Top jockey speaks about ‘horrific’ day apprentice rider died

Famed Christchurch jockey Tina Comignaghi speaking to the Herald about the race that killed her...
Famed Christchurch jockey Tina Comignaghi speaking to the Herald about the race that killed her friend. Photo: NZ Herald
In December, 26-year-old apprentice jockey Megan Taylor was killed during a race in Ashburton. 

Three other jockeys also ended up on the ground and were injured when they or their horse fell in the catastrophic incident including Tina Comignaghi, one of the country’s top riders.

Today, she speaks about the "horrific" experience, her heartbreak, her recovery and why she will never fear getting back on a horse.

It started out like any other race day in the busy summer calendar, the season jockeys live for in New Zealand.

Laughter and banter in the female jockeys’ room, five women pulling on their silks, the uniform white pants emblazoned with their names - M Taylor, S Wynne, K Williams, T Comignaghi, D Tait.

Ready for race two of the day, the five made their way to their horses and headed for the start gate.

The My Boy George Missing J R Maiden started out like any other race. The usual sprint for position, the fierce concentration and competition stretched across the faces of the tightly crouched jockeys as they fought for that golden gap and burst to victory.

But somehow, as they sprinted for the finish, it all went terribly wrong. In the home straight with just 350m to go, four horses fell, taking their riders with them. A flurry of race officials, paramedics, vets and the like.

And later, only four of the women made it back to their jockeys’ room alive.

"Unfortunately, I wasn’t knocked out… So I remember absolutely everything," Comignaghi told the Herald on Sunday.

"It was pretty horrific… pretty surreal."

The crash took out Comignaghi and her mount O’Dua, Wynne on Show Us Plenty, Taylor on Red Orchid and Diego Montes de Oca on Billydude.

"The race started as usual… and then it all happened very quickly," Comignaghi said.

"All of a sudden I was on the ground… seeing horses’ hooves and just thinking ‘it’s okay, I’m okay, I’m still conscious’.

"At first I didn’t know how big the damage was, I thought it was just me falling - but then I looked around and there were a lot of people… when I got out it was pretty horrific."

Comignaghi’s first instinct was to get up and check her back.

In 2021 she was almost killed when her car ploughed into the back of a concrete truck.

She managed to crawl out of the wreckage just before the car went up in flames - with several broken vertebrae.

"I know they tell you to lie down and stay still but I couldn’t do it… I straight away got up and checked that I could feel everything… I was worried about my back but it was perfect.

"I was winded. I was trying to get my breath back and I had a sore ankle but I was able to walk so… I got up straight away.

"I was very, very lucky."

Comignaghi then looked around, surveying the scrambled horses and riders.

"The paramedics were with Megan… I went to see her, and then I just left the scene because I wasn’t a pretty view.

"I thought from the beginning when I looked at her, I thought she wasn’t alive.

"I just hung on to a hope that they could do something for her…. But I was pretty sure she wasn’t alive."

Comignaghi walked back to the jockey’s room - unaware she had a severe break to her ankle.

Jockey Megan Taylor was killed during a race in Ashburton. Photo: Supplied via NZ Herald
Jockey Megan Taylor was killed during a race in Ashburton. Photo: Supplied via NZ Herald
Within about 10 minutes she and others there were told that Taylor had died and the rest of the day’s racing had been abandoned.

"It was pretty horrific; what happened just devastated everyone," she said.

"The good thing is, I don’t think she suffered… that is what kind of just gave me a bit of relief… it was so fast."

Fellow jockey Kylie Williams drove Comignaghi to the hospital to get checked over.

"I had a sore ankle but I was able to walk so I didn’t think it was that bad," she explained.

"They told me it wasn’t broken - so I just kept going with my life as if it was a sprain.

"I went to the gym, just kept going as normal. And then a week later, that’s when they figured out it was broken."

Comignaghi has a break to the front joint of her ankle and has been ordered not to put any weight on it at all for six weeks.

She will then spend another six weeks with her foot in a braced boot but she will still be on crutches and banned from walking.

"It’s quite tricky because it takes really long to heal - there’s not much blood irrigation into the wound," she said.

"I went for an appointment (last week) to see if I needed surgery - but they decided it was better not to have it… and I didn’t really want to have more metal in my body."

Comignaghi said the physical injury - by no means her first as a jockey - was "very hard" as she was an extremely active person, particularly over the summer.

Aside from the busy racing season - which Kiwi jockeys "live for" - she has been unable to hike and spend time outdoors which is her passion away from horses.

Back on the horse

Comignaghi said the horror accident has not put her off riding. Nothing could.

Comignaghi grew up on a cattle farm and graduated from riding around bareback on her family’s land to competing in show jumping, dressage and endurance events.

It wasn’t until she was backpacking around New Zealand in her early 20s that she got into thoroughbred racing.

She got a job at a Canterbury stable and her bosses encouraged the slightly-built traveller to have a crack a career as a jockey.

Comignaghi was a natural and over the years has made a name for herself as one of New Zealand’s most successful riders.

"I do miss being on a horse… and this time of the year is the best time to be riding - this is what I live for, the summer (season)," she said.

"After the moon boot… I think it’d be probably another month after that before I can get on a horse… so I’ll just take it easy the rest of the season, and just put all my effort into the next one.

"I’m not nervous… it’s part of my nature to be on a horse, I can’t wait - I’m just eager to get back.

Comignaghi is focused on keeping herself strong - she has invested in dumbbells and worked out a way to do strength exercises without moving her injured foot.

And she is giving herself time to heal emotionally.

"(The mental) impact is pretty big… I’m not very good at expressing my emotions normally so this is hard - and I’ve never lived through trauma like this before," she said.

"So I got help straight away just to deal with it… it was really helpful.

"I think mental health is very important and sometimes in this industry, we don’t give it so much importance.

"I think it was really good to talk to someone about it, because... that day was pretty traumatic.

"You have a mix of emotions, and you just go up and down all the time… you have moments where you’re ok, and the you’re just down again - but I think time is a great healer and I am a bit better now than I was a month ago."

One thing that has helped Comignaghi is watching footage of the race.

"I watched it just to clarify a lot of things," she said.

"Obviously, from my point of view, the fall was very different to when I looked at the video… it was good to see it just to clarify in my head what had happened.

"I’m glad I watched it so I could make sense of it… I actually watched it straight away which wasn’t that hard because I was in still in shock.

"I sat down and watched it again when I was better, and because I’d already seen it, it wasn’t as hard… but every time I close my eyes I still see it, it’s all pretty fresh in my head… I think about it."

‘Megan was a lovely girl’

Comignaghi said it was still hard to believe what had happened that day in Ashburton.

"I hadn’t ridden much this season because I went home for three months - so I started a bit later than usual," she said.

"And then it went really well - I couldn’t believe how good it was all going, it was incredible.

"You’re on the top of the world, and then the next day, not… I just need to take each day as it comes now and make the most of it."

She said Taylor was sorely missed - and she thought of the young apprentice often.

"We were a pretty tight group down here," said Comignaghi.

"Megan was a lovely girl - she brought so much joy, she was always happy, always laughing… I can still hear her laugh, it was so loud.

"Megan was great, she was a lot more mature than her age… she was enjoying life… We were talking about it and she was really, really enjoying what she was doing; she loved horses.

"It was just really sad, she had so much more to give to the industry and to everyone."

Comignaghi hoped the tragedy would not deter people from a career as a jockey or create negative perceptions of the horse racing industry.

"As horrible as it is, falling is something that happens a lot more often than you think," she said.

"This is just part of what happens. If you love horses, just do it because what you get out of it is just greater than anything else, it’s just pure passion and it’s great.

"You don’t think about what’s going to happen, you just enjoy it.

"I love it and I’ll keep doing it while my body lets me… so yeah, I’ll get back on straight away - as soon as I can."

Comignaghi said the biggest lesson she has learned from the death of her mate and her own injury is simple.

"The only thing I can say is just, you’ve just got to make the most of opportunities because you just never know what will happen to you," she said.

"Just make the most of everything while you can."

Late last month Samantha Wynne spoke to the Herald about the race and her recovery.

"I am grateful for one thing — that I can’t remember it," she said.

"What happened to Megan is heartbreaking. But I am grateful I don’t remember the accident. I am grateful I couldn’t get up to go over and see how she was."

Wynne sustained a broken collarbone that required surgery to have plates and screws inserted, two broken ribs on the left side of her body and a fracture in her pelvis.

"The pelvis could have been worse because it wasn’t a total break… I realise obviously how much worse my injuries could have been," she said.

"My helmet was split in two because two horses went over top of me and even the stewards came to see me at Megan’s funeral and said how lucky I am to be up and around.

"So it has been a horrible, horrible time but I am trying to be grateful for the small mercies."

In early January the Racing Integrity Board confirmed that after investigating the fatal incident, an apprentice jockey had been charged with careless riding.

An adjudicative panel is in the process of being assigned to hear the charge.