by Paolo Camera
In January 2015 two US climbers became the first to scale the world’s toughest mountain. They free-climbed the tortuous Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park; 900 metres of sheer granite rock rising almost vertically into the sky.
As extreme sports go, free climbing is quite clearly up there.
Adventure seekers are prepared to travel the world to take part in some of the most daring past times imaginable.
Hop on a flight to Malaysia to take part in the International Tower jumping championships and leap from the top of the 421-metre Kuala Lumpur Tower.
Or jet over to Alaska to hike across the most treacherous glaciers in the world, where you take your life into your hands with every single icy step.
But at ground level, there’s a more unassuming sport that rarely makes it into the top ten most dangerous lists – jump racing.
Far from a gentle gallop over a few fences, steeplechases can be perilous for both man and beast.
Few know that better than Tony McCoy, Champion Jockey and rider of more than 4,000 winners. McCoy has fallen more than 1,000 times from horses weighing around half a tonne and travelling at speeds of up to 30mph.
No wonder he has suffered such a staggering list of injuries. He’s broken cheekbones, legs, arms, his wrist, ankle, shoulder blades and back. He’s punctured his lung, chipped his teeth and even dislocated a thumb.
And every time he gets back in the saddle to do it all over again. Once, he even raced with a broken collar bone.
In fact, he rarely lets the small matter of a serious injury get in his way. In 2008, he fractured his back in a fall and was told to give the injury a good four months to heal.
But he shrugged off the medical advice.
He turned to the ice chambers of cryotherapy and endured bone-chilling temperatures in a bid to speed his recovery. And he was back under starter’s orders in half the expected time.
It’s not for nothing he’s been dubbed The Iron Man.
Fortunately for McCoy, his injuries have never been life changing. That’s not the case for the 1,000 sports people who have, so far, been helped by the Injured Jockeys Fund.
Set up in 1964 after jockeys Tim Brookshaw and Paddy Farrell were paralysed after falls, it has spent £18 million helping jockeys whose injuries were so severe they were forced to give up riding.
Farrell’s fall happened at that year’s Grand National. The race is considered to be the most dangerous of them all.
Run over four-and-a-half miles, it’s longer than the average steeplechase by far. Jockeys and their mounts, including 2014’s shock winner Pineau De Re, must clear 30 of the world’s most challenging jumps. Some of them such as The Chair, Becher’s Brook and Canal Turn are so formidable they have become famous in their own right.
The horses that jump them are at tremendous risk, too.
The National, run every April at Aintree in Liverpool, has come under close scrutiny by animal welfare campaigners due to the number of horse deaths during the race.
Eleven horses have died as a result of injuries sustained in The National since 2000. The British Horseracing Authority calculates that there is a four in 1,000 chance of a horse being killed in a modern steeplechase but says the chances are greater during The National.
In 2008 consultations with the RSPCA led to changes in the fences’ design to make the course safer.
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Author: Adam Davies