Vet­eran gets back on the horse, again

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - Steve Hamil­ton’s 3rd re­turn from re­tire­ment shows rac­ing is his ‘rea­son for be­ing here’ By Peter Sch­muck

Jockey Steve Hamil­ton tried to let go of horse rac­ing over and over again. It just wouldn’t let go of him.

He walked away from a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in Mary­land in 2000. He came back four years later and would ride in the 2005 Preak­ness, only to re­tire again, re­turn in 2006 and be forced out of the sport at the end of that year af­ter suf­fer­ing a se­vere spinal in­jury in an au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent.

So what ex­actly was this 42-year- old guy do­ing three weeks ago Sun­day?

He was sail­ing home aboard Bo Vuk in the third race at Lau­rel Park on the way to his first vic­tory in nearly a decade. Lau­rel Park To­day, first post: 12:15 p.m. ON­LINE: Gabby Gaudet’s bet­ting ad­vice

And what will he be do­ing on Jim McKay Mary­land Mil­lion Day at Lau­rel to­day? Rid­ing eight times dur­ing the rich 11-race pro­gram and con­tin­u­ing to re­build a ca­reer that lay fal­low while he raised his fam­ily and worked as a black­smith back in his home state of Ok­la­homa.

There are come­back sto­ries and then there are come­back sto­ries. Hamil­ton has been one so many times that he re­ally has only one ex­pla­na­tion for why he re­sumed his on-again, off-again rac­ing ca­reer two months ago.

“I thought about it ev­ery day, re­ally,” he said Wed­nes­day. “I found my­self at home in Ok­la­homa, shoe­ing horses for 10 years. I’d get up ev­ery morn­ing be­fore I left for work and have my cof­fee and watch the rac­ing chan­nel. A lot of guys say they never think about it again. I just don’t be­lieve that. It’s some­thing that’s in your blood. You’re go­ing to do it. I couldn’t get it out of my sys­tem.”

His two boys, Gar­rett and We­ston, are now young men and Hamil­ton de­cided to give his ca­reer an­other re­boot. He al­ready has won more than 1,200 races and was a top rider in Mary­land when he re­tired af­ter win­ning spring meet ti­tles in 2004 and 2005 at Pim­lico Race Course.

His book­ing agent at that time was Benny Feli­ciano Sr., who said this week that he was “pretty sur­prised” when he picked up the phone and found out that one of his fa­vorite for­mer clients wanted back into the sport — but not re­ally that sur­prised.

The big hur­dle would be mak­ing weight, or as they call it in the ver­nac­u­lar of horse rac­ing, re­duc­ing. Hamil­ton had big­ger rea­sons for re­tir­ing in 2000 and 2006, but con­cedes that the con­stant bat­tle jock­eys must fight to re­main small enough to stay in the sad­dle was al­ways part of the equa­tion.

“I know him pretty good and I had seen him a month or two be­fore he called me,” Feli­ciano said. “He was pretty big, but far as weight goes with Steve, I knew he could get it off. … Steve’s a very good re­ducer.”

The other big con­cern would be get­ting qual­ity mounts af­ter be­ing away so long. That ex­plains why it took him five weeks to get his first vic­tory this time. He has had a bunch of place horses, but en­tered this week­end with only that one win.

“The big­gest thing, the peo­ple who say he only won one race since he’s been back, they don’t re­al­ize this is a very tough colony right now,” Feli­ciano said. “We have some rid­ers here. We’ve got eight or 10 rid­ers who could go any­where in the coun­try and ride. They’re that good. And be­lieve me, I know who can ride and who can’t ride. You’ve got [Vic­tor] Car­rasco, [Je­vian] Toledo, Trevor McCarthy, Shel­don Rus­sell. Them boys are in their 20s and they are very, very good. And Steve com­ing off a lay­off, it takes time to get some good mounts from these good rid­ers.”

Hamil­ton doesn’t seem too con­cerned. The im­por­tant thing, he said, is just to be back in a sport that ba­si­cally saved him from the rodeo.

“I started rid­ing young bulls when I was 6,” he said. “I rode bulls through high school and was ac­tu­ally gal­lop­ing horses mak­ing $3 and $5 a head, and that’s how I was pay­ing my en­try fees. I fig­ured out I re­ally like the horses and I could make a lot more money and not get as banged up rid­ing horses as you did with bulls, so that’s kind of led me this way.”

Clearly, Hamil­ton has few re­grets about his orig­i­nal de­ci­sion to leave Mary­land and buy a farm in Ok­la­homa, though he was mak­ing quite a name for him­self and was only 26 years old. When the kids came, track life was just too con­sum­ing to al­low him much fam­ily time and he longed for them to grow up as he did, in a more idyl­lic en­vi­ron­ment than the ur­ban sprawl of the Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton area.

He spent 2000 rid­ing at Lone Star Park and had a de­cent meet. He came back to Mary­land for those two sea­sons in 2004 and 2005 and rode Mal­ibu Moon­shine to an eighth-place fin­ish in the 2005 Preak­ness for leg­endary trainer King T. Leather­bury. But even be­fore the traf­fic ac­ci­dent that frac­tured ver­te­brae in his neck and broke sev­eral ribs, he re­tired again and re­turned six months later.

“The main thing was be­ing around my kids and my wife,” he said, “be­cause at the race­track you don’t have time to spend with them. All the hol­i­days you’re rid­ing. You’re ei­ther in or you’re out. You’re not half­way there and half­way here. You’ve got to be in 120 per­cent.”

It took a decade for him to come back, and his agent thinks he prob­a­bly needed that long to get com­pletely healthy and mo­ti­vated again.

“I think it took him awhile to re­ally mend up,” Feli­ciano said. “A rider who has a re­ally bad back like that, it takes twice the toll on you be­cause you’re al­ways bent over and it’s al­ways a strain on your back. I think with the ac­ci­dent, and him try­ing to re­duce and all that stuff, I think it took a toll on him and he just de­cided to take a rest from it.”

He’ll get no rest this week­end. He was sched­uled to ride four times at Lau­rel on Fri­day and then make a quick trip to Charles Town to ride in one of the early races Fri­day night.

Then comes Mary­land Mil­lion Day and eight chances to get back to the win­ner’s cir­cle.

“Satur­day, that’s a big bless­ing to be able to ride eight horses on a day like that,” he said. “They’ve got shots. With a lit­tle luck, we’ll knock a race out.”

No doubt, there are some skep­tics out there who won­der how soon Hamil­ton’s lat­est come­back at­tempt will end. Hamil­ton ac­knowl­edges that he doesn’t know how long he’s des­tined to re­main in this sport that keeps call­ing him back, but he knows that he’s where he be­longs.

“I feel like ev­ery­body’s here for a rea­son,” he said, “and I re­ally think my rea­son for be­ing here is rid­ing races, and I love it and I’ll do it as long as I can.”

MARY­LAND JOCKEY CLUB

Steve Hamil­ton has eight mounts lined up on Jim McKay Mary­land Mil­lion Day to­day. “With a lit­tle luck, we’ll knock a race out,” he said.

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