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Wednesday, 21 November, 2018

Extraordinary story vividly told with searing honesty

Scott Burton reviews the autobiography of supreme stylist Declan Murphy

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Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao
£16.99 (hardback), published by Doubleday – penguin.co.uk

There are many reasons for choosing to write an autobiography, some of which can be broadly placed in the category of 'therapeutic'.

But few life stories have to be pieced back together by the protagonist as part of their own quest to fill in the gaps left by mental trauma. In Centaur, Declan Murphy invites us to join him on a journey through the disparate parts of his life, many of which were robbed from him when he suffered horrendous physical and mental injuries in a fall at Haydock on Monday, May 2, 1994.

Murphy not only survived the fall – having lain in a medically induced coma for four days, from which repeated attempts to revive him ended in failure – but went on to defy expert prognosis and regain physical and mental capacity far beyond what any friends had dared hope for. It is a miraculous tale, recounted here with searing honesty.

Murphy is remembered by racing fans as a supreme stylist in the saddle. One of the many issues the book tackles is the fact that the fall left him with no memories from the previous four years, a period when he scaled the heights in Britain aboard such horses as Deep Sensation and Bradbury Star.

Declan Murphy: Centaur "goes way beyond the normal ambitions of the sporting autobiography"
Not only gifted as a rider but clear-sighted and articulate, Murphy might have had less need than many athletes of a ghost writer, were it not for the glaring holes in his own recollection. So we are introduced to his co-author, Ami Rao, by means of an uncomfortable exchange during which she realises that Murphy has lost all recollection of such triumphs, what he later describes as "the patches of pride that made up those years of glory".

The story moves in and out of his ascent through the pony racing ranks in Ireland, to his swift adoption by Barney Curley, Tommy Stack and Josh Gifford, all the time returning to those dark hours and days in the Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Liverpool.

In recounting how loyalty to Curley made the difference between embarking on a law degree at UCLA in California and returning to Newmarket, Murphy says: "I had other plans for life. Life had other plans for me. Racing just kept getting in the way."

Many of the passages recalling his great triumphs – as well as the near-misses – deal extensively with the sense of union Murphy developed with his horses, an almost mystical belief on the rider's part given that he rarely rode work for Gifford and frequently had only the canter down to the start to establish any rapport.

"So many of us are corrupted by our conscious state but when you block out the peripheral and you focus more on the 'feel', the complete awareness of how the horse moves under you, you transcend this imaginary line – you go from good to great. It really is that simple."

Such words in isolation may reek of a sportsman who believes his own hype a little too much. But it comes across as completely in keeping with his own instincts on all those parts of life that were not sitting on horseback.

Murphy's single-mindedness is apparent most assuredly during his rehabilitation, a period when he is surrounded by loved ones and well-wishers yet also completely alone in what he will reveal to them of his struggle.

Almost completely absent is the sentimentality that could sink such a project into a kind of mawkish 'TV movie of the week' mire. Here is a book that goes way beyond the normal ambitions of the sporting autobiography and clears those limits with room to spare.

One of the many issues the book tackles is the fact that the fall left him with no memories from the previous four years

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