Jockey Ana O’Brien on her re­mark­able re­cov­ery af­ter fall

Jockey Ana O’Brien suf­fered a crush­ing fall last year that left her with mul­ti­ple frac­tures. She tells Michael Ver­ney about her re­mark­able re­cov­ery and a fam­ily life that re­volves around horses

Belfast Telegraph - - REVIEW -

The amount of cards and flow­ers I was sent was just un­be­liev­able

Luck would not be the over­rid­ing emo­tion for most peo­ple hav­ing suf­fered ver­te­bral frac­tures in their neck and back fol­low­ing a crush­ing fall at Kil­lar­ney last year, but Ana O’Brien knows how much worse it could have been.

The date was July 18, 2017, the horse was Druids Cross, trained by her older brother Joseph. It was just an­other race as Ana, daugh­ter of the cham­pion trainer Ai­dan, looked to ce­ment her place at the head the Irish ap­pren­tice jock­eys’ ta­ble, but her world was about to get turned up­side down.

Her mount tum­bled just in­side the two-fur­long marker and she lapsed in and out of con­scious­ness as race­course doc­tors — she pays spe­cial thanks to Dr Adrian McGoldrick — and of­fi­cials tended to her and en­sured she was swiftly trans­ferred to Cork Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal via he­li­copter, which was clapped away by the anx­ious Kerry crowd.

In a sport where am­bu­lances fol­low the horses in case of ac­ci­dents, in­juries are al­ways go­ing to hap­pen, but Ana isn’t one to dwell on the past, al­though she did look back on the tele­vi­sion footage to as­sess what had hap­pened.

Her mem­ory of the in­ci­dent is sketchy but once there was move­ment in her feet and arms, panic was averted while her all-im­por­tant brain scan came back all clear. From there, braces were ap­plied on her neck and

back, which she stayed in for two months.

It wasn’t an ideal sce­nario but when you hit the con­crete-like turf at speeds of 40mph, some peo­ple don’t get back up so the 22-year-old feels for­tune was def­i­nitely on her side.

“I think ev­ery­one re­alises how bad it could have been so I was very lucky the way I came out of it. I don’t think about it too much, I no­tice my back and that, but you just try to get on with it re­ally. There’s no point look­ing back, you al­ways try to keep look­ing for­ward,” Ana says.

“I didn’t re­mem­ber any­thing about it. It was nearly two weeks be­fore I started re­mem­ber­ing patches of it. I was bet­ter off not re­mem­ber­ing be­cause ap­par­ently I was in a good bit of pain af­ter it hap­pened, thank­fully I don’t re­mem­ber that.

“That was the first time I’ve ever bro­ken a bone — I didn’t half do it. Hav­ing your health and get­ting back to full health is ev­ery­thing, but there’s a lot of ups and downs in this game so you’re fairly well grounded.”

Rarely has there been such an out­pour­ing of emo­tion and sup­port like that which fol­lowed Ana’s ac­ci­dent as it high­lighted the unique ca­ma­raderie of those in­volved in horse rac­ing.

“The sup­port was un­be­liev­able, I can’t thank ev­ery­one enough for the sup­port they gave me, the amount of cards and flow­ers and ev­ery­thing I was sent was just un­be­liev­able. It re­ally helped me to get through it,” she out­lines.

Hav­ing grown up “tip­ping away with ponies with some­one hold­ing on to me” and re­mem­ber­ing walk­ing along­side three­time Cham­pion Hur­dle win­ner Istabraq, trained by fa­ther Ai­dan, down their Bal­ly­doyle gal­lops, rac­ing is in­grained in Ana’s psy­che.

Her sec­ondary school prin­ci­pal in Pre­sen­ta­tion Thurles jok­ingly re­ferred to her as “a part­time stu­dent” as rac­ing of­ten took pref­er­ence while she rode out ev­ery morn­ing be­fore mak­ing the trip from their base in Roseg­reen ( just out­side Cashel).

Hav­ing grown up im­mersed in rac­ing, the dan­gers of her cho­sen pro­fes­sion aren’t given a thought.

“No, it can’t when you’re go­ing out rid­ing, you can’t think about that. It’s just se­cond na- ture, that’s just what you do and there’s no point in think­ing about that or there’d be no point in do­ing it,” she says can­didly.

The one-year an­niver­sary of her fall oc­curs on Tues­day and she has reached some ma­jor mile­stones work­ing reg­u­larly with Enda King in Santry Sports Clinic — who is also help­ing to nurse top jockey Ruby Walsh back to full health af­ter a bro­ken leg.

Ana, who notched her first win­ner aboard Fairy­like in Dun­dalk (Fe­bru­ary 2013) for her dad, now rides twice a day in Bal­ly­doyle — as well as help­ing out with some as­sis­tant trainer du­ties — but there is no date set on a com­pet­i­tive re­turn to the sad­dle.

“It’s just a long re­cov­ery and I think the key is to not rush it so I don’t set it back again, so we’re get­ting there slowly. I started rid­ing my pony Bai­ley for about a week and then I started rid­ing out one lot a day and now two a day,” she says.

“I’m just slowly get­ting back into it. That was the long­est I hadn’t rid­den in years so I was de­lighted. I had a time when I wanted to get back rid­ing out, but that got pushed back a few times with set­backs, but it was def­i­nitely a ma­jor aim.

“There’s no real plans to go back (horse rac­ing) yet, just keep tip­ping away at the rid­ing out and see how it goes. I still get a pain in my back but it’s slowly get­ting bet­ter and hope­fully I’ll get it to dis­ap­pear in time. Do­ing Pi­lates helps with it.”

Last year was a re­mark­able one for her fa­ther, who broke the world record for the num­ber of Group One vic­to­ries with 28, but 2017 is re­mem­bered for Ana’s fall and nurs­ing her back to full health more than any­thing else.

Mild man­nered, mod­est and gen­tle, the rac­ing bug has cer­tainly passed through the genes.

Brother Joseph has made an as­ton­ish­ingly fruit­ful switch to the train­ing ranks from a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a jockey as he fol­lows in his fa­ther’s foot­steps with the Mel­bourne Cup, Irish Derby and Grade One prizes over jumps al­ready on an im­pres­sive CV.

Younger brother and jockey Don­nacha has plun­dered two Clas­sics this sea­son while sis­ter Sarah is also im­mersed in the equine in­dus­try. Ana sim­ply couldn’t imag­ine life with­out rac­ing.

“Peo­ple al­ways asked how I bal­anced ed­u­ca­tion and horses but there wasn’t much of a bal­ance, horses al­ways came first. Even be­fore we would have been rid­ing out race­horses, the ponies would have come first,” she says.

“It never stops, never. It can’t re­ally. With horses, if you miss a day with them, it’s not good for them so it’s ev­ery day, all of the time. We were brought up with horses so it’s all we know and it was al­ways my in­ten­tion to stay in­volved in some shape or form. We love it.”

While lead­ing jumps trainer Gor­don El­liott doesn’t an­swer his phone from 1.30pm to 2pm be­cause he’s watch­ing Home and Away, the O’Briens rarely switch off horses, al­though she’s un­sure whether she will even­tu­ally fol­low Joseph and her fa­ther into the train­ing ranks.

“There’s no point in us all go­ing train­ing ei­ther so we’ll see what hap­pens. I would like to be back rid­ing on the track some­time, but I’m not mak­ing any de­ci­sions ei­ther way yet, I’m just go­ing to keep go­ing and see what hap­pens. I’m not mak­ing any big plans or big de­ci­sions yet.”

Af­ter a life-chang­ing fall, there’s no rush, so Ana is just tak­ing it one step at a time.

Bat­tling back: jockey Ana O’Brien, daugh­ter of Ai­dan

DON MACMONAGLE

Hor­rific mo­ment: Ana O’Brien tum­bles from her mount Druids Cross at Kil­lar­ney last year

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