“Sorry, Sam, but you will never ride again.” The doctor’s words should have been a final crushing blow to young jockey Sam Spratt as she lay in a hospital bed after a horrific fall from a racehorse. But Sam, then just 18 years old, saw the life-shattering news as a challenge to overcome.
Despite her devastating head injuries and the fact that initially she couldn’t walk, let alone ride, she refused to give up the career she loved. Two months ago, it was a triumphant Sam who crossed the finishing line in first place at Trentham Racecourse in Upper Hutt the same course where, five years ago, she tumbled from her horse.
“People thought I was mad coming back to racing after my accident,” says Sam. “This is a risky sport and there’s always going to be the chance I might have a bad fall again, one that I won’t recover from. But that’s the risk I’m prepared to take, because this is my passion.”
She has no memories of the accident but has seen shocking camera footage of the race where the horse, suddenly spooked, jumped the railing, catapulting Sam into the air. She landed head first on a pile of barbed wire, resulting in life-threatening head injuries.
Her recent win on the very same course is proof that this is a young woman who refuses to be beaten. Since her return to the saddle, she has already won 100 races and currently leads a premiership league for apprentice jockeys.
But what makes Sam’s comeback even more remarkable is that, as well as her accident, she’s also faced depression, the break-up of her marriage and becoming a single mum to two-year-old Cody.
“It’s like five years of my life have been a dream. I’m back riding after having a major accident, I’ve been married, had a child and gone through a divorce. I feel like I’ve come full circle. It’s been surreal,” she says.
Sam was so determined to continue riding that she went back to racing only six months after her accident. But the spirited return was unsuccessful. Days before the race, a horse kicked her while she was feeding it, rupturing her spleen and sending her back to intensive care. It was at that point that Sam decided to retire from racing and work as a horse trainer, but her longing to return to the saddle led to depression.
“Coping with the depression was really difficult more difficult than my physical injuries, in many ways. I was very young and trying to understand everything that had happened,” says Sam. “I couldn’t cope with the pressure, I couldn’t handle it and thought it was best for me to take a break.”
But with the support of her family, she overcame that dark time and at the age of 20 married her long-time sweetheart, who was also a jockey. But a year later the marriage ended, leaving Sam as a single mum to little Cody.
At that time, she feared her depression might resurface, but was surprised by her own strength. “I overcame any doubts by refusing to let myself get down,” she says. “Returning to riding made me appreciate my life and everything I had.”
Riding can be a lucrative business. Sam has brought in just under $1 million in prize money this season alone. As she talks about her success, Cody plays happily in the living room of their Auckland home. Sam smiles as she explains that any sacrifices she makes are for both of them. She averages about two races a week, and her routine means early morning starts and time away from home.
“I’m fulfilling my dream, but I also I feel guilty because I’m away from Cody,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I’m a single mum and I have to provide for us.”
There are two things that keep this brave young woman going the prospect of seeing her son grow up and her ambition to be one of New Zealand’s top jockeys. “Being told I’d never ride again only made me more determined,” she says with a smile. “I’m stubborn, but I wouldn’t be any other way.”