He cheated death in a heavy fall last July but jockey Brian Toomey still has a bright future writes Aine Fitzgerald, who met him recently
ON an evening when a mini-tornado has battered the streets of Kilmallock, 15 miles away in a sitting room in Manister, Brian Toomey sits his slim frame down on a sofa in front of a roaring open fire.
It’s the jockey’s first time in the warm embrace of his family home since that day on July 4 when his young life was nearly snuffed out in a cruel fall in Scotland.
Brian has made the trip back to County Limerick for the wedding of Leah McNamara from Grange – the sister of his best friend, Christopher. It’s a short trip – he’s back to the UK again on Friday to attend an Injured Jockeys Fund ball. At first, the jockey appears quiet, even reticent. However, over the next hour he opens up to chat about everything from his love of The X-Factor and chicken fajitas to that mid-summer’s day which changed his life forever.
“I always wanted to be a jockey, always. There is nothing else I wanted to do,” says the 24-year-old with a slight hint of an English accent which he swears he cannot hear.
“I always had ponies and a few horses when I was younger and through relations of mine including John Thomas McNamara and his brother Aongus, it was something I got into.”
Having attended the local national school in Manister, Brian travelled to Ardscoil Ris in the city for his secondary education.
He freely admits that he didn’t overexert himself at school and smiles when he thinks of what would go through the minds of his old classmates if they were to see him now, pulling up in his “smart” white Audi A5 which is parked out back.
What the flash car hides however, is the daily 6.30am starts, the catalogue of injuries, the uncertain future and its driver’s gutsy attitude to life.
Brian made the move to England six years ago having just finished the Leaving Cert year.
“I was 18,” he recalls. “It’s good living on your own. It teaches you to fend for yourself and to paddle your own canoe - that’s my phrase, I like saying that,” he smiles.
He had about 60 winners in England under his belt and was absolutely loving the horse racing lifestyle when the sun broke through the clouds on the morning of July 4.
Brian drove the white Audi – he had only purchased it the week previous – to Perth Racecourse where, at five o’clock he would contest the 10-runner conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle on the 11-4 favourite, Solway Dandy.
He remembers the drive. He remembers getting on the horse. But of the fall, nothing.
“I was knocked out straight away. I do have a video of it. I’ll get my phone upstairs in a while to show you.”
“I can’t remember anything from the first hospital in Dundee - I was there for three to four weeks. I was in an induced coma for nearly two weeks. I was on a lot of tablets and medication - they just knock you out.”
When he did come round, he knew he was in a spot of bother, to put it mildly.
“I remember lying in a hospital bed thinking ‘Oh Janey’. I knew I had a head injury, then I realised how bad it was,” he recalls.
But he doesn’t remember being in any real physical pain. “I have broken loads and loads of bones in the past - I have dislocated both my shoulders, broken my wrist, and broken a couple of ribs. They all repair themselves but...”
The open ended sentence does all the talking for the long-term consequences of this particular injury.
Brian knows that he will never ride a horse competitively again. He knows it but, understandably, he doesn’t like it. In fact, you can sense, that is what pains him most.
“Obviously, I would just love to get back to my job but I won’t be allowed because there is so much insurance involved in our job. I will never be allowed back,” he asserts.
“I will be able to ride a horse again but not in a race – I won’t be insured to race ride.”
Because Brian’s brain was swelling up so much after the fall, a substantial section of his skull had to be removed to relieve the pressure and keep him alive.
In a follow-up operation last month in James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, a titanium plate was inserted into his head “to keep my brain safe”, as he puts it.
“The only thing that hurt me was they put staples in, and oh God they kill you,” he says, folding back his mop of chestnut brown hair. “They went over the same place,” he continues running his fingers down along a five inch scar which stretches from his forehead to the back of his head on the right hand side.
It’s now five and a half months since the fall, and Brian considers himself not quite 100% but near enough.
“I feel 95% okay,” he says. “Because I was on a lot of medication, you wouldn’t realise how tired it makes you. It did take a long time. I know people say it’s only been five and a half months but it did take a long, long time, to me, for me to recover.”
There have been concerns about his memory, but according to Brian it’s nothing to be overly worried about.
“There are some things from ages and ages ago that I can’t remember. I can remember all the important things - it’s just little details. But I reckon that if I didn’t have this injury I wouldn’t remember little details like that anyway,” he says.
To go from a job which is fuelled by speed and exhilarating jumping, to a recovery process which involves sitting down at a table doing schoolboy puzzles to test the memory, hasn’t been easy.
“I hated it,” he admits. “We had to do occupational therapy every day - lads with head injuries. You were in there with six other people. I was obviously really, really grumpy when I was in hospital. I usen’t put any effort into it. I was like that in school.”
He persevered however, and upped the ante when he went to Oaksey House in Lambourn, a rehabilitation facility for injured jockeys.
Throughout the recovery process Brian has had real strong allies in his family - his mum Marian, a nurse in the orthopaedic hospital in Croom, dad Johnny, a farmer, brother Sean, sister Aine and, of course, his friends - “great lads” - and his girlfriend of four years, Amy Ryan, also a talented jockey. Brian is attached to the yard of Amy’s dad, Kevin, in North Yorkshire.
“She has been good to me. I’ve had loads of help from family, friends, people here in Manister and all over”.
Through their support, patience and encouragement they all played a key role in ensuring that the Brian of old came back, razor-sharp wit and all.
For many people, to have their dream job snatched at such a young age would be enough to crush their spirit. Not so with Brian. He has never gotten really down since the accident, but understandably has found the drawn out days that recovery brings very difficult. “I would be up at half six every morning to go to a trainer’s yard to ride out,” he recalls fondly of his racing days. “I would be race riding four to five days a week. Where I live in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, most of the race tracks are very close, like around an hour.
“I would go racing, come home, eat my chicken fajitas – well not every night but we are having them tonight,” he smiles, “and I would just chill out. I would always go on Sky in the morning before I left, to record the racing and then watch it when I came home. You’d be watching what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.”
His future now offers more uncertainty, more mystery.
“Anything that I do will revolve around horses,” he asserts.
While he has been interviewed by numerous racing channels on the TV and has a manner about him which would easily see him get a job as a racing pundit, he isn’t sold on the idea just yet.
“Even though it’s good money, I don’t know,” he says. “In time, I would love to start training horses – at 24 I’m a bit young yet.”
The Injured Jockeys Fund, he says, is helping him every step of the way.
“If you want to get trained to do anything, they sort it and pay for it all. I could get trained to do anything if I wanted to but I don’t have interest in much apart from horses. It’s what I have done since I was a kid.”
Would he be nervous about getting back up on a horse? Not a bit. “I don’t remember anything of the fall.”
Just two days before he made the trip home, he went to see his cousin JT McNamara for the first time since his fall. JT, from Croom, was seriously injured while racing at Cheltenham last March.
“It was nice to catch up with him. I never stopped thinking or talking about him so I was so happy to see him. He is in really good form.”
Throughout his career, Brian has admired many jockeys including JT, Jason Maguire, and close friend Brian Hughes. But AP McCoy would have to take the top spot.
“He has been amazing to me since I’ve been injured. He’s been to see me. He had taken me out to dinner. He brought me back up home when I was in Oaksey House. He is very good,” he says, each sentence punctuated with a deep sense of gratitude.
He feels fortunate that even though he is injured, being a professional jockey means he continues to get his paycheck every Tuesday. “You wouldn’t think it, but there are still loads of things to pay for, even though you aren’t doing a whole lot.”
There’s the phone bills for a start – the long hours lying in a hospital bed saw him clocking up the minutes.
And then there’s the television licence for his somewhat interesting taste in programmes.
“I like Take Me Out, the UK one. I want to go on that,” he laughs. “I love it. Paddy McGuinness is great.”
Anything else? “I like The X Factor, Nicole Scherzinger - I love her,” he smiles.
He also loves music and has 2000 songs stored on his phone.
His favourite artist? “I like R Kelly - The World’s Greatest, that’s my favourite song.
“Are you actually writing that down,” he laughs, clearly foreseeing the inevitable slagging he’s left himself open to.
Between Take Me Out and R Kelly, I’m really starting to think this guy’s having me on. Secretly like them, maybe, but admit to it, to a reporter – very brave!
“I’m actually going to get my phone and show you,” he says before disappearing out of the room and up the stairs.
He returns within seconds with iPhone 5 in hand and plants himself back on the sofa. Like it is for all of us, the mobile offers a unique insight into its owner’s life – no commentary necessary.
There is the video of his fall at Perth. X-ray images of his repaired skull. And the playlist of his life.
He scrolls past The Wanderer, Beyonce’s Ave Maria, and lots of golden oldies until there it is, R Kelly’s The World’s Greatest. All jokes aside, it is a fitting favourite for this talented young jockey who, when his back was against the ropes, held onto that little bit of hope, and made it.