01/14/2011 1:00PM

For Albarado, one of the bad breaks of the game

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The 2011 season started out just fine for Robby Albarado. Riding over familiar terrain at the Fair Grounds, the Louisiana native won a race on New Year’s Day and was looking forward to what the coming weeks and months would hold.

Then it turned Jan. 2.

While on his way to the track for the second race that Sunday afternoon, Albarado was launched from the rearing filly Mollys Missb’havin and landed right foot first on the concrete slab supporting a fence post along the path from the walking ring. Albarado, a gifted athlete, has stuck many an unscheduled dismount in the past without serious incident. The boots worn by a jockey, however, have about as much support as a layer of Kleenex. He hit hard, and there was considerable pain.

“I tried to walk off,” Albarado said this week from back home in Louisville, “but then the pain hit me, so I just sat down right there. I knew something was broken – my whole foot was throbbing − I just thought it was my ankle.”

He wasn’t that lucky. Albarado’s heel was fractured – the bone is called the calcaneus – severely enough to require surgery. The procedure will take place Monday with the insertion of two pins and a plate, after which the rider will need to wear a rigid cast for the initial period of healing.

“Having the surgery should expedite the healing process,” Albarado said. He has circled March as his target for return.

A story about a jockey getting hurt has about the same headline impact of “Dog Goes Woof.” So what else is new? In the past year or so such major talents as Julien Leparoux, John Velazquez, Garrett Gomez, Rafael Bejarano, Joe Talamo, and Tyler Baze have sustained varying degrees of damage, though none of them career ending.

Based upon his two most recent wrecks, however, Albarado qualifies as particularly unblessed. The fractured heel occurred less than five months after he broke a finger and his collarbone at Saratoga, where he was pitched to the turf when his horse stumbled while pulling up after a race. Such accidents, while not unusual, go contrary to the idea that the most dangerous part of the game is between flagfall and finish.

“That’s what’s kind of depressing a little bit,” Albarado said. “If it was something I did in a race, if I dropped myself or somebody fell in front of me or a horse broke their leg – not that the result is any different, but it’s just been kind of freaky. Like, ‘Hey, that’s not supposed to happen.’ ”

He has a point. Albarado has ridden 25,989 races – 4,281 of them winners − a total that has afforded him ample opportunity for injuries. He has had his share, including a pair of skull fractures in 1998 and 1999 that left him with a metal plate and a warning that he had pretty much used up his allotment of blows to the head.

On that score, at least, he’s been lucky. In fact, the ensuing decade was by far the best of Albarado’s career. By some measures it can be said there were precious few riders who have enjoyed more exhilarating moments than Albarado during the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2003, he was the regular rider of Mineshaft, the Neil Howard-trained colt who ran roughshod over the Eastern and Midwestern handicap division. With Albarado attached, Mineshaft won the New Orleans, the Ben Ali, the Pimlico Special, the Suburban, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a record that earned him Horse of the Year.

In 2007, Albarado cut the right horse from the herd again when he landed the mount on Curlin in the Rebel Stakes that March. Through 15 races together, Curlin and Albarado won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup, the Preakness, the Haskell, the Arkansas Derby, the Woodward, and two runnings of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, taking Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008.

If Albarado is content to rest on such laurels he doesn’t show it. He has yet to win the Kentucky Derby, which remains his number one priority, especially since Louisville is his adopted home, as well as headquarters of the Robby Albarado Foundation, which, according to its mission statement, “was established to assist the homeless, socially and economically disadvantaged, and those less fortunate in the Louisville, Ky., area.”

Albarado puts such words into action, making regular trips of outreach to schools and local charitable activities, which means he will have more such opportunities while he mends. But like most riders, he bristles at inactivity.

“If anything positive comes out of it, I get to spend quality time with my wife and kids at home,” he said. “Anybody who works around the racetrack knows we’re always coming and going, on the road or out early in the morning, only having a couple hours here and there to be at home. At times like these I can do things like take the kids to school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon.

“Having said all that, I love what I do, and I’m very competitive, so it’s hard for me to sit home and watch the races,” Albarado said. “It’s been more than a week since I got hurt, and I haven’t watched a race yet. I’ll start paying attention to the 3-year-olds out there pretty soon, when I know a little better when I can come back. But not just yet.”

At times like these, Albarado can tap into his sardonic strain of Cajun humor, like when he was asked if he considered himself lucky he did not lead with his head this time around.

“Actually, that might have been good,” he said. “I might have broke the fence, all the metal I have up there.

“And you know, I really don’t need my heel to ride races,” he said. “We ride on our toes. So I’ll be OK once I can get on top of a horse. It’s a lot safer up there, anyway.”