How my battle to survive was won
Jockey George Baker tells how he overcame a horror fall in St Moritz
The diagnosis could hardly have been bleaker after George Baker sustained life threatening head injuries in a high speed fall racing on the ice at St Moritz in February 2017. Fast forward 19 months and here he is forging a deserved reputation as one of the best and most intelligent of racing analysts on RUK and ITV.
In addition he is shortly to take on the taxing role as the agent booking rides for James Doyle and William Buick, two of his former colleagues in the weighing room.
Baker’s inspired recovery is beautifully documented in his autobiography
Taking My Time which was published earlier this month.
As a trustee of the Injured Jockeys Fund who moved rapidly to help in the darkest hours while he was in intensive care in the Alps and later on his return to this country, I have followed his dogged progress towards a normal life with keen interest. I knew about some of the difficulties he faced as he found himself having to learn even the simplest functions like walking, talking, getting out of bed and boiling a kettle. Yet until I read this book I didn’t have a clue about all the challenges he has had to overcome with the loving support of his wife Nicola and his own resolute toughness of spirit. The severe memory loss and erratic behavioural patterns are thankfully a thing of the past but at different stages of his testing journey to restore his health he concedes that he was in turn confused, depressed, angry and downright terrified. One of the hardest moments was coming to terms with the undeniable truth that he would not be returning to his former life as a top Flat jockey which yielded over 1,300 winners. His finest moment had come in victory on Harbour Law in the St Leger at Doncaster in September, 2016. Given that he is six feet tall George Baker had defied nature for many years as one of the finest jockeys of his generation before the fall that almost ended his
life. He is bright, too, as I recall from the first time I interviewed him. He and John Francome are the only jockeys I know who read the Times each morning. They also share a well developed sense of the ridiculous which was just as well for Baker in the tortuous months that followed his fall.
All he can remember now is making progress down the back straight at St Moritz before the lights went out. His mount Boomerang Bob fell and broke a leg as he put his foot through the ice where there was a weakness in the track.
When the horse’s trainer rushed to help he found his jockey conscious at first but unable to speak. Not was he responding to the words of the medics.
He was put in an induced coma and a piece of tape placed across his eyes to keep them shut before he was airlifted 50 miles north of St Moritz to a hospital where he was given a brain scan.
When his wife Nicola arrived she was told her husband was no longer in a coma but was warned that she would notice there was something very different about him.
Nicola’s testimony in the book is both heart-rending and compelling and she quickly came to appreciate that he was in the best possible place since the hospital was used to dealing with similar emergencies that had occurred on the nearby ski slopes.
As she continued her vigil beside George’s bedside he became very agitated, pulling at his hair and his scans, clawing at the catheter inserted by the doctors and crucial monitors – which were then moved to his feet where he couldn’t get at them.
Soon he took a turn for the worse. Even in his more lucid moments he wasn’t making much sense and he would play with his mobile phone for hours, pressing the keys but unable to make any calls because Nicola had sensibly drained the battery.
Nicola relates that the female nurses had their own issues to deal with because the part of Baker’s brain that deals with sexual thoughts had been affected. Thus he became an absolute pest, asking out every single nurse and telling them they were all gorgeous. When one responded that she already had a boyfriend he replied, “Do you want another one.”
The results of a key MRI scan revealed that he had suffered numerous bleeds on the brain, and was suffering from post-traumatic amnesia. That is considered serious if it lasts for 24 hours. George Baker would remain in that state for four weeks.
Thanks to his own comprehensive insurance policy he was able to be flown home in a private jet and taken by ambulance to the Wellington Hospital in St John’s Wood.
The Injured Jockeys Fund was with him every step of the way, practically and financially and within a week we heard the good news that he was able to move to the other side of the hospital where he began therapy almost immediately.
It is easier to tell this story because it has a happy ending even though George will never ride in a race again.
Yet there is a lasting regret that he cannot remember the early months of his daughter Isabella. He has been busy making up for lost time with her and Nicola.
I cherish the chat I had with him in the summer of 2017 as we sat in the garden at Oaksey House in Lambourn. Baker had just finished his latest session of physiotherapy. He was walking again, a shade unsteadily perhaps, but his focus was clear and his resolve unshakable. Once a useful golfer, he was learning to swing a club again, with some difficulty, and spoke of his determination to regain his driving licence. He added that John Francome encouraged him to take up tennis and regularly practised with him even though his balance was at first a major hindrance.
Most of all he wanted to thank the IJF for their support from day one.
“Nothing has been too much trouble for your chief executive Lisa Hancock and her team”, he assured me. “They have organised everything. For five weeks after my fall I was unaware of what was going on. During that time the IJF supported Nicola so much. I cannot thank them enough. I really mean it.
“To have had such a great support network has been a massive help. Obviously it helped that I was young and fit but by being so quick to react and then through everything that has been done for me since the accident, the IJF has been instrumental in my recovery.
“The team at Oaksey House has been fantastic. While the physical rehab I’ve had was massively important, being able to deal with the mental side has been a very big thing. In a situation like mine you need the best treatment. I got it”.
Earlier this month Baker wrote an informative, thought provoking column in the Racing Post who chose to highlight his views on whip penalties.
Given his life changing experience at St Moritz his passionate, well argued article at the foot of the page on the need for many more jockeys to take out medical insurance should be compulsory reading for every rider in the business.
He reasons: “I know private insurance isn’t cheap and there is a scary number of riders who don’t have it. A lot of people go out every day thinking they are never going to need it.”
No wonder he is amazed that around only 25 per cent of jockeys have private medical insurance. It is a disturbing statistic for a sport that requires an ambulance to follow every race.
To have had such a great support network from the injured jockey fund has been a massive help
Boomerang Bob and George Baker (second left) before crashing at St Moritz
Medics prepare George Baker for airlifting from the frozen lake at St Moritz following his fall from Boomerang Bob