Paralysed jockey Jacob Pritchard Webb on the day his life changed
For a man who had his life changed and career halted in a split second during a fall which left him paralysed at Auteuil just over two years ago, ex-jump jockey Jacob Pritchard Webb has an inspirationally cheerful outlook on life; he is relentlessly upbeat.
On Thursday, in a bid to raise £25,000 each for the Injured Jockeys Fund and Matt Hampson Foundation, the two charities which have helped his rehabilitation and where he still goes regularly for ‘MOTs,’ he will leave Cheltenham racecourse, out of which there is no flat route, on a handbike.
Accompanied on various stages by various people including Sir Anthony McCoy, Luke Harvey and jockey Hugh Nugent, he is due to arrive at Newmarket’s July meeting in time for the three-day festival's feature race, the July Cup, on Saturday. Those 120 miles would be no mean feat on a bike using your legs, let alone just your arms.
“I didn’t expect to be doing something like this so soon after the accident but I think it’s quite a good advert really for people who have spinal cord injuries,” says Pritchard Webb.
“It’s great to be able to show it is not the end of the world and life can be good because I can tell you now, that when you’re sat in hospital you think these things. Money aside, I hope it just raises awareness for the charities and also inspires people.”
Harbouring ambitions to make it as a jump jockey, Pritchard Webb, 25, had stints with Sir Mark Prescott and Fergal O’Brien in Britain but, confident that the opportunities would be better across the Channel, went to France halfway through 2019.
Having arrived as an amateur he turned professional and joined leading jump trainer Emmanuel Clayeux that October. His career was starting to move in the right direction and he had nine winners under his belt when, on June 23, disaster struck.
He was riding in a £25,000 four-year-old chase at France’s biggest jump track. Ironically it was the smallest fence on the course. His horse cleared it and landed but was unable to get his legs out from underneath him and went down heavily.
“I remember the fall, the pain and the instant loss of sensation in my legs,” he recalls. “The rest of that day I remember in pieces; them taking my clothes off, being in a scanner, trying to be sick when they injected dye into me but unable to because my neck was dislocated.”
On top of the dislocation he sustained fractures to his T3, T4 and T6 vertebrae but it was at T4 where the damage - compression - to his spinal cord was done. He left his specialist hospital in Paris 178 days later, the most recent but doubtless not the last jockey to have walked into a racecourse only to be wheeled out of a hospital six months later.
One by one a ‘club’ of jockeys who had sustained spinal injuries, JT McNamara, Robbie McNamara, Freddy Tylicki and Ed Barrett all made contact to offer him their advice.
“They all said ‘concentrate on the rehab’ so I turned it into my job; wake up, breakfast, physio, and so on. I got into a strict routine which is the best thing for the body in these circumstances. You have to get your bowels and bladder into routine, eating and drinking at the same times every day.
“Of course there are dark times. The lads would understand it. For me it was when someone rides a winner who was at the same level as me but has progressed. Basically it’s envy because I had my chance taken away from me. Everyone tells me that’s totally understandable.
“You do get the odd s--- day. Winter is definitely more of a struggle. I can’t control my body temperature very well so if you go out and it’s cold, wet and rainy, the wheelchair hand-holds get slippy and that all builds up through the day to a mini mental breakdown when I might tell everyone to eff-off, but they are pretty few and far between.
“There was a day when I was meant to go and watch a Six Nations rugby game but it was raining, cold and I was already in a bit of pain and just couldn’t get ready for it.
“When I was in hospital Sir Mark rang. He told me when he broke his back that he couldn’t even blink. He had to get the nurse to open his eyes.
“It wasn’t really what I wanted to hear 16 days in but it was a Sunday when he religiously rings all his owners and I’m pretty sure I was his first call of the day which meant a lot and he gave me this great advice ‘don’t be horrible to your mother.’ He was nice to the nurses but horrid to his mum when she drove up from Devon to see him and he still regrets it now.
“I think mum began to come to terms with my injury about two months in, just when I was coming off painkillers. I was smiling and laughing a bit more and when she saw that in me I think she saw that if I could accept it, it would be better for me if she accepted it.
“Dad took a lot longer, maybe that’s something to do with a father’s protectiveness. He’s a pilot and because of lockdown he wasn’t flying. He needed to be busy. After three months he came home from Paris to start adapting the house and I think he was happier being able to do something constructive to help.”
McCoy calls Pritchard Webb an inspiration. “He’s a young, good-looking lad who had his whole life in front of him before suffering those life-changing injuries but his attitude has been fantastic,” he said. “He has a great outlook on life because it can’t be easy. We all have down days but, in the grand scheme of things, we don’t.”
Most jockeys have pretty puny arms given the weight issues muscle bulk creates but, ahead of the challenge, Pritchard Webb now has arms like Popeye having fitted in training between his fledgling careers on Sky Sports Racing and as a bloodstock agent. But if anyone gets mentally down on this challenge it is unlikely to be Pritchard Webb.