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What keeps a rider in the saddle after serious injury?
02:16 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Niall McCullugh suffered life-threatening injuries while racing in 2015

Jockey was thrown from his horse, puncturing his lung and cracking several ribs

McCullugh returned to racing nine months later

CNN  — 

Most who spend the best part of their professional life mounted atop an animal that weighs roughly half a ton and gallops at 40 mph have a story or two to tell of their adventures.

For Irish jockey Niall McCullagh, it’s a tale that almost ended in tragedy.

The 47-year-old suffered “horrific” injuries when he fell from his horse in 2015, puncturing his lung, fracturing every single rib on the left side of his chest and damaging the thoracic vertebrae in his back.

McCullagh spent three days in intensive care and 12 nights in hospital, followed by a prolonged period away from racing as he recovered. “I thought that was the end, you know. I thought it was curtains,” he recalls.

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Yet rather than bringing to an end a career that has included over 600 race victories and began when he was just 15, McCullagh was back in the saddle just nine months later after a grueling recovery process.

“I love what I do, I can’t do anything else, and I enjoy it,” he said. “So, when the doctor came in and said you’ve had life-threatening injuries, the first thing you ask is, ‘How long will it be till I can get back?’”

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McCullagh is far from alone in enduring significant suffering while partaking in what remains an exhilarating yet potentially harmful sport.

Fellow Irish jockey JT McNamara fractured two vertebrae in his neck and was paralyzed after a fall at the Cheltenham Festival in 2013. McNamara died earlier this year aged just 41.

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But for McCullagh, like many others in his profession, the raw thrill of the race far outstrips fear of the dangers prevalent in racing.

Watch Niall McCullagh explain the powerful attraction that keeps him coming back to horse racing in the video atop the page.