Kumeu horseman Frank Cooney remains in an induced coma in Auckland City Hospital's intensive care unit after a crash at Alexandra Park on Friday night - but his life is not in danger.
When doctors persuaded Cooney's wife Anne to abandon her bedside vigil early yesterday, it was with the news that his condition was stable and he would not need an operation.
While scans showed some bleeding and bruising in the front of his brain, there was no swelling.
Fears were held for Cooney - one of the country's most experienced reinsmen - when he was knocked unconscious in a crash soon after the start of the first race, lying motionless as officials sounded the siren to abandon the event.
Cooney's drive, Awesome Desire, wearing a Murphy blind over his nearside eye, clipped the wheel of Silent Night, driven by Peter Ferguson, just after the horses sped out of the gate.
Cooney's horse dropped like a stone and, in a gruesome aftermath played out in front of the grandstand, the driver was catapaulted out of the sulky into the path of the oncoming Tina Brydon, whose driver Sailesh Abernethy had no chance of avoiding him.
Struck by the chest of the horse, Cooney made a headlong dive and hit the ground hard.
Fellow driver Nicky Chilcott was forced to take evasive action inside the markers to avoid the fallen horse, thankful that her horse had galloped out of the gate so he was not right alongside the faller.
Bystanders rushed to Cooney's aid as stipendiary steward John Muirhead made a decision to call off the race, seeing Cooney lying still in a vulnerable position on the track, and unable to be moved quickly by ambulance staff.
With the field still in racing formation and oblivious to the danger ahead, runners were then dispatched down the home straight to alert drivers to pull up.
The melee was all too familiar for Cambridge trainer Tony Shaw, who had one of the favourites in the race, Attitude Adjuster.
Four years ago, almost in the same spot, he cheated death in a crash when he too was catapaulted through the air and was whacked on the head by his sulky after hitting the track.
Shaw needed emergency surgery and a large peice of his skull was removed to relieve bleeding on his brain. Shaw, brain-damaged, amazed doctors with his recovery but has not driven in races since.
"I'm glad I didn't have one of those heavy American carts like Frank was using," Shaw said, "or I probably wouldn't be standing here."
Horsemen have maligned the heavy steel carts since their introduction several years ago, fearing they would be dangerous in a crash and, ironically, Cooney was one of them, his wife said last night.
"Frank had been concerned on and off that the new carts could make accidents a lot worse. He mentioned it on several occasions."
While a traditional, lighter cart might have buckled, video replays don't show Cooney being struck by the sulky, which swung sideways into the oncoming horse's path.
It was Tina Brydon, instead, who sustained large gashes to both shoulders and came off the track bleeding.
Cooney, 62, escaped with no broken bones, Anne Cooney praising his safety vest for also saving him from internal injuries.
"I haven't seen his hat but that's not looking too flash, they tell me.
"His back and neck have scanned okay and there's no damage to his spine. He has bones on him like rocks."
Cooney was at home when the crash happened and was oblivious to her husband's strife until contacted by a friend.
She watched the crash on the internet yesterday for the first time.
"He's been extremely lucky under the circumstances - he's still in critical care but they're hoping to bring him out of the coma tonight.
"They tried last night but he panicked, didn't know where he was, and kept trying to get up.
"He's still on a ventilator but that's only to clear an infection in his lungs. His colour was a lot better today."
Cooney said doctors had implied her husband might have to rethink his driving future.
"If he was a rugby player they said they'd be advising he shouldn't play rugby again. But I don't even want to think about that, he wouldn't handle that well," she said.
"I don't know if we could stop him driving.
"He's going to be pretty sore when he comes to and he won't like that - he's never been unwell in his life."
Muirhead opened and, in Cooney's absence, adjourned an inquiry.
- Sunday Star Times
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