I FEEL INCREDIBLE REALLY; It's 20 years since Sharron Murgatroyd's life was changed forever by a fall at Bangor. Here, she talks to Racing Post editor Bruce Millington about the good times and the bad.
Last night, though, it was scheduled to rock like sleepy Sandwich did two Sundays ago. On that occasion the celebrations were sparked by Darren Clarke's moment of triumph in the Open after 20 years of trying.
Last night's cause for the popping of champagne corks, raucous laughter and a thumping bassline that might still have been throbbing across the Heath as Clive Brittain's horses prepared to stretch their legs this morning was the 20th anniversary of the moment Sharron Murgatroyd's life changed forever.
"I'm celebrating because they said by rights I shouldn't still be here," Sharron said on a sunny Suffolk afternoon in the lead-up to the festivities. "An Australian specialist who looked through my notes for the first time a little while ago told me 'I'd have given ya one to eight years!'" Sharron quotes him with a burst of an authentic-sounding Aussie accent and a chuckle (it's not the only impersonation in her locker - she also does a mean John Francome, who is a regular visitor and constant friend).
But here she still is, looking full of life, full of fun and a good deal younger than the 51 her birth certificate insists she is. She's relaxed in her pounds 16,000 state-of-the-art wheelchair, chewing the fat and looking back on the good times and the bad, including, of course, the worst time of them all. August 2, 1991, the first day of the 1991-92 jumps season back in the days when they had a gap of some six weeks between seasons as opposed to the current 16-hour break.
When Sharron walked from the Bangor weighing room to the paddock she was at the top of her game, with more than 200 rides and numerous winners under her belt and hoping to take the first steps down a path that would lead to the lady jockeys' championship. Instead, they were the last steps she would ever take.
"It seems like only yesterday," she reflects. "I was buzzing on the way up because it was the first ride of the season, I was due to ride one for Henry Cecil the following day and things were going well. "It was a red-hot summer's day and I was riding one called Independent Air for David Thom. Two out I was miles behind and normally I'd have pulled him up. But being the first day of the season maybe I was a bit keen and so I thought I'd pop him over the last just to give the owners a nice day. "When I fell my first thought was 'Jeez, I hope I'm not too sore to ride that thing for Cecil tomorrow'." It soon became clear that would be the least of Sharron's worries. She was rushed to hospital in Wrexham before being transferred to the orthopaedic hospital in Oswestry, where she would stay for seven months. On the night of the accident she was given the devastating news that she had broken her neck and might never walk again. A couple of months after her world was turned upside down, I interviewed Sharron for The Sporting Life. Even then it was crystal clear that whatever harm the broken spinal cord had done to her body, it couldn't damage her spirit. She was in monumental discomfort but exhibited not an ounce of self-pity, talking instead of her plans to get home, get better and get a new life. She told me how doctors had told her she might be able to use her left arm again in time and lifted it some three or four inches off the bed to show what it was capable of at the time' Twenty years, four books, a parachute jump and some seriously impressive fundraising later, Sharron was good to her word. She did indeed get a new life.
And her left hand, as predicted, became far more functional. She uses it to scratch her nose, write, hold a wine glass and operate TV and computer controls. One dares not patronise Sharron Murgatroyd because a sharp left hook jjFrom page 15 'Life's ebbed and flowed but I've never got angry because that's just a waste of time' would probably be the outcome, but this is, in anyone's book, an extraordinary life story. The pony-mad girl from Yorkshire ("I wasn't from a racing background but, funnily enough, Timeform House was just down the road from us, on the flyover") who rode work on some of the best jumpers in training at Michael Dickinson's, then established herself as one of the foremost female jockeys of her time, lost her mobility in an instant but not her drive, her lust for life or her sense of humour. NOR her love of racing. As we sit on the decking outside Becklyn, thebungalow that has been her home for 25 years, she talks about her riding career, her childhood, life in the wheelchair, her friends and her likes and dislikes in a wonderfully enthralling way, switching seamlessly from a winner she rode in 1987 to what she was up to last week to the early days of acclimatising to life after Bangor. "It's a busy week," she reveals. "We had Edward [Whitaker, Racing Post photographer] on Friday, the Animal Healthcare Trust show yesterday, you today, Foxy's funeral tomorrow and the Pride of Racing awards at Epsom on Thursday. But I like to be busy." I get a tour of Becklyn. There's the ten-box stable at the back, the paddock with the horse grazing away - "look at the old boy, 25 he is" - the pictures on the wall of Sharron with Badsworth Boy, Sharron stylishly riding winners, Sharron with the other female jockeys of her time, including Clare Balding, and the office from where she wrote her four books. She bought the place with then fiance
Tony Carroll with dreams of more winners and then perhaps a training career, but, having returned there in Sheikh Mohammed's helicopter after her discharge from Oswestry, Sharron now cherishes the tranquillity and security it provides, even after the drastic change of circumstances in her life. Anne, Debbie, Esther and Janet, who's been with her all along, provide 24-hour care between them and Sharron speaks fondly of them all, despite the running joke they all share. "Don't die on my shift - that's what you all say, isn't it?" Sharron says with a smile as Anne brings her a drink and smiles back. "At the very beginning, they did say to one nurse who was going to be working with me here something about not getting too close, and poor old Jessie [Jessica Charles-Jones, who was paralysed in a riding accident in 1988] died last year, but I feel okay. "I'm in pain to some degree or other all the time'eally, but you manage it. Women are good with pain. "I feel incredible really," she says as the anniversary of her accident looms. "August 2 changed my life but I've learned so much. Little things like it's nice to be important but important to be nice. Life's ebbed and flowed but I've never got angry because that's just a waste of time. Life's a journey and you never know what's going to happen tomorrow. "And I certainly don't regret ever choosing to be a jockey. I knew what I was letting myself in for, I knew the risks" especially after what had happened to Jessie. I loved every minute of it and if I'd not had my accident I reckon I'd still be riding now. "A few days after Jessie's fall the boys were asking us girls if we really wanted to put ourselves at risk, but we all said it was our choice." There is no evangelism to Sharron's position as a wheelchair-bound person but nor is there any tolerance for those who treat her with ignorance and rudeness.
"I don't necessarily believe the whole world should be made wheelchair-friendly. I understand that there are certain things I can't do, and I'll happily wait my turn in a queue rather than be pushed to the front. "But I've had the odd bad experience, including two women at Newmarket who refused to move to let me watch the Guineas even though I was in the disabled stand, and I can't stand people who talk as if I'm not there. "I'm paralysed, not deaf. One guy at an airport started doing it once and I thought 'between 12 and 15 people a week in the UK suffer a paralysing injury and it could be you tomorrow, mate.
And you're 16 stone so how many people do you reckon it would take to lift you?' " Sharron's a good deal lighter than 16 stone and with four physiotherapy sessions a week and the right diet she weighs little more than she did when she was riding. She has some days when she stays in bed, watching TV and huge amounts of films (favourite star: Brad Pitt), she listens to music (David Bowie would be the desert island nap), writes and gets busy on the internet, typing with the middle finger of her left hand, which sits inside a rubber peg. "I'll have a glass or two, or maybe more, of white wine every day. Alcohol helps with the pain. Some people tell me not to drink what I do, but so what?" she says with an expression of indifference. Our conversation is peppered with references to Tony McCoy, who has been a regular visitor to Becklyn down the years and a great source of friendship and support. He's also been a source of financial help through Sharron's penchant for backing his big-race mounts. "I backed Don't Push It for the National because I'd had a dream he'd win it and I also backed Albertas Run this year. Jim McGrath [Channel 4] puts my bets on for me." BUT does she worry that AP might go on too long? "In a way, yes," she replies.
"I did think when he'd won the National that there was nothing more left for him to achieve, but he just keeps going, doesn't he?" And so does Sharron. Having cracked writing books, raising tens of thousands of pounds for the Injured Jockeys' Fund and the Midlands Spinal Unit and showing that tetraplegia doesn't close as many doors in life as one might think, what is her next challenge? "There's nothing major on the list," she says. "I'd quite like to hold seminars to teach young people about how if you want to get anywhere in racing you've got to work hard. I'd like to show them how to take tack to pieces and clean it properly, things like that." She'd also like to finish the Woody project.
"Pull that blanket off there," she instructs me. Beneath it is a wooden rocking horse covered with the signatures of some of the greatest jockeys of all time. Dettori, Piggott, McCoy, and so on. "I'm trying to get all the living Derby and Grand National-winning jockeys to sign it," Sharron says. "I need a few of the Irish lads to sign him and I'd love to get Steve Cauthen's name on it. Peslier and Kinane haven't signed him yet but hopefully it'll happen. "When I've got the lot I'll auction it to raise money for the Midlands Spinal Unit."As the afternoon draws on, the conversation continues to flow easily and enjoyably. "I'm not disabled when it's like this," she says, a glow on her face. "We're sitting here chatting about horses, there's blue sky and the sun's shining on us." In her sleep, too, she shrugs off the shackles of paralysis. "I'm always walking or running in my dreams," she says. "I always sleep well. I'm happiest lying in bed thinking about something or other and having a little laugh. "I occasionally get down over silly little things like not being able to do something small like get a drink, but I'm not one to moan really." And if the cruel extent of her injuries had just relented slightly? "I'd love to have done wheelchair racing, I really would. I'm not saying I'd have been the next Tanni Grey-Thompson or anything like that, but I think I'd have been pretty good." Now there's a candidate for understatement of the year. jjTo order any of Sharron's books go to www.sharronmurgatroyd.co.uk
Sharron Murgatroyd: "I certainly don't regret ever choosing to be a jockey. I knew what I was letting myself in for, I knew the risks"
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Jul 31, 2011|
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