However, this is no ordinary combination. The slightly pensive Toomey is the jockey who cheated death on this day two years ago – he actually stopped breathing for six seconds – following a shuddering fall and Kings Grey is the faithful friend lined up to be the 26-year-old’s comeback ride.

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It does not end here. The North Yorkshire rider’s injuries were so serious when pitched head-first at 30mph into the hard turf during a hurdles race that a large part of skull had to be cut away to relieve the pressure on his brain and replaced at a later date with a titanium plate.

Brian Toomey at Phil Kirby Racing, Middleham. Picture: Gary Longbottom

No wonder many regard the back-from-the-dead Toomey as the definitive ‘iron man’ of sport. Not only has he won the most important race of all, just the small matter of defying those doctors who rated his survival chances as no better than three per cent, but he has also proven to the British Horseracing Authority that he is medically fit to resume race-riding – the career that his life.

After achieving mission impossible, he can not wait to make up for lost time and has every confidence that Kings Grey could be the 50th – certainly the most special – victory of his career if the horse lines up at Southwell tomorrow week for one of the most improbable comebacks of any sport.

Born in County Limerick, the adopted Yorkshireman is not aware of any competitor who has resumed their career after suffering such serious injuries and he is determined to use his story to thank the NHS “heroes” who saved his life and to inspire others to never give up.

“Why wouldn’t I? Being a jockey is all I know,” Toomey told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “I didn’t have to go to college or university for six years to get a worldwide degree. I just jumped on the back of a horse and rode away. It’s my life.

Brian Toomey at Phil Kirby Racing, Middleham. Picture: Gary Longbottom

“No-one lost faith in me and now it’s my turn to give hope to others. I’m deadly serious. I’m hoping to be successful again. I don’t want to be a ‘story’ – Brian Toomey, the medical miracle, and all that. I just want to be remembered as a good jockey. Hopefully, the next story will be B Toomey winning a big race, and people writing about my riding, rather than the fall.

“I’ve watched the replay a few times – for my own peace of mind. It’s ironic, Solway Dandy was the odds-on favourite and supposed to win. He just didn’t pick up at the third last hurdle. It wasn’t my fault. A stupid fall. Quick ground in July. I don’t remember it. I guess it was worse for my family and friends when they saw me in hospital in such a bad way. My best friend James Reveley, who was riding at Perth on the day, was actually with me when I was dead for six seconds as the paramedics treated me.

“I’ve cheated death and come back from the dead. It was a million to one that I would race again. Never give up. But I don’t want that to be the story. That’s the past – people have falls all the time in racing. I’m feeling grand and I can’t wait to be get back racing again.”

And riding winners.

This is no idle promise. The Brian Toomey of today is unrecognisable to the young man staring death in the face two years ago when the right-hand side of his head was being cut away by surgeons in a desperate bid to save his life or the jockey of 12 months ago who was a painfully thin, waif-like figure who was lost in his own world while he battled to overcome short-term memory loss.

He is quick to play down his recovery, though he admits to under-estimating the Herculean size of the challenge. However, he says he never lost faith in himself – jockeys, it should be noted, remain a breed apart because of their never-say-die resilience.

But it has not been easy. He spent night after night on the internet researching his condition and other sportsmen who have overcome traumatic injuries. He then wrote down every detail and memorised it. Back then, he admits it was “a blur” when he sat on a horse for the first time.

The fact he looks no different to any other jockey riding work is, perhaps, the biggest and best compliment of all that can be made.

Toomey now lives near Saltburn with the aforementioned Reveley, a Grade One-winning rider, whose support and friendship has been unstinting.

He names his father Johnny as his inspiration because he has “never complained” about his multiple sclerosis and has always remained “so positive” and he now has the ideal mentors in Middleham trainer Phil Kirby.

For, while Toomey has ridden out at many top yards in Britain and Ireland, it is Kirby – and his wife Pip – who have taken the comeback rider under their wing. “He wanted somewhere to make a start and we’ve taken it from there,” said the trainer and former jockey. “It’s Brian’s choice, but having made the decision, the important thing is do it properly. We hope we have the ideal horse in Kings Grey. He won the other week at Aintree, Brian does all the work with him. He’s 11 and should be a lovely ride to come back on.”

This is self-evident as Toomey saddles the horse who is known as ‘Christian’ because of the Fifty Shades of Grey character. “But I’m better looking!” cracks the jockey. Fortunately, his mischievous sense of humour never left him.

He then trots the horse through Middleham, an imposing and impressive sight, as passing traffic slows to a standstill, in deference to the 11-year-old Kings Grey, who has won six of his 38 starts and now runs in the colours of the jockey’s good friend Brian Dunn.

On the hottest day of the year, Toomey is the coolest man on the gallops as he emerges from over the horizon before taking his final instructions. As Kings Grey approaches the birch-made fence, Toomey sees a stride and his mount responds. The same at the next obstacle, an open ditch, before the exercise is repeated. Rider and trainer are content, they do not want to over-exert the grey on drying ground.

“He has so much natural class and doesn’t have a bad bone in his body,” says Toomey of Kings Grey. He is also sanguine about the risks – his cousin, JT McNamara, was paralysed in a fall at Cheltenham in March 2013.

“I’ve had a few bad falls riding out and just got up,” added the rider whose most comical moment came when he passed through airport customs in Florida and sent the scanners into meltdown because of the titanium plate and only extricated himself from the predicament by persuading officials to put his name in Google.

“I could have been back racing a few weeks ago, but I wouldn’t have done myself or the horse justice. I’m ready now. It’s going to be some story...” It already is.