WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2-13 - Horse and rider chase the wind. Together they are admired for their will to prevail, and we follow them and cheer for them and learn from them in terms of their tenacity and valor. They generally lose more than they win but they never quit on us. They are always ready for the next race.
Life is all about losing by a nose but never giving up.
As he fights for his life, we can be sure that Ramon Dominguez won’t quit — and we won’t quit rooting for him, either.
Dominguez, a native of Venezuela and our nation’s top jockey for nearly a decade, famed for his humility, his soft touch on the reins and his daredevil finishes at the wire, is said to be recovering from a terrible spill at Aqueduct, seventh race, Friday the 18th.
That’s when his mount clipped heals, dumped him, and left him at the mercy of an oncoming horse that unintentionally struck him in the head. (Horses often imperil themselves to save fallen riders.) This resulted in a skull fracture serious enough to initially have him listed in critical condition.
Here’s the latest from the Daily Racing Form: “Ramon Dominguez, who continues to progress in his recovery from a slightly displaced skull fracture at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital…was transferred from the neurological intensive care unit to a medical step-down unit.”
Dominguez’s wife, Sharon, reports: “Ramon’s doctors say he is recovering well, and we’re beginning to discuss his rehab options.”
Meantime there is no timetable for his release and there is no talk of a comeback.
Sometimes we forget that horse racing is the most dangerous game of all. Here’s a 100 pound jockey mounting a thousand pound horse (on toothpick legs), both being urged toward the wire at top speed. The men and women who do the riding day after day in a hundred tracks throughout the United States are mostly forgotten from one race to the next. Only a few become legends, and even they pay the price.
They run for the money, that’s true, but they also run for the glory, and no jockey had a more glorious season as did Ron Turcotte in 1973.
That’s when Turcotte rode the greatest thoroughbred in modern times, Secretariat, to the Triple Crown. This was a first in 25 years — before that it was the equally great Citation in 1948 — and only two horses have duplicated the feat since then: Seattle Slew, 1977, rider Jean Cruguet; Affirmed, 1978, rider Steve Cauthen.
The days of fame and splendor lasted five years for Ron Turcotte. In 1978, at Belmont, he got spilled off a horse leaving him a paraplegic.
Last year, Dominguez set a North American record for purses won, $25,582, 252. He also rode more horses than any other jockey, and he got injured at least as often as all the rest even before the skull fracture. So it is no wonder that he makes it no habit to discuss injuries. He is superstitious, as are all jockeys.
“We kid around in the jocks’ room,” Henry Block told me when I was doing research for The Horsemen here, “and that’s because once we get on the track anything can happen.” The jocks’ room constitutes an odd fraternity. These are not teammates going for a win together, no, not together, but separately. They are rivals.
But they are bound to the knowledge that the next race could be their last race.
Walter Blum, who rode against the likes of Eddie Arcaro and William Shoemaker, still managed to earn top jockey awards back in 1963 and 1964, but at the height of his championship seasons he broke his back. He hoped to ride again. Doctors said he won’t walk again. He rode again. But he quit when he saw the writing on the wall. Or when he saw Phil Sage enter the room in a wheelchair.
Eddie Arcaro was himself a king in the Sport of Kings by virtue of one championship ride after another, especially on board Citation whom he rode to the Triple Crown in 1948. Arcaro is a legend. Steve Brooke is not. He is forgotten and yet it was Brooks who years later won the Hollywood Gold Cup on Citation, onward to making Citation thoroughbred racing’s first millionaire.
When I interviewed Brooks in the backstretch in what used to be Liberty Bell Park, he was not superstitious. That’s because he had done all his riding and had already suffered his hundred spills and broken nearly every bone in his body, including broken collar bones, busted knee caps, cracked elbows.
Brooks, like Blum, was known as a top gate man, and he came from the “bullrings” where it was each man for himself, life and death, race to race.
At those backwoods racetracks riders would actually kill for the paycheck.
Brooks said, “I taught myself to get away fast so’s nobody could catch me.”
That in a nutshell speaks to the competitive nature of thoroughbred racing. Humans are a competitive species and so, of course, are thoroughbreds. After the fall of Barbaro in 2006 there was talk about putting a stop to the breeding of horses. I suggested here, that we might as well put a stop to the breeding of people.
We seek genetic consistency from our thoroughbreds, like father like son, and as we thrill at their courage, all we ask of them is to give us all they’ve got.
Ramon Dominguez has given us all of that, and let’s hope he’ll be back to give us more.
Engelhard wrote the racetrack classic THE HORSEMEN, cited by NY Post columnist Ray Kerrison as “the best, sharpest, most vivid portrait of life around the racetrack ever written” in a review for the National Star. THE HORSEMEN is out of print from Regnery Publishing but is available on Kindle here. Also, Engelhard’s column against cruelty to horses, titled “Castoff Horses - A Study in Cruelty” in the Philadelphia Inquirer - has been installed in the Congressional Record.
Jack Engelhard is a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, bring his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe.
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