On the afternoon of Monday 2nd May 1994 at Haydock Park, Declan Murphy, regarded as one of the most intelligent and innately talented jockeys of his generation, fell from his horse, Arcot, at the penultimate hurdle. An onlooking photographer described it as the worst fall he had ever seen. Unconscious from the impact, Murphy’s skull was then crushed by the hoof of a following horse. Blood gushing from every orifice in his head, he was rushed to hospital under police escort. Though a neurosurgeon named Professor John Miles sped from a golf course to perform emergency brain surgery, Murphy was not expected to survive. He was read the last rites, and an exaggerating Racing Post published his obituary.
But against all odds, to use an apt expression, Murphy lived. He was not expected to walk again, or perhaps even to talk. But 15 months of superhuman determination and force of will later, he not only talked, walked and ran, but rode again too, sensationally winning his comeback race at Chepstow in October 1995. He then announced his retirement from the sport.
Centaur, in which Murphy and writer Ami Rao tell the story of his remarkable comeback for the first time, is exactly the kind of true grit, triumph-over-adversity story publishers love. Sure enough, in the wake of his comeback, Murphy had three book offers. “At one point, I had the contract for one of them right in front of me. And I put the pen down and said, ‘I’m not interested’,” he recalls, when we meet at PRH’s Vauxhall Bridge Road premises. Sprucely dressed and quietly spoken, he has a stillness of purpose about him. A discernible indentation on the right side of his forehead bears testament to the horrific injuries which almost killed him. Alongside him sits Rao, a more animated but equally articulate presence. Murphy’s story of the fall and his recovery remained untold for two decades. Behind its eventual telling is another story, one that is just as compelling. When, 20 years later, Rao - an acquaintance from his home village of Sunningdale - said to Murphy: “I could write your book”, he was still not interested. “Absolutely not. There was a greater possibility of me becoming the next Pope,” he quips. Rao, who was intrigued by the little she had already gleaned about Murphy’s past, refused to give up. “His story was like birdfeed. Every conversation there was a bit of birdfeed, and I would steal something from it like a magpie until I had enough in my head to think I could do something with it”, she says.
Eventually, Murphy agreed to let Rao write a synopsis for a book. A few days later, the two went for a run. “And Ami asked me something that no person has ever asked me in my life. She asked me the stride of a horse,” remembers Murphy. Rao, a keen amateur rider, wanted to understand the mechanics of his accident and exactly what had gone wrong. By jumping over a drain cover, Murphy showed that Arcot’s stride pattern had been too long, and that horse and rider ran out of time to correct it before the fatal hurdle.
Genesis of the book
A few days later, based on what he had told her, Rao presented Murphy not with a synopsis, but with an opening chapter. Entitled “Mayday”, it begins: “There is symphony in the movement of a horse.” Murphy was astonished, but still he resisted. “I couldn’t believe the balls she had, to assume she could just go ahead and write it! I said to her: ‘This is brilliant. But you cannot make a book in one chapter.’” Scheherazade-like, Rao wrote another chapter, in which she re-created the awful moment in the jockeys’ weighing room after the race at Haydock Park, when Murphy’s phone rang. It was Joanna, his then-girlfriend, desperate for news. Believing Murphy to be fatally hurt, none of the other jockeys had the courage to answer it.
Before long, Murphy and Rao were meeting three or four times a week, as Murphy relived more and more of his story in conversation, though he still didn’t believe the book would ever happen. “The only reason this book exists is the patience Ami displayed and the sensitivity with which she approached every element of it,” he says. But as her patience began to yield more and more words, the process became increasingly emotional for both parties. It was clearly the most profound catharsis. “The hardest part for me was the emotion”, says Rao. “Disconnecting it. Because I couldn’t, and I haven’t.”
“I will openly admit, I have cried more in the making of this book than I have ever cried in my life. Truly,” says Murphy. Rao managed to get him to open up about aspects of what happened that he had purposely, determinedly, never spoken about before, “not to my family, not my friends, not to anybody. Because not speaking about it allowed me to block everything else out and gave me the focus to get through. And when I got through, I convinced myself it had never happened.”
This single-minded state of denial helped Murphy stage his near-miraculous recovery and comeback (“I became a man consumed by myself, by my recovery”), but it also led to the end of his relationship with the girlfriend who cared for him throughout and, later, to him turning down that potential publishing contract.
And then came the most astonishing truth of all. One day, when Murphy and Rao were looking at photos of his greatest racing triumphs, he confessed that he couldn’t remember anything about the four years that preceded his accident. All his memories of his glory days as a jockey had been wiped out by the injuries to his brain. And he hadn’t told a soul. “People would make reference to things and I would always pretend that I remembered,” he says. The vivid accounts of races that appear in the book were pieced together by Rao from video footage.
To this day, Murphy remembers nothing of them.
You can read and enjoy Centaur simply as a thrilling account of an elite sportsman who nearly died, but lived to ride again. There are beautiful insights too into the relationship between rider and horse. But it is also a book about how stories get told.
There’s a tendency to be sniffy about ghostwriters and those who require their help. But Centaur - strapline “A Man, A Horse, A Ghost” - would not exist but for its unusually visible ghost. In fact, Rao told Murphy that it would be a “betrayal” not to let her write it. “Betrayal because his story is larger than he is, in the inspiration it gives anybody not to give up,” she clarifies. “As the last line says, we are capable of infinitely more than we think.”
And what does Murphy think of Centaur, the book he never wanted to write? “I’m hugely proud of it. It’s a very pure expression of what I had to do to get to where I needed to be. We shied away from nothing in writing it, and that was only possible for me because for the best part of it, I didn’t believe it would ever be a book. It certainly wasn’t something I could’ve done any sooner.” Which just goes to show that sometimes it’s worth waiting - even for two decades - until a story is ready to be told.
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