01/02/2007 12:00AM

Body broken but not his spirit


ARCADIA, Calif. - Ron Warren has to remind himself sometimes that both legs belong to the same body. The left is strong and true, still rippling with muscles that belong to a professional athlete. The right leg is, well, another story - a pretty grim story, in fact, and one that is still unfolding nearly two years after it was shattered in an accident at Golden Gate Fields.

On the evening of Friday, Feb. 4, 2005, in the fourth race at six furlongs for $25,000 claimers, Warren was fighting a losing battle aboard favored Red Legend when things turned really bad. Somewhere around the sixteenth pole, Red Legend fatally fractured a front leg and fell, spearing the 40-year-old Warren to the ground. A trailing horse then tripped over the flailing Red Legend and landed squarely on Warren, leaving him with a fractured pelvis, a broken left hip, and compound fractures to both the tibia and fibula above the right ankle.

Warren has had two extensive surgeries. The first was a 17-hour emergency marathon to repair the pelvis, insert a rod in the hip, and somehow piece together the jigsaw puzzle that used to be his lower right leg.

"The bones were broken in 37 or 38 places," Warren said this week from his new home in Incline Village, not far from Reno, Nev. "There were a whole bunch of screws holding them together, and as everything grew back together, they kind of grew off at different little angles."

As a result, a second surgery was required, in January 2005, during which Warren's orthopedic surgeons refractured his tibia and fibula, then realigned and reset them, securing their work with an external fixation device. For a bonus, he got a new ankle, crafted from a graft of bone from his hip. His good hip.

"They were hoping the graft would shape itself into the correct form," Warren went on. "Mostly it did, but there are some notches and spurs in there that they've got to go in to clean up later this month. Hopefully, that will take care of it. Even so, I've got one leg that looks like I used to be an athlete and another one that looks like it belongs to Tiny Tim."

Warren was eerily cool and dispassionate in describing his ordeal, almost as if it all happened to someone else. This fits well, though, with his no fuss personality in the saddle, a style that suited him well for 23 years. As one of the most reliable riders in northern California, Warren won nearly every major stakes on the circuit at one time or another. On the day his career ended, in the 22,368th mount of his career, Warren had won 3,301 races, an admirable total for any jockey working in the long local shadow of Russell Baze.

Warren was never content, though, to simply punch the clock and win his share. He was respected enough by his riding peers to speak for them as their Jockeys' Guild representative through the years.

In fact, the very week he was injured, Warren had stepped forward with the backing of northern California riders to challenge the controversial Jockeys' Guild management of Wayne Gertmenian and its administration of California state and racetrack funds earmarked exclusively for California jockey insurance coverage.

Even now, through his forced retirement and painful recovery, Warren continues to advocate for his former colleagues as they look critically at the issue of dramatically increased insurance premiums for general health policies provided through the Guild. Warren has met recently with new Guild manager Dwight Manley.

"There were guys who said he was just as bad as what the Guild had before, but I didn't want to rush to judgment," Warren said. "A lot of riders believe that the money the state has designated go to jockey insurance is being misappropriated, but for now Dwight answered all the questions I had for him.

"Now I'm spending time getting more prepared to deal with the insurance issue, in the event we need to go before the racing board," Warren added. "The costs today are so high, especially for the kind of family coverage riders got used to, but I haven't been able to find anything out there for less."

California jockeys are included in the workers' compensation insurance mandated by the state, but even that can be an empty promise. Adding insult to grave injury, the workers' comp administrator handling Warren's file apparently has decided that his next surgery falls into the category of "unnecessary," a nightmare scenario to which millions of insured Americans can relate.

"They're making my doctor jump through hoops," Warren said. "As of right now, I'll be responsible for this next surgery."

Because his right ankle is basically fused, Warren must walk with an extra high flex of the knee and a rolling motion to the foot. It is awkward, it is uncomfortable, and there are days when it can hurt like a sonofagun. Perhaps it would help if the insurance administrator walked a mile in Ron's right shoe.

"That would change their minds in a heartbeat," Warren said.

In the meantime, Warren has taken and - to no one's surprise - passed the California stewards' exam, although he has yet to be tabbed for an assignment. Warren's good fortune as a rider may have run out, but the racing game got lucky, for not even the effects of that distant February day were enough to chase him away.