Injured riders provide a lesson in strength
Last year was a hard year for jockeys. Then again, every year is a hard year for jockeys, so last year was no big deal unless you count the grim fact that one rider lost his life and a cluster of household names sustained injuries that read like the casualty report from a 10-car pileup.
Kendrick Carmouche, who turns 35 on Jan. 18, fractured his right femur when his mount clipped heels and suffered a fatal fall in a race at Kentucky Downs last September. In the midst of one of his best seasons ever, Carmouche was encouraged to believe he might be able to scale horses again in a couple of months. However, the femur being the largest bone in the body, no one should be surprised that he is just now getting back in the saddle and plans to return to competition in March. Carmouche has won 3,106 races.
Patrick Husbands, 45, fractured his pelvis Nov. 5 in a freakish, pre-race accident at Woodbine when his horse flipped and landed on the rider. The seven-time Sovereign Award winner must undergo a second surgery to address muscle and nerve issues before he can even think about adding to his career total of 3,285 wins.
Corey Nakatani, 48, went down in a turf race at Del Mar on Aug. 4 when his mount clipped heels and fell to his death. Nakatani’s injuries included fractured vertabrae and herniated discs, along with a post-operative infection that further delayed recovery. The two-time Hall of Fame candidate is still sidelined, hopeful of a chance to add to his 3,909 wins and 10 victories in Breeders’ Cup events.
Victor Espinoza, 46, sustained cervical vertabrae fractures when went down during a workout at Del Mar in late July. His mount, stakes sprinter Bobby Abu Dhabi, had to be euthanized and Espinoza experienced a partial loss of the use of his left arm. The three-time Kentucky Derby winner has recovered enough to have recently worked a horse and is contemplating a return to competition.
Gary Stevens, 55, was not as fortunate. Also a three-time Derby winner, Stevens was diagnosed with a serious whiplash injury after his mount acted up before a race at Del Mar in late November. Confronted with possibly catastrophic spinal-cord damage, Stevens has taken the advice of his doctors to finally retire from riding. He faces surgery some time in the next month.
Stevens and the others count themselves among the lucky. Not only did they live to tell the tale – unlike Jose Flores, fatally injured at Parx Racing on March 19, 2018 – they are able to walk across the room and shake your hand. Their recoveries, still in progress, embrace the range of medical miracles, while attesting to the everlasting bravery of the men and women who perform for the entertainment of horseplayers and fans.
Marlon St. Julien, who turns 46 on Feb. 13, figures he is fortunate the wheel didn’t stop at 45 last May when he was dumped at the start of a race at Prairie Meadows and fractured three thoracic vertabrae.
“It was in a dangerous spot,” St. Julien said this week from Tucson, Ariz., where he and his wife, Brenda, have relocated to be near family. “It was at the part of the spine that controls your breathing.
“But I’ll tell you what – that helmet was my best friend,” St. Julien added. “The loud noise I heard was my helmet cracking, so if it wasn’t for that, I’d be dead. That’s how hard I hit the ground.”
As it is, St. Julien has recovered enough to walk with confidence and exercise with caution. He has faced a discouraging weight gain, and he still suffers from a painful shoulder, a side effect of the surgical procedure to stabilize the fractured vertabrae. But if anyone is waiting for him to complain out loud, they’ll need to pack a lunch.
“I’ve got a different walk – haven’t got that hip going – but I’m walking,” St. Julien said. “It seems like every three days I can do a little more than I did three days earlier. Even my voice is coming back. After the surgery I couldn’t sing, and that about broke my heart.”
St. Julien’s career found a Midwest revival in the last few years. His win total reached 2,468 on the same afternoon he was injured. The popular native of Louisiana has been buoyed by support from his fellow riders, including his best pal, Robby Albarado, Gary Stevens, Edwin Maldonado, and the relentlessly positive Mike Smith, an inspiration to all riders of a certain age.
“You know what Mike does for me?” St. Julien said. “Every single day he texts me a scripture out of the Bible to comfort me in some way. And not a group text, either.”
St. Julien’s medical and rehab expenses have gone through a healthy portion of the Jockeys’ Guild million-dollar medical policy, while a small amount of disability insurance is still coming in.
“If I can go back to riding, I will,” St. Julien said. “There are riders hurt like me who’ve made it back, so I’ve got a lot of hope.
“But if I can’t, there’s a lot of things I can try to do,” he added. “They’ve got a racing stewards school here in Arizona. And I’m thinking about writing a book.”
Go ahead. And call it “The Miracle of St. Julien.”