In­jured rid­ers pro­vide a les­son in strength

Daily Racing Form National Digital Edition - - News - JAY HOVDEY

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.”

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