Real Life

Harness racing driver’s daring rescue on the track saves a fellow jockey’s life

As life hung in the balance, young driver Ellie Barron stepped up.
Ellie Barron

When the commentator at the Omakau Races announced that champion harness racing driver Ricky May had fainted during a race, it struck fellow driver Ellie Barron as odd.

“I was jogging over after gearing up a horse for my uncle because I wanted to watch a horse I had previously driven,” recalls Ellie of the moment she heard the broadcast on that early January day in Central Otago.

“I remember thinking, ‘Shivers, it’s not that hot.'”

“And then I just saw him. He was sort of lying in the cart. Because I heard that he had fainted, I thought I’d try and catch him. I didn’t know how I was going to get there in time, but his horse was slowing down and I thought I’d be able to grab him and lower him to the ground. The cart just stopped and, because Ricky wasn’t holding on, he fell onto the track.”

Drawing on her skills as a qualified physiotherapist and her experience of tending to injured rugby players, Ellie (24) knew instinctively what to do.

“When I got there he was presenting like someone who had been knocked out. He was on his side and breathing but very laboured. I thought, ‘I’m going to help him with his breathing,’ the same as I would for a rugby player.

“We got his hat off, made his airway nice and open and I was holding onto his neck as I would treat any other head knock.”

But the veteran driver unexpectedly took a dire turn.

“He just took a couple of very laboured breaths and made one very long outward breath and that was the last one he took on his own,” recounts Ellie.

“My hand was already on his neck, and there was no pulse. That was a very odd feeling.”

She sprang into action, giving her racing pal the CPR that’s credited with saving his life.

Ricky says he wouldn’t be alive if not for Ellie’s quick thinking.

After five rigorous rounds of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and compressions, paramedics arrived.

Working in tandem with the health professional-turned-harness racer, the trio were intent on keeping oxygen flowing to Ricky’s brain before he was flown to Dunedin Hospital for treatment.

Still reeling at the shock of watching someone die in front of her, Ellie admits the next few days were harrowing.

“We didn’t know how Ricky was going. It was obviously a relief when they got the defibrillator on him and a heartbeat back but I was thinking, ‘How long did his brain go without oxygen?’

“But we heard Ricky was okay, and then his wife Judy rang me two days later and said, ‘We’ve woken him up and he’s alert.’ The fact that his brain was okay was a huge relief,” says the Invercargill-based driver.

“If it wasn’t for Ellie I wouldn’t be here, to be fair,” a grateful Ricky (61) tells the Weekly from his Methven farm, where he’s recuperating.

“She kept things going at the right time.”

Specialists have told him he had a hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, a condition where heart muscles thicken even though the heart itself is healthy. He now has a cardioverter defibrillator implanted over his heart to automatically give it a kick-start should it ever stop again.

Ricky has no recollection of the fateful moments of that day but says he felt in great shape, and had no hint his future would soon be in the hands of an up-and-coming driver some 40 years his junior.

“I remember going to the races, because it’s a fair old trip. My first drive was race three, which I won. For some reason I remember that and coming back to the birdcage and then I can’t remember a damned thing after that.

“Judy told me they woke me up briefly and she and my daughter Kate were in the room and I could recognise them both. They were pretty rapt with that because they thought I might have brain damage but, because of Ellie, my blood kept flowing to my brain, which kept me going.”

For now the harness racer is “as good as gold”, though he’s taking things quietly on doctor’s orders while his body repairs.

The abandoned race was rerun on January 16 at Wyndham, and the winning horse’s owners donated $1500 each to the helicopter trust, St John, and Team Teal, a harness racing charity Ellie is an ambassador for, which raises awareness and funds for ovarian cancer.

Ricky warms up for a race, just weeks before his collapse.

Ellie, who was there to see the rescheduled race, said it was a huge surprise.

“It was nice that the race was getting run and a nice horse won it, but I didn’t realise how lovely the horse’s owners were till later on!”

With Ellie set to don the charity’s signature teal driving pants alongside other female riders from February 1 as part of a six-week campaign to raise money every time a reinswoman crosses the finish line first, she’s grateful for the generosity, and thankful the trotting legend has pulled through.

“We’ve all had people pass away or shocking things happen but, in terms of hands-on shocking, that was the most dramatic moment in my life. But I’m also proud because I handled it as well as I ever thought I could. You don’t have time to think. You just react.”

Concludes Ricky, “She did a marvellous job really. I’m pretty lucky to be here.”

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