Racing: Hard landings take heavy toll on endurance: The sudden retirement of Peter Scudamore at the age of 34 stresses the rugged life of a jump jockey. Sue Montgomery reports

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The Independent Online
THERE cannot be many professions where an ambulance follows you round as a matter of course, but that of a jump jockey is one. Hitting the ground at regular intervals at 30mph is part of the job.

The good bits far outweigh the bad, which is why there is no shortage of brave young men willing to have a go. Riding a thoroughbred horse at speed over steeplechase fences is, as someone once put it, the most fun you can have with your trousers on.

Young is the key word. Few will doubt the bravery of Peter Scudamore, the champion National Hunt rider who retired this week, but his former weighing-room colleague Jonjo O'Neill said: 'It's a young man's sport, one that you eventually grow out of, not just physically, when you don't bounce as well as you used to, but mentally as well. You realise that there is probably more to life than lying face down in muddy grass at Wolverhampton on a wet Wednesday afternoon.'

Pain, and the expectation of it, are part of a jump jockey's life. There have been improvements in safety kit, like crash helmets and body protectors, but it is not possible to strap a rider inside a strengthened cockpit like a motor racing driver. Scudamore is no stranger to broken bones and bruises, being dumped on the ground and then used as a football by half a ton of galloping muscle and bone.

There are other physical stresses, like the privations of keeping a quite normal-sized frame at an unnaturally low weight and the daily working hours, usually from before dawn till after dusk in foul wintry weather. And then there are the mental strains. He would know what effect his dangerous job would have on his family. All these things add up, but the one thing not in the equation is fear.

Mary Bromiley is a physiotherapist who treats sporting injuries in both humans and horses. She sees jockeys at their most vunerable - when they are hurt - but said: 'They know they will be hurt, but if these people were frightened of falling, they would not, could not, do the job in the first place.

'When I treat jockeys who have been injured, their only worry is their first ride back, in case they do it again and have to have more time off.'

At the end of a day, a jump jockey's wife is as likely to get a telephone call from a hospital as from her husband, and Bromiley said that the effect on families should not be underestimated. 'When the jockey goes out to race his adrenalin is running and he is concentrating on the job. The whole thing is far more of a strain on those watching,' she said. 'For someone like Scudamore, who is very much a family man, this must have been important. He is quite brave enough to go on riding, but braver to admit that that chapter of his life is over.'

O'Neill, 40, gave up race-riding six years ago in favour of a training career. Twice jumps champion, he bounced back from all sorts of accidents, notably a leg thoroughly minced by the scissor action of a galloping horse's hind limbs. He said: 'The decision to retire is not a matter of losing your bottle. Sure, as you get older falling gets harder, that's natural. There are only so many miles in any sportsman's body.

'But you just get tired of doing the job. When you start not wanting to do it, and not enjoying the routine bits, that's the time to stop. It's like a child growing out of a pony; there comes a time when you want to move on to a horse. You love that pony and will miss him, but you know you want more of an adult challenge.'

Among the top rank of jockeys, there are only four riding over jumps - Chris Grant, Neale Doughty, Steve Smith Eccles and Hywel Davies - who are older than Scudamore. Virtually all the leading Flat riders, for whom falling is the exception rather than the rule, are older: Roberts, Eddery, Piggott, Carson, Cochrane, Duffield, Reid, Rouse, Raymond, Birch, Elliott, Baxter.

Money is also a factor. There is far less financial incentive for a jump rider to keep going. Although the basic riding fee over obstacles is higher - pounds 73.70 compared with pounds 54 - prize money is not, and so jockeys' percentages and presents will not be as large. A top jump jockey does not have an international selection of races to choose from. And of course jump jockeys do not pick up the stallion shares that have made millionaires of some Flat riders.

O'Neill said: 'Race-riding is a very single-minded way of life. The act of being on a racehorse is enormous fun and very thrilling, but it is not something you can share with someone else. If you've ridden a good race, whether it's a big event or kidding a bad horse into winning something he shouldn't have, the feeling is just for you.

'I have found training far, far more interesting and fulfilling than riding. You're much more in touch with people, much more involved with life. I am sure that whatever Scu turns his attentions to, he will find that life only begins after his riding career.'

(Photograph omitted)