AT 4.20pm this Sunday, at a track in the East Midlands region of England, the racing public will pay just £20 to see a miracle unfold before their eyes.
Limerick jockey Brian Toomey will mount Kings Grey and travel a distance of two miles and four furlongs at Southwell in what is a fairly modest novice hurdle - but it will be the biggest race of his life. That’s because Brian is back from the dead – literally and figuratively.
When he hit the ground after taking a head-first fall from Solway Dandy in a handicap hurdle at Perth on July 4, 2013, Brian ‘died’.
The medical personnel who attended him at the scene later said he’d been dead for six seconds. His parents, Johnny and Marian, had said their goodbyes. They’d agreed to let his organs be donated, had organised his funeral.
Almost two years to the day later, he has been restored to a life which revolves around the sport he eats, sleeps, and breaths – horse racing.
“My family are coming over for it. They will be quite worried, I’m sure, but it will be good to have them there,” says the jockey of his parents Marian and Johnny, sister Aine and brother Sean, who will make the trip from the Toomey homestead in Manister to the Southwell track. “It won’t be the biggest race I’ve ridden in but, for me, it will be the biggest race of my life. I’ve ridden winners round there before so I am familiar with the place.”
As a result of the fall in Perth, Brian’s brain swelled up so much that a substantial section of his skull had to be removed to relieve the pressure and keep him alive.
In a follow-up operation in James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, a titanium plate was inserted into his head “to keep my brain safe”, as he puts it.
Brian, 26, remembers nothing of the fall or its aftermath, or, indeed, much at all about the following year including an extensive interview with the Limerick Leader conducted by the open fire in the front living room of his Manister home on a stormy December evening in 2013 – five months after the fall.
“I don’t even remember you and me talking. You probably thought I was grand. I remember who you are and all that but I don’t remember the ins and outs of it,” he explains this Monday as he prepares to take Kings Grey to the beach for a day out before the real business on Sunday. “Everything is good. Obviously my fingers are still crossed because you never know what happens between now and then with horses. Everything has gone to plan so I am just hoping it stays like this,” he asserts.
The racecourse at Southwell has been around since as long ago as 1850 but surely has never hosted a race with the Lazarus-like back story that Brian Toomey brings to the saddle on Sunday.
With plenty of time to think in his hospital bed, first at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee and later again at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, Brian set himself one goal – to get back riding.
Despite the unquenchable optimism he displayed publicly, there were dark days, privately.
“I was very down. My family were in Ireland and I was over here and for a long time I didn’t have a clue whether I would be allowed [back]. That was my only goal. I let on the injury didn’t affect me but of course it did. It was very, very bad,” he says.
“Dad is sick at home so I didn’t want to let on to the family that it was affecting me as much because they would be worried but now that I have come out of it, I can admit it – it wasn’t good. I would have had some sleepless nights just over-thinking everything.
“I was practically known as an invalid for months and months and months. I knew that I wasn’t well for a long time – I was even trying to prove to myself that I was grand. It was quite rough.”
Looking ahead to Sunday, Kings Grey is certainly in good form, having won at Aintree last time out under Brian’s great friend James Reveley, with whom he shares a house at Lingdale, near Redcar.
James is one of the first names on the list of those Brian wants to thank – a long list that would fill several column inches. “Some of my friends came over from Ireland when I was injured and I appreciate all of that. I had a lot of support. Through the Injured Jockeys Fund we get counselling. It was my goal that got me through everything I reckon,” he says.
“I’m so happy about coming back,” he adds.
“When I ride at Southwell, it’ll mean I’ve achieved the impossible, I’ve achieved my goal. Hopefully my story can inspire people not just in racing but in the wider world, because this sort of thing happens to people every day, and for me to do what I’m doing will show them there’s hope even in the worst of circumstances.”