‘I crawled through a dark tunnel filled with danger’

Declan Murphy told his extraordinary story on Today With Sean O'Rourke

By Anthony Pyne

RTÉ Sport journalist

The May Bank Holiday weekend of 1994 was drenched in tragedy.

On the Saturday, Austrian motor racing driver Roland Ratzenberger died during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix.

The next day at the same track, iconic Brazilian Ayrton Senna, carrying an Austrian flag he planned to unfurl in victory as a tribute to Ratzenberger, lost his life when his car hit a concrete retaining wall.

Limerick jockey Declan Murphy headed to Haydock on the Monday under a cloud.

"I was a great fan of Ayrton Senna," he told RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke.

"On the day of my race, May Day, I went to the races with certain misgivings because you never expect that your heroes get killed in action.

"You never fully comprehend that happening. I got to the races and Charlie Swan and I sat in the weighing room and were just discussing this and realising our own mortality really, and then going out to ride in a race."

The next five minutes would change his life irrevocably.

"I never wanted to be a jockey. To me it was just a hobby."

Murphy grew up in Hospital, Co Limerick, enjoying an idyllic childhood – "we rode ponies in the same way kids in other countries ride bicycles; we rode them for fun" – and honed an uncommon skill and instinct for riding.

"Everything was fun," he recalled. "Life was just so busy being a kid, enjoying life, and I developed a great instinct for riding; riding ponies, falling off ponies, nobody asking you were you okay, you got up, you got back on.

"I never wanted to be a jockey. To me it was just a hobby. I loved being challenged by horses or ponies and honing that relationship, really refining that and getting feel with a horse. That’s what I loved. The part of racing horses never really appealed to me."

It was a meeting with legendary gambler Barney Curley, who was moving to England to set up as a trainer, that persuaded Murphy to take the plunge. As he puts it: "If Barney Curley had sold carrots, I would have sold carrots."

Success followed.

"I had developed a unique style of riding. I had developed a way of riding a race to suit my horse.

"I would establish my horse’s cruising speed and I would always have horses running their races strong past the winning post at the end.

"So many races are run at an uncontested pace and if a race is run at an uncontested pace a horse is travelling at less than its cruising speed.

"Then, if you expect a horse to change gear off what is less than its cruising speed, it can be ill effective."

On that fateful day at Haydock, as he sat with Swan grieving the loss of his sporting hero Senna, Murphy, then 28, had to stir himself to take the ride on Arcot in the Swinton Handicap Hurdle.

It was, for the most part, a routine run.

"I was in a great position; I’d ridden a nice race," he said.

"I’d ridden my horse to his cruising speed. When we jumped the second last, it’s quite beautiful when I hear the Peter O’Sullevan commentary, and he says ‘and here comes Declan Murphy in his distinctive style and a winning chance delivered now on Arcot’.

"At that moment I was in perfect rhythm with Arcot's stride and suddenly I felt that the stride we were on was a fraction too long to jump the last hurdle economically.

"I changed tactic and I shortened his stride, so in other words when I got to the obstacle I was going to take two strides instead of one.

"When we go to the obstacle we were two strides away from the hurdle and just in that moment of mistrust in the communication my horse had with me, this trust shattered like a thin sheet of glass. It just broke down.

"His head collided with my head and knocked me unconscious before I hit the ground."

"He took off a stride too soon and in the hyper extension of his body, his pelvis broke. So when he crashed through the hurdle his head flung back just at that moment that I was being propelled forward with the momentum of the stride.

"His head collided with my head and knocked me unconscious before I hit the ground. So when I hit the ground I was laying there prone.

"The horse was laying there stricken on the other side of me, and Charlie Swan was coming from behind on his horse (Cockney Lad).

"He’s done everything to avoid hitting me. Instincts screamed within the horse that he was riding to avoid the bigger of the two obstacles. He chose to try and jump me, failed to make it and landed on my head with his hoof, shattering my skull in 12 places and leaving me with two blood clots on the brain.

"My girlfriend Joanna was sitting at home, watching this on the TV and she knew it was bad because she said every time I fell you’d see me get up or do something, but she could see I hadn’t moved on the ground."

Here, Murphy pinpoints two decisions that would save his life.

"When I was on the ground I had had the first of my two seizures. When they put me on the stretcher, the first moment that a decision was made between me living and dying, was when the paramedic suspected I was bleeding from the brain and when he put me on the stretcher, he’s got his hand underneath my head and he is holding my head in such a way that I am not going to suffocate in my own blood.

"I’m transferred there under police escort and I get there, to that hospital, with four minutes to keep me alive on that life support machine."

"His instinct, or his genius, which one I’ll never know, that was the first moment that made the difference between I living and dying.

"The second one was when I was taken from the ground and transferred to Warrington Hospital, eight miles away. They made a decision there that they didn’t think I‘d live through an operation.

"That decision saved my life. Had they operated they would not have had what was required to do this operation. They put me on a life support machine to try to keep me alive until I got to the Walton Centre of Neurology which is the best hospital for brain surgery in the whole of the country.

"I’m transferred there under police escort and I get there, to that hospital, with four minutes to keep me alive on that life support machine."

Meanwhile, on the fifth hole of Heswall Golf Club, surgeon Professor John Myles took a call. His expertise was desperately required.

Upon hearing the details of the accident, Professor Myles acted swiftly and decisively.

"He decided that time is really precious here. He contacted the hospital. The doctor was instructed to go in and remove the bone flap from the skull.

"They drilled holes right around my skull and then with a sewing wire just cut the skull out and hinged it on the muscles around my temple. When John Myles arrived, he went straight in and suctioned out the two blood clots."

Murphy was kept in a medically-induced coma, from which doctors believed he wouldn't wake. The situation was so grim that The Racing Post ran the front-page headline: 'Declan Murphy dies after horror fall'.

His family was contacted, and were asked to come to Liverpool to make a decision on whether or not to turn off the life support machine. Had they flown they'd have reached Murphy in three hours; but his father's fear of flying meant they took a boat, a trek of 10 to 12 hours.

He woke in seven.

"It's an extraordinary thing…"

So began the gruelling road to recovery.

"I decided I could not cope with being a patient. I refused to believe this had happened to me and I was going to find a way out of this. I had to go home.

"Then the reality of what faced me started to sink in. I had lost 50% of my body weight. I was like a shell. I couldn't taste anything.

"I was in a very deep, dark place. I had to crawl through a darkened tunnel filled with danger on my hands and knees.

"I had to be prepared to lose everything just to gain that one something, but that one something was of such significance, it was my life."

Astonishingly, 18 months after suffering injuries so bad that he could now read his own obituary, Murphy got back on a horse.

"That's what I had to do, that's the price I was prepared to pay to get my life back. It was only one race, and I won it.

"When I won that race I felt many emotions: elation, jubilation, everything… but relief was the one emotion that overpowered me."

LISTEN TO THE THE FULL DECLAN MURPHY INTERVIEW ON TODAY WITH SEAN O'ROURKE

Murphy's incredible strength and fortitude dragged him back from the brink and saw him reclaim his life. By his own admission, he emerged from the darkness a different man; a day of such unimaginable trauma scarring him in every possible way.

When his daughter came along seven years ago, he named her as a tribute to the hero he mourned before taking that ride on Arcot: Sienna.

Now living in Barcelona, he has released a biography, Centaur, to tell his incredible story.

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