05/11/2011 3:15PM

Albarado learns to grin and bear it after losing Kentucky Derby mount


Say for a minute you’re Robby Albarado. You’re 37 and a top professional athlete with three kids and a foundation in your adopted hometown of Louisville dedicated to giving inner-city children educational opportunities.

As a Thoroughbred jockey you’ve won nearly 4,300 races, including a Preakness, a Breeders’ Cup Classic, and a Dubai World Cup. You’ve hooked into mounts such as Mineshaft, Curlin and Banshee Breeze. You’ve won the George Woolf Award, a testament to the respect you’ve earned from your riding peers. The only thing missing is a Kentucky Derby trophy.

You’ve had your share of injuries, including skull fractures, concussions and broken limbs, but there has been nothing that’s kept you from a series of comebacks like the one in 2010, when you came off the bench from a cracked clavicle to win the Woodbine Mile.

Now, though, if you are Robby Albarado, you are waiting for another shoe to drop, and the recent supply of calamitous footwear seems inexhaustible.

On Jan. 2, Albarado fractured his heel in a freak accident heading from the paddock to the track at Fair Grounds. The surgery to repair the damage required 11 screws and a plate, and recovery took longer than advertised.

On March 31, less than a week after returning to action, Albarado made headlines again when he was arrested and charged with the domestic assault of his wife, Kimber, in their Louisville home. Suddenly, one of the town’s most respected citizens was reduced to a police mug shot gone viral.

On April 22 Albarado pleaded guilty to a lesser, Class A misdemeanor charge and was given a one-year jail sentence he will not be required to serve as long as he completes a 28-week batterer intervention program and proscribed evaluation and treatments for drug and alcohol abuse. As a condition of the plea agreement he is not allowed contact with his wife.

Thus reprieved, and even with his personal world in chaos, Albarado was determined to hitch a last-minute ride on a Kentucky Derby contender, and he thought he had found one in Animal Kingdom, a colt he had ridden to a maiden victory last year at Keeneland, and then in a dashingly good work at Churchill Downs the week before the big race.

Then on May 4, three days before the Derby, Albarado was thrown and trampled in a Churchill Downs post parade by a $10,000 maiden claimer named Smoke’n Al making his first start.

“He was a young horse who spooked from the pony, like they do a lot,” Albarado said. “He went to bucking and I come over the front. Next thing I knew he run over the top of me. The front feet hit me pretty hard and blood come gushing out my nose. I felt a laceration over my eye, and by then the blood was non-stop. I was totally conscious the whole time, though that’s one day I wish I wasn’t.”

Jockeys, operating without contracts, are paid only if they play.

Laffit Pincay split his boot to accommodate a badly sprained ankle and ride Super Diamond to victory in the 1986 Hollywood Gold Cup. Bill Shoemaker, hobbled by arthritic knees, got injected before riding Very Subtle to victory in the 1987 Santa Ynez Stakes then celebrated with arthroscopic surgery.

Gary Stevens had a horse toss him and step on his left thumb before the first race at Belmont Park on Memorial Day 1993. He iced it, taped it and signed a waiver from the track doctor in order to ride Bertrando later that afternoon in the Metropolitan Mile. Just last November, Garrett Gomez went down hard two days before the Breeders’ Cup Classic and still rode Blame to victory over Zenyatta, virtually one-armed.

Such tales are endless, and a tribute not only to the resilience of the athletes but the faith they instill in the people who hire them. However, when Albarado took off Thursday and Friday to recover, Barry Irwin, head of the Team Valor syndicate that owned Animal Kingdom, exercised his prerogative and replaced his jockey with the suddenly available John Velazquez.

So there was Albarado, unceremoniously bounced from a longshot Derby mount, eyes blackened, forehead stitched and nose broken, the unsavory aroma of his domestic chaos unmentioned but lingering, showing up for work on Derby Day to fulfill his commitment to the seven horses he had left to ride.

For some consolation, Albarado powered home Sassy Image in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff in the seventh event of the afternoon, leaving no one feeling particularly sorry for him until about the eighth pole of the Derby. That’s when it was becoming apparent Animal Kingdom was going best of all, as Albarado watched the nightmare unfold in the lounge of the Churchill Downs jocks’ room in the company of his sons, Kaden and Kash.

“I can’t tell you how big that was for me, having my boys there,” Albarado said. “What I might have said I didn’t, because they hang on my every word. I’d just missed out on a dream I’d had since I was a kid, but I had my own kids in my lap, and right then it didn’t matter if I ever won the Kentucky Derby or not.”

Albarado was scheduled for surgery on Wednesday to reset his broken nose and repair a few minor facial fractures, then it will be on to the Preakness to ride Tropical Derby winner King Congie, a close third in the Blue Grass, against Animal Kingdom. In the meantime, he has been choosing his words carefully.

“It’s important how high you can reach in your career, but at some point it’s the obstacles you overcome that matter,” Albarado said. “I have to be strong for my kids, to show them how I can handle this adversity, and learn from failure. I’ve been through a lot and they’ve been through it with me. Not everyone’s perfect.”

Albarado declined to go into the specifics of his domestic troubles, even though they had become painfully public.

“No one should have an opinion about another person’s household – at least that’s how I feel,” Albarado said. “I will say I’ve learned more in the last five months than in the first 37 years of my life, I can tell you that. I’ve grown up. What’s happened I hope has made me a better person.

I mean, I had to sit back and think, ‘What can I change?’ Because I had to change something,” he added. “I’m going to be more appreciative of people, more patient. I’ve been humbled ever since January second, for sure. But I’m coming out of this stronger.”