Rather belated update for 2016!
A new year needs new resolutions and, especially if a website like this has not been updated since September 2013, it needs new news.
So, with apologies, here’s what’s been happening.
The Warrior and Isle of Wight project has continued to progress. The book has sold so well, over 40,000 copies in hardback, that we could afford to commission a half-life size mounted bronze of Warrior and Jack Seely by the distinguished sculptor Philip Blacker. This was completed in the autumn of 2014 and it was a particular pleasure for me as Philip was a fellow steeplechase jockey many years ago. It also gave special pleasure to our family, many of whom now have maquettes of the bronze, and best of all to the wider public because the original statue is now on display at Carisbrooke Castle.
Set on a hilltop in the very centre of the Isle of Wight Carisbrooke Castle is the real thing. It has a moat, castle walls, a drawbridge and a history dating back to Norman times which includes a failed escape bid by Charles I when he was imprisoned there in 1647. It is also within 10 miles of where Warrior was foaled and lived all of his 33 years with the minor exception of 1914-1918 when he and Jack Seely went to France to win the war single handedly – or so his books would almost have you believe.
What is more the perfect spot for the statue to now proudly stand is in the Princess Beatrice Garden which is particularly poignant because it looks towards the chapel on which the name of Jack Seely’s oldest son is inscribed as amongst the fallen in that doomed ‘War to end all wars’. The opening ceremony in July 2015 was one of huge family as well as local pride.
THE ANIMALS’ VC
The PDSA Dickin Medal, known as the “Animals’ VC” was instituted by PDSA founder Maria Dickin in 1943 and since then has been awarded some 70 times for acts of heroism by animals in both war and peace. But up to now all such awards have been for current events until, in the summer of 2014, it was announced that on this unhappy centenary of the outbreak of hostilities, a posthumous Dickin Medal would be given to Warrior on behalf of all the animals that served in World War One.
The ceremony at the Imperial War Museum was hosted by legendary war correspondent Kate Adie on September 2nd and Warrior’s own website (www.warriorwarhorse.com) includes a special film that we made in the Isle of Wight to mark the occasion. My voice had almost gone when I stood up to speak – but much more from emotion than infection.
THE WARRIOR TRAIL
You have been able to read books, watch films and see statues of Warrior but from April 2015 you can now walk or ride the Warrior trail – a now signposted route up to the Downs and down to the beaches just as Warrior would have done. Thanks to the driving force of my cousin Patrick Seely and the support of the Isle of Wight Tourist Board, English Heritage and The National Trust, ‘THE WARRIOR TRAIL’ was inaugurated in 2015 at a touching little ceremony at Mottistone on the supremely apt date of March 30th.
It was trebly apt. For on March 30th 2015, my grandfather Jack Seely finally resigned from his post of Secretary of State for War over ‘The Curragh Crisis’. At Moreuil Wood on March 30th 2018, he and Warrior led one of the last great cavalry charges to stem the German advance on Amiens. On March 30th 1922, Warrior won the Lightweight Race at the Isle of Wight Point to Point ridden by ‘Young Jim’ Jolliffe who had minded him a foal and after the race Jack and Warrior rode home alone over the downs to Mottistone.
For the occasion I rehired the WW1 General’s uniform I used in the film Galloper Jack and rode up from Brook on Patrick’s son’s point-to-pointer to toast the occasion in the way grandpa would have liked. It may be 100 years on and for a while that morning I could be forgiven for thinking that the clock had stood still.
March 30th 2015 was the most perfect of crisp spring days with the sun dancing off the waves in the Channel. My horse Tonto (well, it’s as good a name as any) had a nice bit of a swagger as we trotted handsomely past Brook Church where my grandmother was buried in the summer of 1913, where my parents were married in June 1923 and my son Jim was christened in May 1978.
All well and good but I was quite conscious that the sight of a gleaming thoroughbred trotting up the road ridden by a big beaked and heavily medalled figure from yesteryear was, how shall we say, slightly unusual. Not a bit of it. On the way from Brook through Hulverstone and up the chute to Mottistone four separate cars came past. Ok, it was a busy day. But no one turned a hair.
There was a happy little gathering of local dignitaries and media as we raised a glass of grandpa’s favourite bubbly to speed all future walkers and riders on their way. The photographs show that we were positioned slightly between the church and the barn entrance to Mottistone Manor where Jack Seely and Warrior passed their closing years. To boost the project on its way we wanted as much attention as possible. Seven months on, the position was exactly reversed as my great niece Sophie Hunter married Benedict Cumberbatch at Mottistone Church and the pleasures of privacy were at a premium. New stars were honouring the Island. It was as it should be.
IF HORSES COULD TALK
Nine days after Derby winner Sea The Stars crowned his career by winning the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp on October 2nd 2009, I was at John Oxx’s stables just off the Curragh in County Kildare. The idea was to meet all the trainer and his team for a film we were doing. We also met the man who first put a saddle on the champion. Seeing Gary Witheford in action changed me just as it has changed so many others who have had him drop the scales from their eyes.
Two months later I went to his yard near Marlborough later and the impression deepened. Four years later that impression had deepened into a conviction that his story should be put between book covers for the wider world to understand. For three months in early 2014 I followed his work with highly strung and sometimes highly recalcitrant thoroughbreds around the country and put his personal and professional story into words. In the autumn we brought this book out.
It is best summed up by its catch phrase, ‘How a man saved his own life by talking to horses, and how he saved countless horses lives by speaking their language’. It sold only fairly well but those who read it appreciated it. One of the very first was Tony Millett. Read what he says and you will get the picture:
“This is not the usual sort of book about the ‘Sport of Kings’ – it is about an outsider whose amazing understanding of horses has brought him fame and pain. Gary Witheford is that outsider whose unique skill with horses has made him indispensable to many of the most senior insiders in the racing world.
In fact his skills take him beyond racecourses and trainers’ yards – he specialises in training young and problem horses from all walks of life.
If he deals everyday with angry horses, he has also to deal with his own anger at his childhood and the way it was stolen from him. Gary Witheford and some of his brothers were groomed and sexually abused by twin brothers – adults who professed to be Christians.
These men are still alive, have both served time in prison and were plausible enough to fool Gary’s mother – she did not believe he had been abused and showed him no proper affection.
All this and much more is revealed in If Horses Could Talk by Horse Whisperer Gary Witheford with Brough Scott (Racing Post Books). It is a very compelling tale.
Gary is a great talker and has talked this book onto the page making it a lively read. Brough Scott – former jockey and long-time racing journalist – has given it shape, context and added depth. With brief essays in between the chapters, Scott helps us understand how Gary’s strange and successful life developed.
The book is full of photographs and Scott has also included an enlarged glossary – called the Tack Room – which is really helpful in getting a proper understanding of Gary’s methods.
Gary Witheford has Wiltshire in his bones – he spent several years at Rudloe when his father was in the RAF. Understandably, he left home and his boarding school for troubled boys in Devizes, and was introduced by teacher Alan Stonell to the ‘racing game’ at the Beckhampton yard (then run by trainer Jeremy Tree).
After many years with Elaine and Stan Mellor at Lambourn (not quite Wiltshire!) and time working away from horses, he set up in business first near Wootton Bassett and is now based at a former dairy farm near Burbage.
His practical, low-key approach to horses is termed ‘natural horsemanship’ and is a mix of his own theories, those of the original American horse whisperer Monty Roberts and other experts. His methods hark back to what Native Americans had been doing for centuries – and had then passed on to cowboys.
Ably assisted by his son, Craig, and by his wife Suze who looks after his complex logistics (“She is like my right hand”), his thriving business has two mainstays.
First, starting young horses. He does not like the term ‘breaking horses’ – he does not break anything in his ‘starting’ process and it takes minutes rather than the weeks taken to ‘break in’ a horse by traditional methods.
Secondly, he is called on by trainers to go to racecourses here, there and everywhere to make sure tricky horses get into the starting stalls. He wants to persuade the governors of the racing industry that reform of the stalls loading process is vital – just one of the reforms he would like to see.
But, as he says quite openly in this very open book, at 54 he is now feeling a bit worn out. Not all young and troubled horses are polite – they have landed him with plates in a hand and an elbow, with a crooked jaw, bad shoulders and an uncooperative back.
The adrenaline rush of coping with horses that are often and in varying degrees pretty violent, takes its toll. And his business involves endless driving – travelling to British and Irish trainers and racecourses and further afield still.
He has had many more than his fifteen minutes of fame – whether it was training the first zebras to be ridden (the press loved that) or giving jaw-dropping demonstrations of his skills.
John Gosden, who used to be at Manton, is one of the trainers who often relies on Gary. In the book Gosden is quoted in one of Brough Scott’s mini-essays: ‘It’s very reassuring, especially for jockeys, when Gary is down at the start. Gary has a profound understanding of the horse and its psyche’.
This year, Gary was supervising the stalls entry for Gosden’s Classic star Kingman. He will be disappointed that Kingman has an infection and will not make his last appearance (in October’s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot) before going to stud.
Brough Scott writes that if horses really could talk, their first words would be to thank Gary. I would go further: I believe the horses would urge him to carry on campaigning to reform aspects of the racing game. And when he has succeeded - and when the odds are long Gary very often does succeed - he and Brough Scott could write another book together.”
The Warrior story continues to interest people all over the world. In the last few years the story has spread and there were two very enjoyable trips to America. The first was to Baltimore in 2012 to help a hospital project run by Grand National winner and five times Maryland Hunt Cup winner Charlie Fenwick. The second, a year later, was to Virginia to address the National Sporting Library at Middleburg. The interest out there was tremendous and both trips enhanced by a hunting in pursuit of what they call ‘the red fox’. Mind sometimes they switch on to a coyote which can be quite dramatic as the coyote tends to take a straight line across the Interstate.
Two other trips are worth recording.
MELBOURNE CUP. NOVEMBER 2014
The call came through in February. Would I go down to be the guest of the Victoria Racing Club (VRC) for the week of the Melbourne Cup. All expenses would be paid, club class tickets for me and my wife, and a swanky hotel room overlooking the Marybong River. All I had to do was to turn up at a few events and make a speech at their big Carbine Cup lunch on the Friday before the Cup on its famous ‘First Tuesday in November’. Surely, as the then doomed English football manager Graham Taylor once said, a case of ‘what’s not to like’?
Then I asked around and discovered that the speech had to be a full 30 minutes and the well wined guests expected you to hold them and if you didn’t they had plenty of noisy Ozzy ways of showing their disapproval. Not much to like about that.
Worse still, a month before it transpired that my wife was not able to make the trip so it was a lonely trek through the interminable hours from Gatwick to Melbourne and a ludicrously under occupied hotel room. But down I went. People were very hospitable, Flemington was the best equipped racetrack I had ever seen. However, it was soon obvious that the Carbine Club lunch was a major problem. How that went was going to colour the next five days when I was scheduled to be something of a dancing pig down from England. Die the death at the lunch and it would be sniggers all the way.
The answer came in pomposity and insult. The lunch had already made a tribute to horses in the first war so I started up boasting about how my grandfather had a mighty horse. There were a thousand of them out in front of me and I could feel them stiffening but I knew I had something that might humour them. Mind you if it didn’t I was finished.
This is how it went ……
“Then I was given a book that explained that you too had a famous War Horse. That he was rougher, bigger, braver than even our horse could have been. That he sailed up from Sydney with no less than Banjo Patterson as his carer. That he was the hero of Gallipoli, the saviour of Sinai.”
“And just to rub my family’s nose in it he had a tougher name - while my grandfather, Major General Jack Seely, the Lord Mottistone and Cabinet Minister buddy of Winston Churchill, gave his horse the splendid name of WARRIOR - yours was much more direct - BILL THE BASTARD.”
They got it. I was safe. Melbourne is a great place if the natives remain friendly.
CHALKE VALLEY HISTORY FESTIVAL 2015
Anyone remotely interested in history that hasn’t been to this ought to sign up at once. Set in a tented village below the Downs in South West Wiltshire this is the loveliest of locations. But while it was a very different challenge to the Carbine Club lunch it was in some ways no less intimidating. The first two people I saw in the speakers’ hospitality tent were David Starkey and A.N. Wilson – the other contributors included Dan Snow, Neil McGregor, Anthony Beevor, Neil Oliver, Julian Fellows and Anthony Roberts. Bluffing definitely wasn’t going to work.
However, the old adage of ‘if you can’t be good, be different’ did seem to prove effective. These other speakers might have infinitely more knowledge of every aspect of history but none of them could talk of horses with as direct an experience as I have. And with all the attention that War Horse has generated the sheer physicality of what Warrior went through really got to the audience in an area where the horse is still pretty central in many lives.
At least the two most brutal criteria of speaking failure did not happen. No one walked out before I finished – and everyone stayed awake. Rather better than an audience in a similar summer tent 40 odd years ago. My excuse is that they were pony club members roped in on an evening of their summer camp and they had probably been awake fooling around most of the previous night. But however hard one might try and explain it the facts are that after a few minutes a couple of kids dozed off at the back. Then the dread hand of Morpheus spread across and down the listeners until the little boy right in front of me was the only one left awake. Hard though I tried to up the tempo of my clearly inappropriate approach, he too nodded and dropped off. The audience had voted – not with their feet but their eyelids.
However bad your talk, the battle-axe in charge usually commends you on a great speech. This one merely thanked me for coming.
Our Racing Post Books operation has made quite a success of its ‘Legends’ series. After Sea The Stars came Kauto Star and Frankel and McCoy. In autumn of 2015, it was the turn of Frankie Dettori thirty years since he came over from Italy as a 14 year old so homesick that he cried himself to sleep at night.
The book could only be called Frankie and compiling it was a fascination for me because his career had almost exactly coincided that of the Racing Post which therefore logged even the very first winner he ever had – at Salisbury on June 9th 1987.
Frankie himself penned a foreword to our tome and although the book has not yet threatened the best sellers list it is a very special record to which I believe flat race fans will want to return not just this summer but for many summers to come.
To explain why I can’t do better than show you the first four paragraphs of my introduction to FRANKIE:
“He is a shining star. He has risen and dipped and soared and crashed. He has been dragged from the wreckage and has been too close to the sun. He is both a party buzzer and a father-of-five family man. He is superbly skillful in the most perilous of sports. His heart can be on his sleeve or in his boots. He has lit up all around him like no man ever before. At 44, with his future presumed in the past, Britain’s favourite Italian has just delivered the greatest year of his riding life.
That’s why we at Racing Post have put together this scrapbook of the story so far. For all of us it has been a fascinating process, particularly for me. Because it was a full forty years ago that I was writing about his father Gianfranco Dettori winning the Two Thousand Guineas at Newmarket, a feat repeated the next spring. When the young Frankie arrived here in 1975 I was already planning with Sheikh Mohammed the launch of Racing Post, which finally happened in April 1986. Frankie’s first UK ride would not come for a twelvemonth but we logged it when it did. We have recorded everything since.
We have registered a lot else beside. By the nature of things our writers and photographers have been alongside him all the way. At first unwitting of how far it might go, then with by turns thrill, amazement, wonder, concern and even despair. Quite soon they realised that there was something very special in their midst. What none of us knew was quite how far, how high, how low or how long it would or could go on.
The fun of gathering this record has been its reminders of quite what an astonishing journey it has been. Of how much Frankie has achieved; of the terrible falls and professional crises, the mould-breaking technique and the barrier-busting effusiveness. Above all, from the process has emerged the sense of how lucky we are to have him.”
Peter O’Sullevan died at home in Chelsea on 29th July 2015. He was 97.
It has been one of the great privileges of my life to have had him as a hero, mentor and friend for as at least seven of those ten decades. There was a fully deserved flood of tributes on the news of his passing and at Racing Post we reprinted a special edition of his book Peter O’ Sullevan’s Racing Heroes. If you go into the Articles section of this website you will find tributes I wrote both for the Sunday Times and The Racing Post.
To give you a sense of the sort of the exceptional person Peter O’ Sullevan was I am pasting in the first four paragraphs carried by the Sunday Times:
“Peter O’Sullevan’s coffin was carried out of Chelsea’s Cranmer Court on Wednesday evening, the three hall porters each raised a glass of rose with tears pouring down their faces. Peter would have liked that, the rose not the tears.
The porters knew what they would be missing but they also knew that he would want them to celebrate because there was an awful lot to celebrate about – most of all from how he dealt with people. When Peter spoke to you, whether you were in that beautiful art-lined flat, a royal palace, the most distant racecourse, a scruffy railway carriage, or just a listener on the airwaves, you knew he had taken trouble about it.
It was not an act. It was, and this is written absolutely as a compliment, it was a creation. In an extremely focused, single-minded way, he built himself into the person he wanted to be. He was the nearest thing you will ever meet to a living work of art. He achieved this through a very rare mix of adjectives – a courteous, caring, driven, private, perfectionist, as elegant in his manners and eloquent in his speech as he was sharp in his ever-open eye for a bet and droll in his assessments of others. ‘He is nice’ he would say of some mutual acquaintance, ‘but of course an absolute stranger to the truth’. Sure, Peter and his wife Pat had no children, they never extended beyond the Chelsea flat, there is not a single ‘next of kin’ and his activities were confined to a comparatively narrow field. Yet this only added definition to his identity and allowed him to make friends, and indeed readers and listeners, into family but on his own terms.
He would be generous, informative, witty and even mischievous, but communication would be conducted with words and sentences that had style and education. A card from him, all beautiful handwriting and fountain pen, would be something to treasure almost as much as the answerfone messages: refined, mellifluous and sometimes with just the tiniest hint of mockery. ‘I know you are terribly busy but could you spare a moment from your frenetic schedule to give ‘the old wreck’ a call’.
Journalism and broadcasting, to borrow just about the only two phrases recalled from O Level Maths, all too often search for the lowest, common denominator whilst with O’Sullevan it was always the ‘highest common factor’. There was never any pretence that he was one of the people. He was an Irish born, French speaking, wine loving, Charterhouse educated aesthete, but he was also a committed journalist and broadcaster and so it was his duty to share what he knew and saw in the best manner possible to whoever was good enough to read or listen. He did indeed walk with kings – his 30 minute conversation with the Queen whilst walking round the royal paddocks remains the only recorded interview of our reigning monarch – but his words, and especially his tips, were for everyone.”
Peter O’Sullevan had lived his full span and more. On November 10th 2015 Pat Eddery went to join him. He was only 62. It hurt me deeply because I had been very close to him when he started and enjoyed both his company and his genius down the years. But he had died too young. You will see what I wrote in both the Racing Post and Sunday Times in the Articles section of this website and indeed in the copy of the eulogy I was honoured to deliver beside Pat’s coffin before a packed congregation at St Mary The Virgin in Thame on December 8th 2015. To give you the gist of what I felt here is the opening extract from the Racing Post.
“The racing saddle was his element. Out there he was a seal in water; the most natural, carefree, match-winning jockey you will ever see. The day came when he had to live only on the land and it would never be so easy. But, oh, how brilliant he was up behind the mane.
He was just a tiny new apprentice over from Ireland when I first met him at Frenchy Nicholson’s schooling field hard by Cheltenham racetrack in the autumn of 1967. Sure, he was Jimmy Eddery’s son, but already there were gifts beyond genetics in the little mini-man amongst us. It was to take more than 18 months for him to get going but there was never any doubt in Frenchy or anyone else’s mind that this was the real thing.”
If you read the whole piece you will detect there was a fair bit left unsaid about the demons which caught up with Pat when he retired. A day after that tribute was published Pat’s daughter Natasha went extremely public with an open blog about how alcohol had been the killer. So when I wrote for the Sunday Times that weekend, I felt it right to take a more sombre tone. Here’s how it started:
“BILL SHANKLY was wrong. For all its wonders, football is not, as the great Liverpool manager so famously said ‘much, much more important’ than life and death. Neither is racing, however high you may soar, however thrilling the ride. But lots of us laugh along with old Bill’s words. Lots of us did not realize what they and the demon drink could do to Pat Eddery, who died last week.
For more than 30 seasons he was a shining light in the jockeys’ firmament. You had only to look at him on a horse, as I first did as when he was a 15-year-old apprentice riding beside me at Frenchy Nicholson’s stable next to Cheltenham racetrack, to understand he was a genius with the reins in his hands. He had been born to it. His father, Jimmy, was an Irish classic-winning jockey. Eddery would prove a far greater rider. But in the end no worse a drunk.”
It was harsh and horrid but I thought necessary to write like that. Yet I could not leave my memories as wholly negative ones. The closing of that article was an attempt to describe the bitter sweetness of our bereavement:
“What delight and wonder we had as Pat Eddery spun brilliantly through the afternoons and was often unafraid to carouse away the night. He gave us so much but the payback was the brutal, tragic irony of last week’s news: that someone so much the symbol of life when in the saddle could be so bereft when out of it.”
INJURED JOCKEYS FUND
2014 was the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Injured Jockeys Fund after Paddy Farrell’s life changing fall in front of the stand in the 1964 Grand National.
Every racecourse in the country held a day in our honour and as chairman of the charity in succession to Edward Cazalet and John Oaksey it was for me a huge honour to see how much people had come to think of what we do.
Over the year we had a show jumping relay between flat and jump jockeys at Olympia and a mini event replica between the jockeys and the eventers at Barbury Castle. In both competitions our president John Francome rolled back his 62 years to almost embarrassing effect. The other jockeys are great riders and legends in their own right, but put them in a ring and the British Junior Show Jumping Champion of 1968 could still run them make them look leaden footed.
There were so many other great events including a brilliantly organized charity race at the Cheltenham Festival but pride of place has to go to our day at Aintree two days before the Grand National. Princess Anne came. As the Princess Royal she is our patron and in my experience infinitely more professional and focused than anyone could anticipate. But as a European Event champion, an Olympic rider and a winner steeplechase jockey herself, she came as a fellow spirit – and it showed.
Photos of royal visits are often disfigured by the insincerity of the smiles. Have a look at photos of the day and you will have no argument. It was a terrific day and made extra special by the thought that one of the people there had both inspired the original tribute to Paddy Farrell and was now the original catalyst for the rehab centre which was scheduled to be opened in his honour in 2015. In 2014 Jack Berry had cancer. Quite a few were pessimistic. Jack wasn’t.
JACK BERRY HOUSE
The opening of Jack Berry House at Malton on June 2nd 2015 was the crowning glory of the last 12 anniversary months, maybe even of the last 50 years. For it was 12 years ago that I and the then IJF Chairman Edward Cazalet (the only High Court Judge ever to win a race at the Cheltenham Festival) were summoned to Jack Berry’s home in Bedale in North Yorkshire. It was a dark and stormy winter’s night when he collected us at Darlington station. We were there to look at the plans he had drawn up, complete with duck pond, for what he wanted to call Oaksey Village. Six years ago Oaksey House was opened in Lambourn (minus the duck pond) and when the Princess pulled the cord in Malton on June 2nd 2015 to reveal his statue at Jack Berry House, Jack was far from the only one with a tear in the eye.
Jack, of course, has been the project’s greatest inspiration but the planning and delivery were the product of fantastic teamwork. From the Fitzwilliam Estate, to Malton Council, to our architects and builders, to John Fairley our Malton Trustee, and most especially to the IJF’s Chief Executive Lisa Hancock without whom we would never have got in on time and under budget. In an earlier life she delivered the new July Course stands at Newmarket but Jack Berry House is her proudest achievement. As it is for all of us.
I.C.H.I.R.F. (The International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation]
Agreed the title is quite a mouthful hence the shortening into the initials and for access to internet the further shortening to the pithy ‘Concussion in Sport’.
The issue is a crucial one for anyone interested in contact sports and one in which the IJF, with its half century of dealing with head injuries is uniquely equipped to deal with. As a formerly concussed jockey, my best memory is coming round in Paris to see the well face of the British Ambassador Sir Christopher Soames asking in the well dined tones of his father-in-law, Winston Churchill ‘are you all right?’. As the brandy fumes hit me, I passed out.
More seriously ever since those days, and I had a few more rather less Churchillian wake ups, I have been very obviously interested in how to handle concussion. Back in my day you just got on with it once you had come round. That happened to me one day at Haydock. I was knocked out for half an hour, rode the next day but in reality for three months I was working with a shadow over me. But eventually even the thickest of us realised we were espousing a nonsense and basic concussion protocols were started to give our heads a chance to mend.
That process took on a whole new dimension when Dr Michael Turner became a central figure in the racing scene. His sporting links have extended through assorted Olympic Sports and continue with British Tennis with which he was one of the seriously over the top member of the support team in our Andy Murray inspired Davis Cup triumph in Belgium in December 2015.
Michael Turner very quickly realised that concussion was a ‘risqué du metier’ for jockeys, especially over jumps. He brought professional rigour as well as personal interest to the treatment and, best of all, consulted with his peers world-wide. Chief amongst these has become Professor Paul McRory of Melbourne University whose speciality was Australian Rules Football which along with British Racing has had its concussions better logged than any other sport.
Turner and McCrory have featured at many concussion forums, several of which I have attended but the most important of which was at Zurich in 2011 where the actual state of concussion in sport was finally itemised and accepted. Since then high profile events in American Football (NFL) and British Rugby have put concerns about concussion on both the back and the front pages. Several sports have gone from denial to panic but all the while realistic research on a full sample of those who have and have not been concussed does not exist. That is what the ICHIRF seeks to address. We at the Injured Jockeys Fund will be supporting it as will the NFL and Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation from Dubai.
We are only just beginning but before I tell you of my own experiences as a Guinea Pig it is best to look at the core statement that we have rallied behind:
‘Concussion in Sport’ (The International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation) is a new, ground- breaking, British based, international research project looking at the long-term effects of concussion on men and women who have competed in contact sports.
Starting with uniquely detailed studies of 150 former jockeys (the most frequently concussed of all sportsmen and women), the project will become multi-sport and collaborate with existing initiatives in Australia, Switzerland and the USA to ensure a pooling of data and findings. As concern over concussion climbs the sporting agenda, there will for the first time be state of the art analysis of a fully logged group of previously concussed participants.’
Former champion Stan Mellor, the first jockey to ride 1000 winners over jumps has already done the full day of tests. So soon, will three times champion and dual Grand National winner Richard Dunwoody who is figure heading the campaign and will be followed by fellow champions Peter Scudamore, John Francome and the now ‘Sir Anthony’ A.P.McCoy.
Much media racket will happen when the Will Smith starring film Concussion hits our screens in February but what is lacking is specific research into the difference, if any, between those who have suffered concussion and those who haven’t. This for the first time will be addressed by the work of the ICHIRF and having been through the process in the first week of January I can confirm that this is an examination which is nothing if not extensive.
For your interest here are my sometimes irreverent notes for future IJF participants. It was a January day which ran from before 10 am to after 4 pm.
Big Simon was very pleasant but I think he should have said that his array of seven separate sample bottles were all going to be filled from the from same insertion. As he strapped up my rather withered right arm I wondered how he was going to find seven different sites into which to plunge his needle. As it was I braced myself, eyes averted, into heroic calm for what seemed the long minutes of this first of seven ordeals. Then, as he withdrew his needle and I took a deep breath to face up to six more I discovered it was all over. Seven separate sachets of my best Rhesus Negative were lined up to laugh at my silliness.
DOC TURNER EXPLANATION
The laminated card he produced with the statistics is a masterstroke. It demonstrates the length and depth of research we have already undertaken and immediately dispels any notion that ICHIRF might be something got up in the wake of the Concussion film. In a perfect world Michael Turner’s spiel would be the start of the whole day but, whenever played, something like it is essential. The statistics are fascinating as is the spoken but not listed fact that women are four times more prone to concussion than men. I don’t think the laminated card with its listed peer-review articles should be changed, but this would be the perfect moment to also hand out a fool’s guide to what the ICHIRF is doing and where other sports and particularly women’s concussions have got to.
The walk to the new location, round the corner from Harley Street, was no real strain and I don’t think would inconvenience any but our oldest participants. In charge of the MRI Simon was very efficient and explanatory.
Once I got my head around what was involved the experience was almost hallucinatory. It’s not often that you get to lie flat with virtually all sound excluded for 50 minutes in the middle of the day. I was close to sleep most of the time and I am sure some people will nod off.
Back to 9 Harley Street. The specialist was admirably concise and
engaging once we had broken the ice. Worth noting that he was a keen Chelsea fan - most jocks follow football, and most of those hate Chelsea! Once again I found myself a bit wary about what was ahead and others may feel even more apprehensive. He was extremely good at explaining what he was doing - but better off script than on it. In the event the assorted tests were quite amusing and understandable and I didn’t feel wholly incapable although pretty ridiculous when I had to walk ten metres in a straight line up the passage. However, the ‘smell test’ was fairly impossible unless you were allowed to first see the four options on the card from which to pick the scent in question.
Another new location across the road and up the street and I am sorry if ‘IQ Test’ is not the correct word but it’s as near as I can get. The lady, forgive me for forgetting her name, was extremely pleasant and professional and led me through the numerous memory games and verbal and recognition tests with great patience. However, it’s worth stressing that this was the
most demanding of all the examinations. I think it worth fore-warning future examinees and considering whether it should be faced earlier in the schedule. For me there were a couple of moments whilst floundering on some reverse counting task when there was a great temptation to say, ‘oh stuff it’. I am sure the lady has been through all this before but I could see one or two of our crustier souls throwing their hands in - or even turning the table over.
A return to 9 Harley Street. The Cog Test, with its spinning of cards, is intriguing and challenging and is, of course, well known to more recent jockeys not to mention rugby players. But it will stretch frailer participants to the limits of their concentration - particularly if it comes at the end of the afternoon. To that end I would recommend doing away with the five minutes presently allotted to ‘practice’. After all, a couple of practice turns are already built into most of the individual card calling items. I would also suggest that we axe the admonishing ‘ting’ if you press the wrong button. Keeping focus and confidence is hard enough without having your nose squashed by a self-satisfied counting machine!
This is an eyesight reaction test involving the following of a zig-zagging red beam projected on to the wall from something strapped to your forehead. The headset was an amazing little device and it was incredible to think it could track how my eyes were swiveling in chase of the beam. In fact, it was so intriguing that I am sure it would be beneficial to have a fuller explanation of how it worked before we started. Indeed, I think that applies to all sections of the day and such a briefing would give participants a greater sense of ownership to help them through the day. The process is actually quite a challenge and I think it’s very important that those undergoing these examinations feel proud to be taking part rather than merely enduring what we put them through.