Danger and Risk – Brough Scott

John Oaksey raced over fences until he was almost 46 years old.  Afterwards he continued team chasing and doing the sort of stunts that in the film Dead Cert had seen him ride the star eventer Cornishman to jump over a London taxi and in an out of the double gates of a level crossing.  He was also the greatest of campaigners for jockeys’ safety.  So where do risk and safety fit?
In today’s Britain ‘safety’ is a difficult word. All too often it is harnessed to such a negative, ‘no-risk’ attitude that I have a fair bit of sympathy for the opening of book my grandfather Jack Seely wrote back in 1930.  The book had the none-too-timid title of ‘Fear and Be Slain’ and the first line read “‘Safety First’ is a vile motto.”  82 years on we may live by very different standards to his “death or glory” ways, but if we get too obsessed with safety how do we dare leave the house, let alone get on the back of a horse?
Best start with the difference between ‘danger’ and ‘risk’.  Jumping a London taxi, let alone in and out of a level crossing is, by any normal standards, a highly dangerous procedure.  But the danger only kicks in if the procedure fails.  The risk of failure for a rider of John’s experience with a horse of Cornishman’s ability is extremely low.  The discussion therefore should be not so much about the dangers but how well equipped the rider and the horse is to face them.
These points come into sharp belief as we celebrate the challenges of Cheltenham’s big Paddy Power meeting a week after honouring John Oaksey with packed memorial services in London and Wiltshire.  For John and the Injured Jockeys Fund he inspired were, and are, dedicated not just to helping those whom the dangers have defeated but to arming others to better confront them.  No one is pretending you can take the risk out of the game. What you are striving for is the ability and the circumstances to make it an acceptable risk. What you need to avoid is folly. We had quite a bit of that in the past.
When John and I started, the only head protection for jockeys were cork skull caps and flat jockeys didn’t even wear them until  Manny Mercer got killed at Ascot in  1959.  There was no consideration of such things as body protectors, let alone annual concussion tests.  Back then you were considered free of concussion if you could stand up and tell the doctor where you were and the best idea of a pre-race tonic would be the baby sham and brandy sharpener Terry Biddlecombe bought for me near Uttoxeter en route to ride in the Midlands Grand National.
Back then the rails were wooden and hitting them could send splinters into your leg.  Much worse many of the supporting posts were concrete like the one on which poor Manny broke his head. The support systems were quite primitive compared to today’s air ambulance world which can whisk a serious case within minutes to intensive care.  Indeed I remember a dreadful conveyance at Leicester which  was  such a dreadfully bumping ride that you had to be a complete stretcher case before you agreed to get in it.
What John helped the times to change was the getting of knowledge. Once you have eaten the apple you can see what is obviously unacceptable. That’s why the emphasis at Oaksey House has been as much on education as recuperation, to teach that a fitter rider is a safer one, that if they understand their own body mechanics and nutrition they are better able to avoid injury for both themselves and the horses beneath. But don’t doubt that they will always be at risk or avoid the fact that a central part of the excitement for both riders and watchers lies in the challenge of the known risks that lie ahead. In the end it is a dangerous game and it is right and proper that something special is needed to tackle it.
At last week’s memorial services Edward Cazalet ended his splendid eulogy to John Oaksey by quoting Will H Ogilvie’s poem “Steeplechasing” which starts with the line “Danger beckons yet to daring…..”  How appropriate therefore that amongst the racegoers at Cheltenham this weekend will be one or two associated with the regiment based at Hereford which carries the most famous motto of them all.  It runs, of course, “who dares wins.”  John would raise a glass to that.

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