The kind-hearted amateur who paid the ultimate price
There’s sadness and sadness. When a well-paid superstar of any sport succumbs to an early death from whatever affliction, he or she is rightly mourned. When 100 per cent amateur Lorna Brooke died ten days after a fall from her mother’s horse Orchestrated at Taunton, the grief in the entire horse racing community was unparalleled, writes IRC columnist JONATHAN QUALYE HIGGINS.
Considering the potential dangers in all the 10,000 or so horse races run under Flat and NH Rules each year and with an average field size of around nine, it is astonishing that fatal accidents had been avoided for so long. Indeed you need to go back to July 2005 when apprentice Tom Halliday, whose final career win of four came on Weldman less than two months earlier, died after a fall.
Thus for almost 16 years in races like the Grand National where 40 jockeys line up to face 30 feared obstacles, there had been no loss of human life. Some horses, inevitably, were lost but happily far fewer in these more safety-conscious times, have paid the ultimate price.
I calculate there have been around 1.5million rides between the two regrettable occurrences. But then, just as people fear getting blood clots from the Astro-Zeneca jabs with the odds maybe around one in a million, that is still too many. For 37-year-old Lorna’s family and friends, it is simply unthinkable when they reflect on the life and times of this bubbly, hard-working and popular young woman.
When Lorna was seven years old, her mother Lady Susan Brooke, wife of Sir Alistair Brooke, 4th Baronet of Almondbury, took out her first licence. During those 30 years’ endeavour Lady Susan has had runners each successive year, and I’m sure that every single one of the 12 victories the family duo achieved – Lorna has long been assistant trainer as well as regular rider – was cherished.
Gaps were frequent with four years between the first win and second, then two before the third. By the time Lorna was old enough to be Lady Susan’s go-to rider, after another winless 11-year gap, the Brooke team had two winners in 2007-8.
Then two, two and three came in 13-14, 16-17 and 17-18 respectively while they were also stacking up the point-to-point winners around the Mid and West Wales area from their base in Llandridnod Wells, Powys. In all Lorna rode 40 in that sphere along with the 17 under Rules with winners for near-neighbour John Groucott as well as Evan Williams and Tom Symonds.
Like many amateurs, Lorna would travel far and wide for the chance to ride, especially when it meant representing her country in special events. Mauritius and Germany were among the places on her itinerary over the years, but no trip could match her win in the inaugural running of the Ladies Handicap Chase at Fairyhouse in 2015.
Riding the 25-1 shot Moonlone Lane for trainer Paul Stafford she was always in control as the gelding comfortably won the 2m5f contest. Connections were so delighted that when Moonlone Lane was sent over to Musselburgh 17 days later for a two-miler she retained the ride, rewarding connections with a power-packed finish to clinch the verdict.
A look back at some of her rides reveals strength and timing and inevitably on pulling up the wide smile that everyone who met her has commented upon since her passing.
Imagine the loss for her family. All those early mornings when one might not have expected the daughter of a hereditary Baronet to have to be mucking out horses at six o’clock. Then she had to come back after their final feed last thing at night. But with ten to feed, care for, exercise and produce fit to race, what else would she do? The behind-the-scenes life of people in racing is tough and no corners can be cut.
The instances of death from riding may be rare, but whenever I go to Lingfield Park I always take a moment to stop at the discreet memorial to Flat jockey Steve Wood in one of the flower beds between the main entrance and the stands.
Steve weighed only 7st7lb but was always known as Samson as he was as strong as he was tiny. He was thrown to the ground at Lingfield in a race in 1994 when his mount Kalar stumbled and fell. A horse ridden by Paul Eddery was unable to avoid him and he died from the injuries.
Incidentally Paul Eddery, younger brother to 11-times champion jockey Pat Eddery, has a family connection to another Flat-race jockey victim. Pat Eddery married Carolyn Mercer who was still an infant when her father Manny died when his mount Priddy Fair threw him before the start of a race at Ascot in September 1959.
Manny Mercer was the elder brother to Joe Mercer, himself a champion Flat jockey and rider of the brilliant Brigadier Gerard. Manny Mercer was only 30 years old at the time of his death and once finished runner-up to Doug Smith in the title race.
Mercer’s demise was the impetus for the bringing in of the compulsory use of safety helmets for jockeys as well as eventually replacing metal rails with plastic, removable ones. In his times, a cap was all the protection they got. Wood’s death was the sixth for a jockey on a UK track within 12 years, albeit the first since Joe Blanks at Brighton in 1984 and now back protectors have further limited the dangers.
But it’s not just the deaths that can plague riders. Allan Mackay, father of jockeys Nicky, now-retired Jamie, a Godolphin work rider and promising girl apprentice Jay, was riding work on the Newmarket gallops four years ago. On pulling up his horse after exercising it on Racecourse Side, it stumbled firing him over its head.
So severe was the impact that the then 57-year-old Scot, known everywhere as Gypsy, broke every rib in his chest, suffered a punctured lung and damaged the T4 vetrebra. He was placed in an induced coma in Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge for 17 days before transferring to Stoke Mandeville.
It was initially thought that he would be paralysed from the neck down but he takes it as a blessing that he does have use of his arms and can speak normally. The always-optimistic Scot makes light of the paralysis in the legs and still relishes his children’s achievements – third son Ali had graduated from university at around the time of his father’s injury.
Big-name jockeys in earlier times have succumbed. Two post-war Derby winners have. The Australian Neville Sellwood, who rode Larkspur to success in the 1962 Derby for Vincent O’Brien, died aged 39 in a fall at Maisons-Laffitte racecourse in Paris a few months later.
Popular Southend-born Brian Taylor won on 50-1 shot Snow Knight for Peter Nelson in 1974. Ten years later aged 45 he died after a fall at Sha Tin racecourse Hong Kong.
Many riders died in the United States where horse and jockey welfare meant little in the quest for keeping the show on the road and the money flying in to the windows. One of the stars of the Depression years and a hero of the down-trodden jobless masses of those times was the racehorse Seabiscuit.
He came from obscurity to become the greatest star of UK thoroughbred racing between the Wars and was the hero of a book by Laura Hillenbrand and then a wonderful film.
His regular jockey Red Pollard was also an under-dog, never more than when he got badly injured, requiring Canadian George Woolf, The Ice Man, to step in. Played with great skill and depth in the film by US Hall Of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, Woolf kept the seat warm with some stellar performances before Pollard could resume.
Woolf’s tale was another to end in tragedy. He died after a fall at Santa Anita racecourse, scene of many of his finest rides, on January 3, 1946.
Safety has improved out of all recognition in racing, but as Allan Mackay’s accident tells us, even with all the aids falls at speed from five feet above the ground can still be life-shattering. For Lorna it was the final chapter for a wonderful woman whose reaction to a fellow rider’s misfortune ten years ago was so characteristic of her.
When champion lady amateur Isobel Tomsett was force to retire through serious injury, Lorna and fellow amateur Jane Williams cycled the other way round John O’Groats to Lands End and raised £25,000 for the Injured Jockeys Fund. If you needed to know anything about this young woman, taken cruelly from her family with so much more to give, this was it. – IRC.
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