Racing: Murphy's fall highlights ever-present risk: Improvements to equipment and medical procedures can reduce, but never eliminate, the danger of riders sustaining serious injury

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The Independent Online
DESPITE the frequency with which jump jockeys take falls, severe head injuries such as those sustained by Declan Murphy at Haydock yesterday are relatively rare.

Much has been done in recent years to make the equipment used by jockeys and the racecourses they ride on as safe as possible. Successive Jockey Club chief medical officers have worked in conjunction with the Jockeys' Association to improve the design of riders' crash helmets which came into use less than 40 years ago and which are now lighter but more durable than ever.

Nevertheless, Dr Michael Allen, who did much to advance the cause of riders' safety as the medical officer preceding the present incumbent, Dr Michael Turner, has said that in the case of a high-velocity collision with the turf or a horse's hooves, the helmets cannot provide jockeys with complete protection.

It is a view with which Michael Caulfield, the secretary of the Jockeys' Association, would concur. 'It's not that long since jockeys were wearing cork hats without chin straps and although the current models are being modified at present, there isn't a skull cap that can give complete protection.

'In fact, the crash hat may have saved Declan's life. So often jockeys come back after a race and say 'the hat saved me'. Peter Scudamore used to change his hat regularly because he knew it could save him.'

Stringent rules on the wearing of the helmets both on the track and training grounds are enforced and riders have been fined for loosening the helmets' chin straps before dismounting.

Apart from head injuries, the chief area of concern for jockeys is spinal damage. The all-round body protector, which was made compulsory over jumps in 1987 and on the Flat in 1992, has done much to reduce risks.

The greatest contribution to the safety of the tracks is the removal over the last decade of concrete posts supporting heavy wooden running rails. They have been replaced by light plastic rails and posts which gave no serious injury to a blindfolded horse which ran loose through several sections of rail at Doncaster in March.

Still unsatisfactory is the way signals are made to show when an injured jockey is lying on the landing side of a fence. If the runners remaining during the next lap of the race omit the fence then the race becomes void, so they are commonly guided around stricken riders by markers and cones.

Nevertheless, little could have been done to prevent Murphy's injuries. Positioned towards the front of a large field, his colleagues would have had little time to react to avoid their mounts kicking him.

A key factor was the firmness of the ground and there is irony in the fact that although 30 of the 36 starters failed to complete last month's Grand National on soft going, none of the riders suffered serious harm and the worst injury to a horse was fractured ribs.

In contrast, yesterday's Haydock meeting produced two fatalities in Arcot and Nikitas, who broke a leg in the same race. Later, the young rider Paul Williams was knocked unconscious when Irish Flasher fell at the third flight of the claiming hurdle. Although he had come round by the time the ambulance brought him back, he was taken to hospital.

Until recent times, jockeys with concussion often tried to brush off double vision and headaches and return to the saddle as soon as possible. Now, the Jockey Club make a period of rest compulory and Williams will have to pass a medical examination before he can ride.

(Photograph omitted)