Leading racehorse trainer Stephen McKee faces penalties of up to $300,000 after pleading guilty to endangering a young rider who fell from a horse on her first training ride and was made a tetraplegic.

McKee, of Mt Eden, has been prosecuted by WorkSafe under the Health and Safety at Work Act over the injury to then 19 year-old Sophia Malthus which has left her paralysed from the collar down, with some movement in her arms.

No conviction was entered after his guilty plea in the Auckland District Court and it is likely McKee will face a restorative justice conference and likely be ordered to pay reparations to Malthus and a fine.

Experts consulted by WorkSafe found Malthus was not competent to have been put in charge of a racehorse at the Alfriston training track in July 2016, having been given no formal training, being not riding fit and having only ridden quiet horses and never at a gallop. 

A horse rider since the age of seven, her formal riding before the incident involved eight, half-hour private lessons paid for by her parents at a Palmerston North facility involving quiet, older horses in a different environment. 

On the morning of the accident, she lost control of the fast-moving horse after one lap of McKee’s cinder track and as she screamed it ran faster before she fell, hitting a perimeter fence and breaking her spine in multiple places.

She has had three operations and now lives on accident compensation payments in a cabin at her parents’ property, with 24 hour carers, uses a wheelchair and is frequently ill and unable to care for herself.

McKee’s guilty plea was to a charge of exposing an individual to risk of serious harm or death. WorkSafe argued he had a duty to ensure Malthus’ safety under the law, that he failed to ensure she was sufficiently competent.

He had cooperated with the investigation and had no previous record of offences under the Health and Safety legislation. WorkSafe said the trainer thought the horse he had given Malthus that morning was “ideal” although he had not seen her ride, assuming her private lessons had been sufficient.

The young rider has made an acclaimed documentary “Bulletproof” on the Attitude series on TVNZ, which has been viewed almost 700,000 times on YouTube and made headlines both here and in Australia. In the programme, she returns to the McKee stables and meets the horse involved. “I don’t have anything against the horse. I just want to win money on him,” she says.

Of her love of horses, she says: “All I wanted to do was get on a horse and go fast. It was a way I could feel free.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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