Jockey Maija Vance feared she would never walk again after suffering serious spinal damage in a horror fall in September last year. She refused to acknowledge her other major fear. Until now.
There was a moment, in the split seconds before she crashed, that Maija Vance accepted what was to come.
There was no panic, no surge of fear. There was no time for that. There was just a flicker of recognition, then acceptance.
When Vance’s mount Zedsational lurched early at the penultimate jump in race two at Rotorua in September last year, her mind immediately re-routed from thinking about how she would tackle the final 250m, to letting go of it all.
“I just remember knowing that I was going to fall. [Zedsational] had taken off too far away from the jump and I knew he wasn’t going to make it,” says Vance.
“It’s quite a surreal feeling of going from being in control to being completely out of control with everything around you.”
Vance has no memory of the fall itself.
Footage of the race shows Zedsational crashing through the jump, flinging the Cambridge-based jockey over the reins. Vance hits the ground in an awkward forward roll position, with her head and neck tucked underneath her body. Her contorted spine bears the full impact of the fall. Zedsational then crashes down on top of Vance, and together the horse and jockey roll in a clamorous tangle.
As the camera continues to follow the action in the race, you see one final glimpse of Vance in the background laid out lifeless on the track.
From her wheelchair, Vance watches the race footage, breaking down the 5-10 seconds that changed her life with an analytical detachment.
“When I hit the ground is when I broke my back and probably my ribs, but when we kept rolling together here is when I got quite a lot of the facial damage,” she says, pausing the video.
Vance’s accident made headlines both here and overseas. You might have seen the photos, plucked from social media, of Vance in her hospital bed showing a fresh surgical scar running the length of her spine. Held together by stitches, the wound looks like a set of train tracks - one that will take her life on a much different journey than the one she had planned.
Vance’s parents, Bob and Jenny didn’t want their daughter to be a jockey.
“This is possibly why,” Vance says sotto voce, gesturing towards her wheelchair.
But it wasn’t so much the danger element that concerned them.
Bob and Jenny were both top international jockeys themselves. Bob, who led the New Zealand jockey premiership in the 1978-79 season and rode 583 winners in New Zealand, met Swedish jockey Jenny Moller in 1990 when the pair were both riding in Macau.
For Bob, whose career highlights include winning the 1993 Cox Plate on The Phantom Chance and Auckland Cups aboard Tamboura and Blue Denim, he worried more what would happen if his daughter wasn’t riding, than if she was.
“I had a long career and a successful career, but I know how tough it was to be a jockey, and I’ve seen so many jockeys just fall by the wayside when they don’t make it. I didn’t want to see that, you know. I didn’t want to see her go through that struggle. Fortunately she had some great success early on, and she did really well and I didn’t have to worry about that,” says Bob.
It’s an even harsher environment for women.
More than forty years after Linda Jones became the country’s first female jockey legally allowed to race against men, it remains a tough industry for women - particularly in Australia, where Vance spent most of her career. In horse racing, the sexism isn’t so much casual, as it is blatant.
When you approach trainers, some of them will just say ‘oh no, we’re going to go for a male jockey’ or ‘no sorry, the owners don’t want a girl’.
“For normal people in a normal job you could never say something like that. But in racing it’s not as politically correct I guess, and it is only now that women are starting to ride almost more winners as the boys that we are starting to get more opportunities.”
In that context, Michelle Payne’s defiant “get stuffed” speech after winning the 2015 Melbourne Cup seemed a rather polite rebuke.
Despite her parents’ reservations, there was only ever one track Vance’s career was headed down.
While she didn’t officially start her jockey apprenticeship until she turned 17, the reality is it began much earlier. She grew up at the stables, as her parents made the natural transition from riding to training race horses.
At 10, Vance was riding the horses to and from the track for their work-outs.
“I wasn’t allowed to ride on the track, because you have to be 15 to do that, but I used to think it was so exciting getting to ride from mum’s stable to the track,” she says.
“When I was 12 or 13, Dad started taking me around the trotting ring, so he’d ride one and I’d ride one and he’d have me on a lead. Yeah, so it kind of all built from there.”
The thrill of her first win has never left her.
She was just one month into her apprenticeship and riding at Ellerslie for the first time during the Auckland Cup Carnival - about as big as it gets for a young jockey. Vance’s mount, Black Fox, was paying $64 for a win. No one expected Vance to be among the frontrunners, least of all Bob.
He’d had a horse racing earlier in the day, but hung around at the course to watch his daughter in the final race.
“It was just so lucky I did,” says Bob.
“I was with [Auckland trainer] Stephen McKee and I knew the colours and I was looking towards the back of the field trying to find this goddamn thing and Stephen said to me, ‘nah mate, she’s in front’.”
It was just kind of like oh my god, she’s going to bloody well win.
Nearly 80 wins later, Vance was given an opportunity across the Tasman, picking up an apprenticeship at Eagle Farm in Brisbane. Again, success came early. She won her first race out, on a horse not expected to feature, and was the leading female rider in the Brisbane metropolitan area in her first season.
But after five years across the Tasman - three in Brisbane, two in Adelaide - things had started to slow down for Vance. She was having problems maintaining her riding weight, which limited her opportunities, so she decided to return home to Cambridge, where she already owned a house.
It can be jarring to hear both Vance and her father discuss her “weight trouble”, but to jockeys, weight isn’t a taboo subject - it’s an unavoidable subject.
At 1.65m Vance is on the taller side for a jockey, so she always had to work extra hard at maintaining her weight. It was this on-going battle that led Vance to get into jumps racing.
“I was a bit heavy, so when you’re heavier it’s harder to get rides on the flat because not many horses get enough weight for you, so I just thought I’d get a few jumps rides over the winter,” she says.
Cambridge trainer Glynn Brick helped Vance make the transition to jumps. Vance had been doing trackwork for Brick and ridden in a few trials for him.
“She was fantastic. Great balance, great judge and sits very still on a horse, so uses no extra energy and just puts the horse in the right places in the race,” says Brick.
“She’d done a bit of schooling for me, which is jumping them in training, to educate the horses in jumping. She is just a natural horseperson. She’d done a bit of showjumping previously, so this was just the next step really.”
Which brought her to race two, in Rotorua on that grey Sunday afternoon in September.
Watching on from the members lounge, Brick turned away from the TV the moment Zedsational took off early for the jump.
“I could see what was about to happen and I couldn’t watch to be honest,” he says.
“I just turned and bolted straight down to the track.”
He feared the worst for both horse and rider.
Zedsational was struggling to get up. In the chaos, the reins had become tangled around his hind legs, effectively pinning his head to his back hoof. Once he was cut free, the 8 year-old gelding walked away shaken, but unscathed.
Knowing there was little he could do for Vance, who already had a throng of ambulance staff and race officials around her, Brick focused on trying to settle Zedsational. He took the horse back to the stables, where his staff were waiting to take over. All the while he wondered what shape he’d find Vance in when he returned.
Bob Vance felt even more helpless.
He’d been watching the race live on telly at home in Auckland. Bob had seen his daughter fall before. She’d fallen once at a meet in Pukekohe on one of the Vance’s own horses, and her father instinctively knew she’d be okay. This time was different.
I could tell the way she fell and she sort of flopped when she hit the ground afterwards and I thought ‘this is not good, this is real bad’.
Trackside TV has a policy of, where possible, not broadcasting pictures of seriously injured riders, so Bob had no idea what was happening. Desperate for any information, Bob called friend and commentator George Simon, who from his vantage point in the commentary box could see Vance being attended to by ambulance officers.
“He said ‘I can see that she has moved her arm’, so I knew that she was conscious and she was alive,” says Bob.
Simon could also see John Oatham, one of the race stewards, was trackside with Vance. So Bob hung up and called Oatham.
“[Oatham] gave us the best news with the bad news,” says Bob.
“He said she’s conscious and her head is okay and she is moving her arms, but she is having a bit of trouble with her legs. He didn’t really want to say she might be paralysed, but I knew it was worse than what he was making out,” says Bob.
Arawa Park, situated in the middle of Fenton Street - Rotorua’s golden mile, already held a sense of unease for Bob.
In 1984 it was the scene of what remains the worst accident in New Zealand racing history - a horrific nine-horse pile-up. Bob was number eight in the melee.
He walked away from the accident, but his good mate Tony ‘TG’ Williams was not so lucky. Williams was one of the first to fall and suffered a serious spinal injury that left him a tetraplegic.
Williams passed away in 2014 at 57 from health complications related to his condition.
“It was pretty much on the same part of the track where the two accidents happened. There was about 100m difference between where Tony was and Maija was,” says Bob.
Vance wasn’t aware of all the worried phone calls being made behind the scenes in the minutes after the fall.
She was aware of the concerned faces of the ambulance officers and support staff hovering over her when she came to on the track. She was aware of the pain when she went to sit up and realised she couldn’t move. She was aware of the voice of one of the paramedics gently asking if she could feel him squeezing various points down her legs as he assessed the damage to her spine.
And she was acutely aware what it meant when she answered “no”.
On the way to Rotorua hospital, in between bursts of consciousness, Vance asked the ambulance officer the question that was hanging thick in the air: “Am I going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life?”
“He could have lied to me, but he said ‘yeah, maybe’. I remember I was quite relaxed and I kind of went off to sleep again contemplating my life in a wheelchair.”
Vance has a tattoo of an anchor just above her left ankle with the words “refuse to sink” inked below.
“It should say ‘refuse to move’,” she jokes.
She uses this type of black humour often. It’s become an emotional crutch for her over the last five months.
But she got it right the first time. Refuse to sink is a more fitting mantra. Somehow she has managed to keep her spirits afloat even as the life she had planned out for herself was swept away.
The reality didn’t set in for Vance until she awoke in the intensive care unit at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital three days after surgery to stabilise her spine. She half opened her eyes, took in the tubes, the whir and hum of the machines and the four or five medical staff crowded into the cubicle and immediately remembered what had happened.
She knew the damage was irrevocable, but at the same time she thought if she just re-closed her eyes, she would wake up again and it would all be different.
“I opened my eyes properly and saw the doctors and nurses all still standing around me. I knew then that it was real.”
Vance had a horrific catalogue of injuries to get her head around once the fog cleared from surgery. She had suffered six broken ribs in 13 different places - puncturing both lungs in the process, and extensive facial injuries, including nine broken teeth and a severed tongue.
The biggest concern was the damage done to her spine. She’d broken two vertebrae and thrown three others out of alignment. She had no movement or feeling in her left leg, and could only wiggle her toes in her right leg. The doctors could not offer her any assurances that this would ever improve.
But Vance was lucky. She had an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning while there was swelling and damage to the cord, there was no severage, which would have ended all hope of Vance ever walking again.
In order to stabilise her spine and prevent further damage, Vance underwent a four-hour operation in which surgeons inserted pins and plates in the delicate column of bones down her back.
And then, it was all up to her.
After 10 days in the ICU at Middlemore Hospital, Vance was transferred down the road to the Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit in Otara, where, for the next two and a half months she would painstakingly inch her way to independence.
The trauma of Vance’s accident has been felt throughout the industry.
For Brick, the enduring memory of that day is Vance’s hysterical cries as the doctors at Rotorua Hospital drained her lungs of blood before she was airlifted to Auckland. She had one lung drained of blood - a excruciating procedure that involved making an incision between her ribs and inserting a tube into her lung. Then the doctors returned an hour later and told her they would have to drain the other one too. Vance was distraught.
In that moment all Brick could think was “I’ve done this to her”.
“I was a basket case to be honest. I probably shouldn’t have even been there,” says Brick.
I blamed myself - I realise it’s no one’s fault, that accident. But I sort of talked her into riding the horse in the first place, and then she fell in love with the horse.
It’s taken Brick some time to shake that guilt.
He says his cousin, Dan Buckingham, who suffered a spinal injury in a rugby game in 1999, has helped him find perspective.
“He has helped me quite a lot, just with accepting things and coming to terms with what has happened.
“He’s been pretty amazing, to be fair. Just a great help to talk to.”
Zedsational raced one further time after the accident, on the flat, at a smaller meet in Te Aroha two weeks later. The ghostly grey has required some on-going treatment over the summer.
Just last month, Zedsational’s owners made the call to retire him.
“We were going to bring him back, but the emotions that are involved are just too high,” says Brick.
“I was up at home last week and I called in and saw him and gave the old boy a pat and a hug. He’s a beautiful horse. He’s got his own real personality, you know.”
The Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit - one of just two dedicated facilities for spinal cord injuries in the country - is housed in an uninspiring beige cinder block building in Otara’s industrial beltway.
Its neighbours include a waste removal company, a Korean auto spares yard, and the sprawling DB Breweries headquarters.
Its surroundings may be bleak, but Vance found unexpected comfort here. Being here gave her perspective, it made her grateful.
“It is quite confronting with some of the injuries people have in there. There’s quite a few people that have had complete spinal cord damage and have been left quadriplegic. It made me realise how lucky I was that I didn’t have any damage higher than I did, so I am able to use my arms and my hands, which a lot of people in there aren’t able to do. It just made me very appreciative that my injuries weren’t any worse,” she says.
It just made me very appreciative that my injuries weren’t any worse.
Vance’s time in the spinal unit was made brighter by her dog Toro - a long-haired miniature dachshund - who visited her every day. Her father would bring Toro in mid-morning, once he’d finished up in the stables, and her mum would take him back home with her after dinner.
“First they said [Toro] wasn’t allowed in, but my mum and dad went into a meeting with the head nurse and I don’t know what happened in that meeting, but they came out and they said ‘okay, you can have him here’.”
Vance has a game she used to play with Toro. When she was lying on the couch or in bed, she would playfight with him by kicking out her feet. Toro, with all the menace of a dog that stands just above ankle height could muster, would pounce on them.
The first day Toro visited her in hospital he went straight to the bottom of the bed and nudged Vance’s feet, willing them to move.
Toro, who Vance brought back with her from Australia, has probably been witness to more of her recovery than anyone else. He was there watching on cautiously from the sidelines while she learned to manoeuvre a wheelchair. When Vance ventured outside for the first time, Toro sat on her lap. And he’d join Vance for all her sessions in the gym, sitting on the edge of the large plinth tables, while Vance was put through exercises to regain her strength and stability.
While her progress wasn’t as quick as Vance had hoped, she made significant strides (quite literally) during her time at the spinal unit.
Vertebrae are grouped into sections, the higher the injury on the spinal cord, the more dysfunction can occur. When Vance was first admitted to the spinal unit, her injuries were graded a T-6. By the time she was discharged in early December, she had improved to T-7.
“The nerves through each vertebrae controls a different part of your body, so when I couldn’t feel from [my waist] down, that’s where T6 is, now I can’t feel from T-7 down, so that’s more like the top of my legs, rather than my waist.”
Vance says while she has some feeling and movement in her lower legs, it does not pass the test for full functionality.
Coming home was the hardest.
Rattling around in her parents Papakura villa, there were constant reminders of all the things she could no longer do.
“When you’re in the hospital all you’re focused on is getting better, your meals are brought to you, everything is done for you,” she says.
“Here it is a little bit harder, because I feel like if I need something I want to just get up and get it.”
There were benefits to being home. It meant she could spend time at the stables her parents lease in a rural pocket of Takanini that will soon be squeezed out by in-fill housing.
Bob and Jenny have eight horses they train - two of which their daughter has a small share in - Acutus and Born Dragon.
More recently the stables have housed a special guest - Vance’s own horse Panda, who was brought up from Cambridge when she got out of the spinal unit.
Panda isn’t like the lithe race horses her parents train. He’s a robust stationbred Palamino, with an enviable blonde mane. Vance freely admits she only bought Panda for his striking good looks and calm temperament.
Being back in this environment is the most natural Vance has felt since her accident. In one of her early visits with Panda, she felt strong enough to stand up, holding on to his mane for balance, and hug him.
There’s been other small wins of late too.
When Stuff first visited Vance in early December, she answered the door in her wheelchair. Two weeks later, she greeted us in her walker.
She’s now able to walk short distances with the assistance of her walker. It’s hard going, and often by the afternoon her legs will stop cooperating with her, and she will need her wheelchair again.
“[My right leg] is quite good. I can feel it a little bit, but when I touch it, it feels like there is a layer over my leg. This one [left leg], I can move a little bit, but not so much against gravity. I can swing it out a little bit, but it buckles all the time as well, so I have to wear a brace when I walk.
“My brain doesn’t really register that it is there either, so when I’m standing up, it feels like I’m just standing on one leg. I guess the connection just hasn’t formed yet.”
There are some connections she could never lose.
When she was in the hospital, Vance asked every doctor and specialist she came across if she would walk again. None could give her any guarantees. The one question Vance never asked was if she would be able to ride a horse again. She already knew the answer to that.
“Riding to me is quite therapeutic, a lot of people do yoga or go for a run to clear their head, and for me, riding is the same. It’s my version of therapy. It’s just you and the horse and it’s quite relaxing and yeah, that’s my happy place,” says Vance.
So that’s my main goal - to get back on a horse. I mean, not to race again, just to be me again. That’s all I want.
It’s just a rickety old picnic table. One you might see in a park or schoolground.
This one sits on a pronounced lean in the middle of the Takanini stable yard leased by Vance’s parents. Beaten down by years of weathering, its timber has taken on a greyish tinge, splintering in places.
This ramshackle table is Vance’s launchpad to freedom.
She is confident if she can find a way to get herself up on the table, she can ride Panda again.
And so, just after sunrise on a balmy summer morning, just days after being given the all-clear by her surgeon to ride again, Vance is gingerly attempting to climb atop the table.
Propped up underneath her father’s shoulder, she uses her hands to lift her stubborn left leg up onto the bench seat, before stepping her right leg up to meet it with the assistance of Bob, who helps hoist her up. They then repeat this choreography to step up on top of the table.
Vance’s mother Jenny walks Panda alongside the picnic table, and in one quick but clumsy motion, Vance is thrown over the horse by her dad.
She is up.
There’s no fuss. No celebrating or rejoicing. Just recognition, then acceptance.
Jenny leads Panda around for a few laps of the inner stable as Vance finds her balance and rhythm.
“Are you alright?” her mother asks after a minute or so.
When Vance nods in the affirmative, Jenny returns to her chores, busying herself preparing the race horses for their morning workout.
And now it is just Vance and her horse.
Journalist: Dana Johannsen
Video Journalist: Jason Dorday
Designer and Developer: Kathryn George
Editor: John Hartevelt