All in a day’s work: Cheltenham racecourse doctor Lee Humphreys *H&H Plus*

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  • Lee Humphreys on dealing with tough and wary jockeys and vaulting in a bowler hat on TV

    My “day job” is as a consultant surgeon based in Plymouth, where I primarily work on bariatrics, or weight-loss surgery. I also do emergency surgery in the trauma unit.

    I started out as a junior doctor in Cheltenham, where the racecourse’s senior doctor, Sue Smith, was a consultant in intensive care. She would often take one of us junior doctors up to the racecourse for the day to experience how things were done there. I went on to become a doctor at the racecourse in 2005.

    My background is not horsey, so I have found my work at Cheltenham fascinating — I’ve learnt a lot about horses and their unpredictable nature. I enjoy working in a big team of medics, but the role is very different to anything else I have done. I used to work across six racecourses but now solely focus on Cheltenham.


    At my first Festival, back when doctors still had to wear bowler hats, I got a bit carried away when someone fell just after the final fence and I vaulted the rail. The incident was caught on camera and broadcast on TV and the big screens. I got a lot of stick for that.

    On a raceday, there are three of us who can act as the senior doctor. If that is me, I arrive as soon as the gates open and go straight to the medical room, where I’ll have a meeting with the medical coordinator, Tony Twiggs. Then I go through the racecard and each race individually, deciding where each doctor will be positioned for the day.

    On “small” racedays, we have four doctors, while on “premium” days we will have five doctors on the course. We then rotate our positions throughout the day. There will always be a doctor by the final fence and three doctors mobile in vehicles — with another based in the medical room, along with two nurses and a physiotherapist. One hour before first race, I will brief the whole medical team, which is standard procedure on raceday.

    British Horseracing Authority rules state that a faller must be attended to within a minute. Cheltenham is a large, complex racecourse and during the Festival there will be four ambulances just for the jockeys. There will also be two doctors, a team from St John Ambulance and two ambulances for the 70,000-plus crowd and racecourse staff.

    Looking after professional sportspeople is very different to treating the general public. I have learnt to understand a jockey’s mentality — most of the time they are not too pleased to see you! Jockeys can be rude when injured and you learn not to take it personally. They can be wary of doctors. After all, if I step them down from riding it can affect their livelihood.

    The language they direct at you can be colourful, but you get to know the jockeys over the years and they do begin to trust you. You learn how best to communicate with each jockey. They are some of the toughest athletes out there and don’t like to let on that they are in pain — if they say something hurts, you know they must really mean it.

    It’s a hugely rewarding but challenging role. I’m proud to be part of a big team, who play a vital part in offering high-quality care to jockeys during a great sporting spectacle. The trauma I see in racing is unique. The principles are the same but the environment, and being on a racecourse, is very different to anything else you can experience. Common injuries include broken collarbones and wrists, soft-tissue injuries and concussion, while others can be more life-threatening.

    I enjoy photography as a hobby. I began taking landscape pictures, before snapping away at the races — mostly of people working behind the scenes. Then I created a book of my pictures and displayed the images at Cheltenham in November in aid of Racing Welfare. I love the backstories of people working at the racecourse — it’s a part of the day that spectators don’t get to see. I will usually have a camera on me during racedays. I am interested in people and I love capturing the different characters at the races, from the ground staff to the valets.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 5 March 2020