Sunday 19 January 2020

An absorbing tale of life, love, loss, courage and hope

Centaur: The memoir of the jockey who came back from the dead
Centaur: The memoir of the jockey who came back from the dead

Book review - Dave Devereux

'Centaur', the story of former top jockey Declan Murphy, doesn't take long to make an impact - in fact it reels you in when you're barely under starter's orders.

The details of the horrific injuries that befell the Limerick man are graphically portrayed in the opening pages, and it hits like a 40-tonne juggernaut and immediately has you hooked.

The sub-title reads 'The memoir of the jockey who came back from the dead', and the tag line is not just there as an attention-grabber.

The supremely-talented horseman was at the top of his game in 1994, but in May of that year his meteoric rise was brought to a shuddering halt with a last flight fall from favourite Arcot in the Swinton Hurdle at Haydock Park. As he lay unconscious on the ground a following horse stamped on his head, shattering his skull in twelve places.

Such was the graveness of his condition that the last rites were read and 'The Racing Post' even penned his obituary.

Then when he was unresponsive in a coma, doctors advised that his life support should be switched off, but astoundingly a twist of fate kept him alive.

The device was left on until his parents arrived from Ireland, with his father's fear of flying adding hours on to the journey, allowing their son to show his first twitches of life since arriving at the hospital with little time to spare.

Murphy incredibly defeated the odds, and practically rebuilt himself from scratch and was miraculously even able to get back in the saddle to ride one final winner 18 months later.

Poignantly, the day before Murphy's horrendous fall Ayrton Senna had lost his life in the San Marino Grand Prix, making him ponder his own vulnerability and mortality as a jockey, and he had discussed the tragedy with Charlie Swan in the weighing room before going out to ride in the fateful race.

Moments later Murphy lay on the Haydock Park turf with blood gushing from his head, with Cockney Lad, ridden by his friend Swan, landing what to all and sundry appeared to be the fatal blow.

For all his flair in the saddle, Murphy was an accidental jockey. Although a natural on a horse from an early age, he never really wanted to pursue it as a career, but fate conspired to lead him down that path.

It took him 23 years to tell the story of his rise to the top of the game, his near-death experience and his truly astounding road to recovery, but it's certainly well worth the wait.

The collaboration with writer Ami Rao takes you on a difficult and emotional journey as the jockey reconstructs his body and mind, and it is gripping from start to finish.

The single-mindedness he illustrated to rebuild his life is truly remarkable, learning to walk, run and ride again, although it did come at a price. His private battle saw him shut out those closest to him, but those were the sacrifices he had to make to get to the light at the end of a suffocatingly dark tunnel.

It's probably unsurprising that Murphy remembers nothing about the accident that almost robbed him of his life, but what is startling is that he has no recollection of the four and a half years prior to the horrific fall, obviously making his story a difficult one to tell.

The beautifully written book is an honest and touching tale of a man who had it all, lost it all, and then determinedly put his life back together piece by piece. It's a story of life, love, loss, immense courage and ultimately hope.

Some of his memories may be lost forever, but 'Centaur' ensures that Declan Murphy has left a lasting legacy to cherish.

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