A second chance in the saddle
On an ordinary March morning at Sha Tin trackwork in 2010, an energetic horse threw his head back and struck jockey Andreas Suborics on the side of his head.
On a morning like any other, Suborics treated the head knock as just one of the routine bumps and bruises accepted as part of working with such powerful and highly strung creatures.
Just over a week later, he underwent drastic, life-saving brain surgery at Hong Kong Baptist Hospital, with doctors forced to remove the right side of his skull to relieve pressure caused by internal bleeding. What had seemed an innocuous blow resulted in the 40-year-old nearly dying and having his riding career placed on hold indefinitely.
'After the accident, I seemed ok,' Suborics recalled. 'I was a little bit dizzy ... I don't even remember which horse did it. After that I still rode another horse ... in the afternoon, I went to play soccer. I went to head the ball and there was more dizziness. The next day the headache was bad.'
The Austrian was stood down from riding at Happy Valley the following night and was sent for X-rays, which showed no sign of skull fractures. What the X-rays couldn't reveal was that Suborics was slowly bleeding into his skull, building pressure that was dangerously shifting his brain.
When further scans illustrated the extent of his condition a week later, doctors recognised the need for immediate surgery.
Sitting high in the Sha Tin grandstand, nearly two years after the ordeal, Suborics presses his finger tip into a barely visible, but centimetre-wide groove in his skull, running his finger from his hairline to behind his right ear. 'They cut me from here to here,' he recalls. 'They took the bone off, there was old blood stuck on the bone, they had to clean it to relieve the pressure. They had to allow space for my brain to slowly move back into place.
'When I woke up my head was very big and I was in a lot of pain. I took so many pain tablets that my blood became very thin, and a few days later I needed another operation after the bleeding started again, even worse than before.
'It was very serious, the doctors told me that if I wasn't fit, that if I wasn't a sportsman, I may not have survived.'
The scar is a remnant of the gruesome operations and trauma, but it is also a physical reminder for Suborics of what it is like to nearly lose everything and provides motivation as he embarks on an inspirational comeback.
The Austrian was midway through a seven-month contract with the Hong Kong Jockey Club when his career came to a crossroads. With riding not an option, Suborics was at least grateful for his two teenage sons and girlfriend, who had flown to Hong Kong to be by his side.
As the months went by back in his homeland there were no guarantees of a return to the track. Suborics had organised another Hong Kong stint, but he could not be assured of his availability and did not want to let his employers down.
'I spoke to the stewards. I said the best thing to do was to stop riding because I don't want to tell you at the last moment and then stop. I didn't know if I could ride again in three months, or at all,' he said. 'I had no pressure after that, I could wait for a full recovery and my head was free of everything.'
In August 2010, as his condition failed to improve, Suborics announced he had made the gut-wrenching decision to retire.
The following month, he was ready to officially end his career and accept the resulting compensation payout. Suborics loves horses though and there was still some doubt. He calls race-riding his 'favourite thing to do in the world', so he sought two more medical opinions, as he felt the competitive fire still burning. He gained clearance and prepared to get back in the saddle on New Year's Eve 2011.
Sitting on a sometimes unpredictable 450kg animal's back is one thing, riding it in a race is another. The idea of coming back was exciting, but Suborics has ridden 1,600 winners in 14 countries, including more than 80 Group winners and 14 at the top level.
He earned a reputation as an 'ice man' in big races, winning the 2001 Audemars Piguet QEII Cup on Silvano, a stallion he called 'a Ferrari', followed by the Singapore Cup and Arlington Million.
But would he have the nerve to compete at the level he was accustomed to?
'Race riding is like being a striker on a football team,' he said. 'You need to be in the right place at the right time and then make the right decision - but you need to be cool under pressure to do it.'
The physical scars can be carried, but there's no place for mental scars at the top level.
Caspar Fownes is one of Suborics' biggest supporters and recalls how his good friend Shane Dye struggled to regain his best form after a horrendous 2006 fall at Sha Tin.
'Andreas looks like he has come back from it ... but they've just got to take their time,' Fownes said. 'Shane said to me, 'It might look like you're back, but it can take a real long time to get to even half the jockey you were before'. It takes a lot of confidence.'
Suborics agreed, saying the patience shown by sitting out for nine months has paid off.
'I think it was good I had a long break, as I sat on the horse the first day and I was confident; maybe If I'd started too early I would have not been the same,' he said.
Trainer Andreas Schutz has known Suborics since the mid-1990s when the young jockey was climbing through the German ranks and rode for Schutz's father, Bruno.
The pair reunited at Sha Tin on Wednesday night, with the trainer lauded Suborics' 'clever ride' on Suisse D'Or.
'We've had a lot of success, he rode for me later on, too, and we won a German Derby and an Oaks,' said Schutz, who admits to trying to talk Suborics out of a comeback, fearing he would not be able to maintain his high standards.
'It's amazing that he did come back, I told him to not over-stretch things,' Schutz said. 'But he doesn't seem to be timid, he still takes the gaps when they come up and rides aggressively.'
With a treble on his second day back in Germany, and more than 80 winners in 2011, Suborics did not take long to get back into the winning habit.
Suborics says he wants to stay on full-time in Hong Kong, a place he calls 'the biggest challenge in the world for a jockey' and with two winners in the first month of his current stint, the first courtesy of a nerveless, last-to-first ride, weaving through the pack on Magnanimous at Happy Valley, he seems on his way to achieving that goal.
Results aside, Suborics can always call upon the gratitude gained from nearly losing his life.
'I'm a very happy person because I can still do the job I love, I have a second chance,' he says.
'I feel better than ever ... maybe because of the experience, I don't feel any pressure in myself.
'I remember the situation when I was in hospital, it was really bad, so to make a mistake in a race, it does not really change your life. This is my job, but I don't feel any pressure anymore, I'm just happy to ride in a race.'