Tylicki leaning on family and jockey spirit as he rebuilds life
Mark Scully talks to Freddy Tylicki six months after his life-changing accident
Freddy Tylicki's is a life defined by racing and best illustrated by two days in October 2016, the first as fairytale perfect as the second was utterly devastating.
On Sunday, October 2, Tylicki was at Chantilly for two rides on one of the biggest days in the racing calendar. Speedy Boarding, a filly trained by James Fanshawe with whom he had been involved from the start and already won his first Group 1 aboard earlier in the year, was taking her place in the Prix de l'Opera. Later in the day, he was to have his first experience of riding in the Arc aboard German raider Savoir Vivre.
"Funnily enough, I said to my mother and sister the week before 'listen, I have two rides that day, one in the Opera and one in the Arc. You've got to come because God knows when I'll have another ride in the Arc', so they were there," recalls Tylicki.
It is a day none of the three will ever forget, as Speedy Boarding did the business again and Tylicki later went on to guide Savoir Vivre to eighth in the Arc on what was a dream afternoon for the Tylicki family.
"Every jockey wants to ride Group 1 winners – they're very hard to come by and you don't get to sit on too many horses of that quality," says Tylicki. "You've got to work very hard for it, which I did, and eventually Speedy Boarding came along, which was a blessing.
"The whole team at Pegasus Stables did a great job to get her ready for the big day, her part-owner [and breeder] Mark Weinfeld is a real gentleman and it was amazing to have my mum and sister there. It was a special day."
Fast forward to the end of the same month and Tylicki was taking part in the type of afternoon he and his colleagues would consider nothing but routine. The scene was Kempton where, on Monday, October 31, an all-weather meeting was taking place.
In the day's third race, a Class 5 maiden fillies' stakes, Tylicki was riding the David Elsworth-trained Nellie Deen, a 14-1 shot, when the pair were involved in a sickening four-horse pile up. If Chantilly was a dream, this was the stuff of nightmare – but equally unforgettable for family.
In a split second, his life was thrown upside down in a sense unimaginable to most, and over the next few days the racing community would hold its breath in hope for the popular young jockey as it waited anxiously for updates.
Tylicki suffered a T7 paralysis, leaving him with movement in the upper half of his body but not the lower. And so six months on, on a beautiful spring afternoon in Newmarket with the Qipco Guineas Festival around the corner, instead of wondering which horses may ultimately take him back to places like Chantilly in the autumn, he is focusing on rebuilding his life.
"The worst moment was realising that things have changed," says Tylicki. "Intensive care and the weeks afterwards, that was pretty hard – getting a first taste for what had happened – but I've improved now."
That improvement is striking. Sitting with Tylicki, it is hard to believe that day at Kempton was not much longer ago than it was, with rehab now behind him and his recovery well on the way.
"I've progressed an awful lot. Having had a certain level of fitness before has helped me in a lot of ways and helped me to get out of rehab quite quick. I was only in there for about two and a half months and the nurses and doctors were quite surprised by how quickly I went through it.
"You're going to have good days obviously and you're still going to have a lot of bad days, but where I am now is just trying to find my new routine. Everything is new for me, even though I'm just doing the same old stuff, it's in a different way. It's not easy."
Whereas Tylicki's victories used to be measured by his ability to guide a horse to the winning post faster than his rivals, they are now marked in the everyday tasks he is slowly but surely learning anew from his wheelchair.
The establishment of a new routine is key and far more important to Tylicki at this still early stage of his recovery than any grand ideas of what may be next for him professionally.
"Small things I never had to think about before are big things for me now," he says. "I never look at myself and think I'm proud, because that's not how I am, but I can find pleasure in the little things that happen now. For everyone else they're normal things to do, but for me they're not any more, there's a bit of a challenge to it now. So getting through the daily stuff, if I can do it easily, that makes me feel good.
"Everything is a challenge, so once something is as simple as possible, that makes me feel good. For example, my transfers in and out of a car have been getting better and better. I used to have to use a sliding board to move myself in and out, whereas now I can do it without the board because I've strengthened up in my upper body. That's a big help because if you forgot the board, you'd be a bit stuck!"
While steadily regaining independence is big for anybody in Tylicki's situation, he knows that without those closest to him his life would be significantly more challenging than it has already been made.
In particular, Tylicki owes a debt of gratitude to his mother Irene, an iron lady of epic proportions whose positivity seems to know no bounds, and his equally supportive sister Madeleine, who has managed to balance her own fledgling training operation at the Curragh with regular visits to her brother.
"My mum has helped me an awful lot and my sister as well," he says. "I haven't got a big family but they are the two main people in my life."
Reflecting on his friends in the weighing room who supported him too, Tylicki adds: "There have been a few people who always kept in touch with me back when I was in rehab. A lot of the boys used to drop in, put me in the car and take me for something to eat.
"That would really cheer me up and get me into the right frame of mind. Obviously life is different and you've just got to move on with it and find your new ways, but I know exactly who my people are now."
One of those people is most definitely Tom Fanshawe, son of trainer James, who raised more than £12,000 for his friend by running the Paris marathon on April 9, posting an impressive time of 3:38.18 in the process.
Not only did Fanshawe's run provide valuable funds for Tylicki but it gave him the chance to do something different by going along to Paris with his mother to lend his support, which he clearly was thrilled to be able and healthy enough to do.
"Paris was great and it was some performance by Tom," he says. "He prepared himself for a long time and did well. He said he was going a little too quick early on and the last ten miles were hard but fair play to him, it was unbelievable.
"Just to go there and support him was amazing and what Tom has done for me is brilliant. He's a friend for life."
Fanshawe is far from the only supporter Tylicki has had since that day in October, with a GoFundMe page set up by At The Races and ITV Racing presenter Matt Chapman soaring to the extent that the family and Injured Jockeys Fund had to set up a charitable trust to manage the proceeds.
Tylicki also received donations from punters in the post, as well as piles of letters carrying messages of support and encouragement, including from others who have suffered similar injuries in the years prior.
"I was surprised by how much support I had, because everyone in racing has been behind me helping me along. It's hugely appreciated," he says. "It's hard to thank everyone and show them my appreciation but I'm trying to do it as much as I can.
"I've got to say thank you to all the people who sent me post, I was very moved to read all the letters and cards from people. Some people with the same sort of injury would write to me and tell me that I can do it and I was so grateful for that.
"There are so many people who have donated privately too, so I don't have their name to thank them personally. People who haven't got money were giving me a fiver or a tenner. How can I ever show my appreciation? It has been unbelievable, the things people have done for me so far."
Another act of kindness came from Dr Catherine Wills, an owner at James Fanshawe's yard, who has involved Tylicki in three geldings due to run this campaign, including a two-year-old called Insurgence. While in the past he would have been thinking about one day being able to ride the horse, hoping he could be a bit special, Tylicki is now looking forward to following his progress from the other side of the running rail, hoping for the same thing.
"He's by Sepoy and he looks well," says Tylicki. "I don't know where he's at at this stage but it's something I'm looking forward to, going racing from that different angle and having some fun with him. If he doesn't win, the jockey will likely be getting the blame!"
On his old friend Speedy Boarding, Tylicki quickly adds: "She's in foal to Dubawi now too, so I hope she'll produce a good one and I'll be following that with interest as well."
Given his family's huge interest in the sport, with not only his sister being a trainer but his late father being a multiple champion jockey in his native Germany, it is no surprise to learn Tylicki's passion for the game still burns brightly.
That grounding in the sport is something he is now leaning on as he looks to the next stages of his recovery and many of the lessons he learned as a young rider are now being applied to finding that new routine.
"I'm always fighting and trying to improve, to get on with things, and that was drilled into me from when I was an apprentice. That's helping me with my life now. I'm a positive person. I never give up. I never have done."
In the immediate aftermath of his fall, Tylicki's affection for the sport understandably waned but with his life slowly coming back together, is there any hint of regret at having followed in his father's footsteps and into a profession so full of danger?
Not a bit of it. Tylicki's love of horses shines through whenever he speaks of them and he will not allow himself to be defined by the devastating final day of his career. There is no bitterness, only pride in his achievements and in that greatest of days at Chantilly only a few weeks before, when the people closest to him revelled in his finest hour.
"I'm starting to enjoy racing again now," he said. "Nothing is going to happen overnight when you have an injury like this – it's a learning process and everything takes time. I'm looking at everything from a different angle but I still love racing, for sure. We all do, everyone in my family.
"When you ride winners it's great and when you get to ride a nice progressive two-year-old like Speedy Boarding and keep the ride, it's exciting stuff.
"I was riding for 15 years so things are going to be different, but I loved my job and a lot of jockeys would tell you the same, you live for it.
"Being a jockey was so exciting."
Back competing already
Jockeys are a rare breed, as we all know, and one quality that separates them from the rest of us is their desire to compete and win.
Injury may have left Freddy Tylicki unable to do that on horseback anymore, but his competitive spirit remains undiminished and he is keen to find an outlet.
With that in mind, Tylicki spent this week at Stoke Mandeville hospital, where he was able to try his hand at a host of wheelchair sports, including basketball, archery and tennis, and compete against others with spinal injuries.
"I want to find a new hobby," says Tylicki. "I still have that competitiveness in me and I don't think you'd ever get that out of me. I'm really excited about it.
"I've been doing a bit of archery and the shooting was pretty good too. I've done so much, a bit of tennis, rugby, basketball, all sorts. It's been great fun trying out things I never thought I would and it's something I definitely want to keep doing."
It comes as no shock, in that case, to learn that Tylicki was a dab hand at table tennis and made an immediate impression, finishing fourth in that particular tournament.
Don't miss Freddy Tylicki's column every Saturday on racingpost.com