The job of being a jockey in Newmarket has just become significantly more attractive with the completion of Peter O’Sullevan House, a £6m project that will function as both a rehabilitation facility and a memorial to one of racing’s greatest figures. It will be opened officially amid much celebrating by Sir Anthony McCoy on Friday but has already begun the work of repairing and maintaining the town’s professional riders.
It is the third such building to have been dreamed up and paid for by the Injured Jockeys Fund, following Oaksey House to the west in Lambourn and Jack Berry House up north in Malton. There was a time in recent memory when broken jockeys had to help themselves back to fitness in what has traditionally been a very individualistic sport, lacking the support from a team that other sportsmen and women can rely upon – but now there is an impressive, well‑appointed building in all the major racing hubs to help speed them back to the track.
“I’m really thrilled,” says Lisa Hancock, the IJF chief executive, reflecting on the fact that this 13-month build ran to time and was delivered slightly under budget. “There are projects you work on that prove very hard to get right but this went well from start to finish. I’m absolutely delighted with the clinical team we have in place and the whole building works well, feels good – it’s everything I could have hoped for at this stage.”
Sir Peter O’Sullevan became the voice of racing during his half-century as commentator for the BBC and did much work for charitable causes, including the IJF. The first room any visitor to the new facility sees is full of mementos and artefacts from his life, the fund having been offered the pick of all the contents of his Chelsea flat at the time of his death in 2015.
His knighthood medal is here, alongside the card of colours he drew up to help his commentary on the 1969 Derby, while the walls are decorated with images of those whose exploits he described – including Be Friendly, the champion sprinter he owned. Some of his most famous commentaries are played through headphones and on screens, and on display are excerpts from his writings for the Daily Express, noting in particular what he had to say about jockeys of the time. “A potential genius with the look of a wilful cherub,” was one of the earliest things he evidently wrote about one L Piggott back in the 1950s.
That chance to connect with racing history will be just one of the draws for all the retired jockeys around Newmarket, as Peter O’Sullevan House aims to be a social hub as well as a rehabilitation centre. “We’ve got a huge number of longer-term IJF beneficiaries in this town,” says Hancock, “and we hope this will be a nice space for them to come and sit in those soft chairs and watch the racing channels, see current jockeys coming in, have a cup of coffee. It removes the isolation, makes them feel part of the industry again.”
Those current jockeys will be using the impressive gym, moreover, the only part of the site for which there is a charge, or being worked on by physiotherapists and rehab coaches, perhaps in the hydropool with its underwater treadmill and cameras to monitor recovery from leg or spinal injuries. The reigning champion, Silvestre de Sousa, has been a regular visitor, working hard on his fitness, and Hancock hopes the apprentices-to-be at the adjacent British Racing School will learn from his example.
Interviews take place next week for a nutritionist, while there are plans to hire a sports psychologist/counsellor soon after. “It’s such an important area,” Hancock says. “Healthy mind and healthy body is fundamental. We’ll have a network of support that individuals are able to select from.”