It was an ordinary race, if there is such a thing.
Jockey Mickey Walker walked the last of his five mounts onto the track on a cool, sunny Thursday afternoon. The fall colors of the upstate New York hills reminded him that the Finger Lakes Racetrack racing season ended next week. Honking flocks of flying geese in giant V formations flew overhead, heading south. Time to point his Thunderbird the same direction, head toward Miami and drive until the sun comes up.
He allowed the racehorse between his legs to accelerate from a jog into a hearty gallop before the nearly empty grandstand. From between his knees came a surge of power like a wind catching a mainsail. Strong as a hurricane, fickle as a fleeting breeze—that was the Thoroughbred. The description fit every one of the nine horses in this race. Yet any could be claimed or bought by a licensed owner for $2,500. Their dollar value was less than many of the fifteen- hundred fans here today might spend on a used car for their kid. But his mount, Martha's Golden Boy, would not be claimed today. Any race, including this one could be his last.
A tingle shuttered through his throat. The cocaine he'd snorted inside the Jockeys Room bathroom dripped into his nasal passages. Balancing atop a honed-to-the bone A Thoroughbred traveling at forty miles-an-hour in a pack of horses racing inches apart was a rush. Coke just made you forget that doing it could get you killed.
In 19 years, he had broken 13 bones, had two major surgeries, and had metal rods implanted in his thigh and upper arm. Horse racing is the only sport in which an ambulance follows the field. He'd been carried off on so many stretchers he could pass paramedics exam. From a group numbering little more than active
NFL players, several jockeys die in racing accidents each year.
More often, horses die.
His mount was a survivor of veterinary medicine. Today, he would keep a tight rein today and forget about winning. The gelding was warming up far stiffer than in his two previous starts. As he walked the chestnut along the backstretch, he ventured a wary glance down at the horse's enlarged right fore ankle. Two days earlier he'd watched a vet use a large needle to remove fluid from the swollen joint, replace it with cortisone, and inject pain- killing Butazolidin into a shoulder. But drugs would only help the symptoms. The injury was still there.
More than anything jockeys fear hearing the “snap” when a Thoroughbred breaks a leg during a race. To a degree, riders can control horses who try to run through fences, flip in the starting gate, or make right turns on left-handed tracks. But the “snap” and the ground occur almost instantaneously, and tuck and roll is the best defense from a wheelchair for life. Riding Martha's Golden Boy was like standing on a gallows trap door with a noose around your neck and betting the hangman wants to break for lunch.
Mickey stopped the horse and lined up for the walk to the gate. So why not give the gelding a “sanitary,” never pressure him for his best and go home? He'd won two races on the day's card and was a cinch to be the meeting's second leading rider. Fans bet a few thousand dollars on the gelding's gameness and on his own competence. But as of yet no fan had ever graced the door of his hospital rooms. Some jeered every time he rode a favorite who lost, whether he rode well or not. Few knew the difference. He just wanted to keep his brains inside his head and make the trip south with a few thousand in his jeans.
As they neared the starting gate, the gelding danced lightly and snorted with confidence. An assistant starter put a hand over his left rein and led them into the metal stall. The back gates slammed shut like a cell door. Mickey turned his mount’s head until he stared straight down the track and took slow deliberate breaths.
The gate flung open, the bell rang, and in four strides Martha’s Golden Boy was going full tilt. Down the backstretch, they were a comfortable fifth in the six-furlong race. He tucked into a tight crouch. The wind blew across his face. He enjoyed the power. Up ahead, several scrambled for the early lead with an apprentice rider dangerously driving his mount into a narrow space between the two front runners.
The wiry horse beneath him reached for the track in strides that were long but uneven. Entering the turn, Mickey nudged his mount's head toward the outside while shifting his weight toward the inside. The gelding correctly changed from leading with his right front to his left, dropping into the left-handed turn. It was apparent the three leaders had gone too fast, making them easy prey for a stretch runner. The horse under him was not weakening. He would be strong in the last quarter-mile.
Mickey pushed the sweating neck with his knuckles and the horse accelerated and they gained ground on the tiring leaders. Something clicked in his head … and they were making the stretch run in the Derby, the one he never got to experience.
The horse's cannonball ankle ceased to matter.
Martha's Golden Boy had inherited the will to win from a closed genetic pool more than 250 years old. The same need had been embedded in his DNA far longer. Another victory was about to be played on his mind's highlight reel. Another platinum moment, frozen in a sweet vacuum of sweat and adrenaline.
The horse ridden by the apprentice gave up and began to back out of the hole; opening up a space between the two remaining leaders. He slapped the whip underhanded against his mount’s shoulder. The dead game gelding sprinted toward the daylight. But another horse and rider had the same idea.
The rider glanced over at him, his face twisted in anger. "I'm in here!” he yelled.
It wasn't true. "I'm here too!" Mickey hollered back.
He pumped with his hands, lifting, pushing, urging. The two Thoroughbreds brushed one another with Mickey's mount running faster and gaining the coveted space as it began to close. Surely nothing could stop them now … but something did. As they moved into the opening, Mickey felt a solid bump from behind; glancing over he saw the other horse and rider drop headfirst to the track.
The bump turned Martha's Golden Boy sharply to the right. His forelegs caught the heels of a rival before him. He stumbled. Jerked from the saddle, Mickey fought to regain his balance. For an instant, he thought he had.
Then came the “snap,” like a dry twig in a silent forest.
Martha's Golden Boy collapsed. Mickey tumbled, curled into a ball. Glimpses of sky, rail and track rolled past. He fought to stay relaxed; hoping the horses behind would miss him. Hooves pounded close to his head. The seemingly endless herd thundered past, leaving a strange quiet. Mickey put out a steadying hand and sat up. He gagged and coughed dirt from his throat.
That he could sit meant his spine was intact. But there was a strange numbness in his right calf, a lack of feeling that he knew would soon morph into agonizing pain. He broke his leg.
The track resembled a battlefield. Leading rider Ramirez lay face down and unconscious. His mount laid nearby—dead, neck broken from the force of a half-ton body plowing headfirst into the ground. Mickey swallowed a lump. His mount sprawled on his side a few yards down the track. He was alive, but dying; only skin holding together his left foreleg below the knee. The ambulance slid to a halt on the soft dirt. A paramedic reached him first.
"I'm all right. You’d better go check out Ramirez."
“We got a man there.” The medic eyed him cautiously. "Can you get up if I help?"
He nodded and the medic supported him as he limped on one leg to the ambulance. He gingerly sat in the front seat. Two workers slid Ramirez onto a yellow board and lifted it into the back. Another took the rider’s blood pressure and then checked his closed eyes. Ramirez never moved. The driver picked up a walkie- talkie.
"Yeah doc, we're not stopping in your office with this one. One jock is unconscious; his vital signs are unstable. Might have a spinal cord injury."
The aging track veterinarian stood behind a portable screen so the public wouldn’t have to watch this horse die. Using two fingers, the old vet found the jugular vein, replaced his fingers with a syringe, and emptied it. In seconds the massive dose of pain-killers reached his pounding heart. The dead-game gelding gave a single jerk then lay still, open eyes and vacant, lips curled around yellowing teeth in a hideous grin. Mickey clinched his eyes shut. He needed a drink.
Mickey lay atop an examining table in one of the emergency room stalls. An x-ray revealed a broken fibula, halfway between his knee and ankle. From overheard conversation, he gathered that Jose was in a trauma ward next door. Demerol going full throttle, Mickey rolled over and pulled back the stall’s curtain, staring at the milling crowd through eyes trying hard to stay open. A doctor in greens walked toward Jose's wife, Maria, who was surrounded by friends. She wept into a pink handkerchief.
Jose had many friends. His smile was as quick as his reflexes. He always laughed when other jockeys kidded him about his seven children. In a race once, he had grabbed the bridle of horse with a broken rein and pulled him safely to a stop. He’d lost any chance of winning, but had possibly saved the rider’s life.
The doctor held Maria by the arm and steered her to a quiet corner. Mickey put his injured leg down, feeling a bite like a steel trap slamming shut. He groaned, shifted his weight to his good leg, and hobbled toward a set of crutches against a nearby wall. Then he followed Maria.
"Jose’s damaged his spinal cord," the doctor was explaining in a soft, serious tone. "We don't think at this point it is a life- threatening injury but won't know about use of his lower limbs for a while." The gray-headed physician looked at her straight on. "I need to prepare you. This is likely permanent."
Maria’s face became a blank stare. There would be no more career. No longer would her husband come home with stories of the day. No longer would he bounce their babies on his knees.
Mickey fought to keep his balance while battling rising nausea. The doctor said in one breath that an injury is not life-threatening; in the next he said it’s likely you're paralyzed. Well I got a news flash for you, doc. If you weigh 110 pounds and make your living on top of a racehorse and ride in a wheelchair the rest of your days, your life is threatened. He'd heard it a hundred times in the Jockeys Room: "I'd rather be dead than paraplegic." Ramirez would join the other riders who had traded a set of reins for the metal rungs of a wheelchair.
The doctor walked away and several friends converged on the tearful Maria. Mickey limped over and looked into her swollen eyes, searching for words that would never be good enough. He wanted to say he was sorry, but only managed to shake his head. The crowd stared.
"What happened?" Maria cried.
"We went for the same hole. I got there first. I dropped him." "Oh, Mickey …"
"It was my fault. I could have stopped, but I didn't."
Gripping her hair with both hands, she leaned forward and screamed into his face: "You took my life!"
She collapsed onto the tile floor, her awkward sprawl little different from her husband's final mount.