08/25/2009 11:00PM

Competitive nature a healing force

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Rafael Bejarano returns to competition on Friday, which is a small miracle, considering the fact that the last time he was seen under silks he was being taken by ambulance to Scripps Memorial Hospital just down the road from Del Mar, with his face cracked by a flying hoof after his mount was fatally injured.

That was opening day.

Now, just 37 days later, Bejarano and his relentlessly sunny personality are back. The man who won six consecutive Southern California titles - before surrendering the most recent Hollywood meet to Joel Rosario - should not have much trouble retaining his hard-earned spot in the front row of the jockeys' room grid. Then again, the reality is harsh, and all those theoretical Bejarano winners ended up with Rosario, Tyler Baze, Victor Espinoza, Joe Talamo, or whoever else stepped into the breach.

"The timing is a little awkward, with less than two weeks left in the meet and then a three-week break for the fair before Oak Tree starts," said Joe Ferrer, Bejarano's agent. "But I believe everything happens for a reason, and the important thing is he's okay and he's back."

Bejarano's injury required six hours of surgery and 10 titanium plates to repair. The incident made tough headlines, as well, virtually stealing the thunder from the traditional Mardi Gras coverage of Del Mar's opening day. The horse he rode, veteran claimer Mi Bey, had to be euthanized, turning an unwelcomed spotlight on his trainer, three-time Del Mar leader Doug O'Neill.

In the spirit of getting back on the horse, Bejarano will be riding one for O'Neill on Friday, the 3-year-old filly Hudler in the $60,000 sixth race at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. For Bejarano and Ferrer, this is neither ironic nor strange, but just good business. For O'Neill, though, there is a chance to dilute the bitter residue of the opening-day disaster.

"I told Joe that I would totally understand if Rafael was not eager to ever get on a Doug O'Neill horse again," O'Neill said Wednesday morning. "The fact that he does is very comforting, and gives me a lot of confidence."

Bejarano comeback is scheduled to begin with the 2-year-old maiden Wings of Sound in the fourth at a mile on the grass, and then comes Hudler. Michael Baze has been aboard for Hudler's last three starts, winning one and losing the other two by a nose.

"Michael did nothing wrong with the horse, that's for sure," O'Neill said. "I did want to put Rafael on something I thought would run well, and I think she will. I'm just so grateful to have him back in the saddle, and back to doing what he does best - and not having my fingerprints on that terrible thing that happened. The farther we get away from that the better I feel."

In terms of competitive comebacks, there are few things more challenging than the road back for an injured Thoroughbred jockey. Without the support of a team, and with only the health care resources provided by individual policies or workers' compensation, their rehabilitation is a lonely affair. Since their business is based on showing up, others are quick to fill the void, and loyalties often fade with the passage of time. This means even a rider of Bejarano's status is faced with a certain amount of starting over.

Martin Pedroza, for instance, spent six months on the sidelines after fracturing his pelvis in a freakish post parade accident last spring at Santa Anita. He made it back for the final few weeks of the Hollywood meet and has been in the mix every day at Del Mar, but his six wins in 78 mounts entering this week's action were not exactly what the respected veteran had in mind.

"When I came back, honestly, I was just riding to get fit," Pedroza said. "Winning four races off the bat was great, so when I came down here I was hoping to maybe keep that going."

At 44, Pedroza is also up against a colony top-heavy with youth. Of the current top 10, Rosario, Talamo, Reyes, Tyler Baze, and Alonso Quinonez are all under 30. Pedroza, though, is ready to concede nothing, and he appears to be the same Pedroza who is always a presence at not only Fairplex Park, where he is the all-time leader, but on the main circuit, where he won the Hollywood park fall championship in 2005. Pedroza followed that with a career-best year in terms of purses in 2006.

"I think some people might doubt me because when I was hurt there was a doctor who told me I was going to be out for a year, and people might think I came back too soon," Pedroza said.

"But we're different," he went on. "We're athletes. We heal faster than normal people because we take better care of ourselves. When I told Danny Sorenson what the doctor said, he says, 'No way, man. You'll be back in four months.' You know how Danny is."

For the record, Sorenson, at 51, has broken bones most people don't even know they have, and is still riding the hair off horses. Pedroza brings the same experience and physical commitment to the table.

"One thing about me - people know I'm not scared," Pedroza added. "I've fallen so many times, I know I'm fine. I always tell my agent, the only way I don't ride is if I can't ride."