When PJ McDonald was thrown to the ground in the parade ring at Newcastle last month, his first thought was his riding plans the next day.
Paramedics rushed to treat the jockey, who assumed he had merely jarred his foot in the incident and asked for a minute merely to catch his breath.
The first tentative step was fine, likewise the second. However, things clearly were much worse than he imagined.
“I thought I’d walk it off until the third step and I just fell over in pain,” he said after his mount, Westward Ho, had reared up and dispatched him. “But my first thought was I was still planning to ride at Goodwood the next day.”
Instead, the 36-year-old had suffered a double fracture — to his heel and ankle — meaning he would miss several crucial weeks of the Flat season.
The accident was a classic example of the perils facing jockeys and McDonald says: “I’d ridden my 100th winner of the season that day and had a double, yet 40 minutes later I was on a stretcher in a hospital corridor.”
More debilitating for him, though, was the emotional pain as Danny Tudhope took over on the brilliant filly Laurens, guiding her to two Group One wins.
Missing out proved enough to speed up McDonald’s recovery process and he returned to, of all places, Newcastle on Wednesday. Now he can turn his attention to reuniting with Laurens in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, one of the key races on the lucrative Champions Day card at Ascot tomorrow.
“I went over to Ireland for her win there [in the Matron Stakes under Tudhope] and can’t quite explain the emotion of watching her win,” he admits.
“I’ve never felt anything like it. I was over the moon for the filly as she has been so good to me and I know how hard everyone has worked to get her to this point. But inside I was dying, there’s no other way to describe it. I was gutted. Horses like that don’t come by that often. I’m 36 and I’ve been riding since I was 14 and it’s the first time I’ve ridden one as good as this.”
Despite the diagnosis from doctors and physios that a shot at Champions Day would be beyond McDonald (left), he set out to prove otherwise. Within two-and-a-half weeks, he was back in the gym, albeit in a moon boot, pushing himself hard. “I thought the Breeders’ Cup [in November] was the target,” he says.
“But then I found out Laurens was being supplemented for the QEII [at a cost to her owners of £70,000] and I asked the physios if I could push things forward. It was all about coming back for this week.
“To win the QEII really would be a fairytale. I’d said to my wife, Abby, that I don’t think I’d have been strong enough to watch someone else ride her on Champions Day. That would have crippled me.”
McDonald sat on board Laurens briefly on Sunday and said she felt better than when he rode her just before her victory in the Prix de Diane in France, one of her five Group One wins. “It got me excited,” he says.
McDonald, a late bloomer, insists he is at the peak of his powers and credits his wife for helping him get there.
He adds: “Before if I got criticised, I wasn’t strong enough to take it. I needed that arm around me, I needed praise. Now, I have the confidence.”
Should he win at Ascot, there would be praise in abundance. So what would it mean? “It’d be a fairytale. Maybe they can make a movie about it?”
PJ McDonald will race at QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot tomorrow