01/20/2013 1:14PM

Ramon Come Home

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That huge hole in the Eclipse Awards program on Saturday night at Gulfstream Park belonged to Ramon Dominguez, and nothing anyone could say could make the emotional anguish of his absence go away. Yes, it was good that program host Jeannine Edwards topped the show with an update on his condition. Yes, it was good to learn, according to what Ramon's wife Sharon told Edwards, that he was doing "very, very well" and that the doctors expected a "full recovery." And yes, it was a moving moment when his fellow riders, the Eclipse nominees John Velazquez and Javier Castellano, accepted the Eclipse Award on Ramon's behalf.

However, the term "full recovery" from a displaced skull fracture when there has been bleeding in the brain presents a broad spectrum of interpretation. If Ramon's doctors mean he will be able to once again be able to perch on his toes for upwards of two minutes at a time guiding a 1,200-pound Throughbred at speeds of 35 m.p.h. while surrounded by other horses and riders doing the same thing in headlong pursuit of a victorious outcome, that's great. If they mean he again will be able to make the split-second decisions necessary for both victory and survival in a profession that is rivaled only by car racing in its dangerous mix of velocity and impact, terrific. And if his doctors think Dominguez, now with a history of severe head trauma, will be able to survive his next fall without dire results, then he is truly among the exceptionally fortunate.

Because there is always a next fall, and a next one after that. In the case of Dominguez, his chances are exponentially increased because he puts himself in harm's way so often. Over the past five years, and including the first 18 days of 2013, he has ridden 7,355 official races. No jockey in the known racing world has ridden more. The rewards have been commensurate and then some, as defined by his share of the $96.4 million earned by his mounts over that five-year span.

For those of us nailed to the ground, what Dominguez is going through is the stuff of frightening mystery. For someone like Richard Migliore, it's no mystery at all. Migliore won the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice of 1981. He rode for 29 years. When he retired, in 2010, it was not his idea. He fell, injuring once again the neck he had broken in 1988, and was given one of those choices that was every bit as easy as it was hard. Physically, he should never ride again. And if he tried, and fell again, he would not get up.

"When you're riding, you're in the middle of it. You're just doing your job, and you don't think much about it," Migliore said. "I see these things now that I'm not riding anymore and I can't take it. I'm so ultra-sensitive to it now I think, 'How in hell does this guy even get off the ground, let alone ride horses again?' And nobody's immune. Here's a guy who was going to be on his way to Florida to pick up his third consecutive Eclipse Award. But it doesn't matter if you're the leading rider in the country or a ten-pound apprentice. It's just a damn tough game."

Migliore was on his way to Aqueduct where he conducts regular mentoring sessions with New York's apprentice riders. It would be their first session since Dominguez went down, so the lesson plan was pretty much set. There would be videotape.

"I didn't want to watch it after I saw it the first time, but I kind of had to," Migliore said. "Ramon kind of goosed his horse a little bit to make sure he got up into a spot, and I think the horse did a little more than he wanted him to. When he started to steady him you could see him turn the horse's head to try to avoid the heels, and ultimately that ended up being the worst thing. When a horse hits heels with their head turned one direction or the other they fall. They go down so fast and so hard. If you hit heels when your horse is straight you've got a chance. His horse was off balance just enough when his left foot caught the outside heel of the horse right in front of him and just catapulted Ramon to the ground." 

This will not be the first time Migliore preaches constant vigilance to his apprentices, nor it will not be the last. When class convened on Sunday they would want to know a) what happened? and b) how's Ramon? But mostly how's Ramon.

"I went to the hospital Saturday morning but they wouldn't let me see him," Migliore said. "John Milano, his valet, saw him and said he looked much better than the day before. Apparently they were keeping him sedated so he would stay as calm as possible so as not to complicate anything. You try to put yourself in the hands of your doctor, and the people who love you. When you get your bell rung like Ramon did, it's almost harder on the people around you because they're the ones who have to make the best possible choices for you. You kind of end up surrendering to that. As bad as it was, it sounds like he's going to be okay. There's just no way to know what the time frame might be."

So the game will go on for now without its most dominant athlete -- horse or human. That is the game's genuine loss, because as remarkable as Dominguez is aboard a race horse, he is every bit the man in full to his family, his friends, and to the people who entrust to him their horses. This is not the kind of superstar who taunts when he wins, woos phoney internet paramours or needs to apologize to Oprah for anything. (The man behind the amazing stats was well documented by Daily Racing Form's Eclipse Award winning writer Ryan Goldberg in his feature last November http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/20/sports/an-unorthodox-jockey-and-predictable-winner.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.)

Velazquez and Castellano did their best to represent Dominguez at the awards ceremony. But there's nothing like the real thing. So here's a reprise of what Dominguez said in accepting his award last year in Beverly Hills, looking slick and sophisticated as a South American diplomat in his evening clothes and professorial specs. I have interviewed Dominguez enough times to know that he has great respect for the nuances of language, and he means exactly what he says when he says it:

"Tonight, all these awards being presented are a product of hard work by so many people in our industry, from owners, trainers, jockeys and exercise riders and grooms. I would like to thank them, thank everyone. Because of their efforts, we can have great moments like this."

We can only hope there's more.

****

As for the Eclipse Awards program itself, viewed from a safe remove on the other side of the continent, I can only say that it was a shame that host Jeannine Edwards was not provided with better material with which to amuse the captive audience, that the only thing more important than lighting is sound, that the budget for both music and video seemed to be lacking, and that no one deserves praise for bringing a show in on time at the expense of diverting entertainment. Hopefully, the producers of the show are hard at work already making sure next year's program is flawless.

And yet, the whole evening was worth Laffit Pincay's "Bananas" moment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oF-AcR14Km8), when he translated the thank you remarks of apprentice Eclipse winner Jose Montano of Mexico from Spanish into an English version nothing at all like what Montano had in mind. If young Jose was in on the joke he played it cool, while Pincay let the laughs linger for just the right few beats before delivering the message as intended. Pincay, that devil, deserves his own talk show -- in any language.