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Douglas finding peace with racing
CHICAGO – Natalia Douglas does not especially like horse racing. The races scare her. When her husband, Rene, rode, she never once watched a race as it was unfolding.
“To me, it was dangerous,” she said. “You always know that anything can happen. You worry. I could never watch the races live when he was riding.”
Rene Douglas pretty much stopped watching races, too, since a dark time in his life descended. The world must have gone black as a horse named Born to Be rolled atop Douglas on the Arlington Park racetrack May 23, 2009. Knocked off stride, Born to Be clipped heels and fell, crushing Douglas, adding to whatever injuries he already had suffered after being thrown from her back at the quarter pole of the Arlington Matron.
Dr. Hilton Gordon, Douglas’s friend and physician as well as a horse owner and Arlington regular, was among the first to reach Douglas.
“I ran out there, jumped the fence, went over where he was just as he was being pulled out from under the horse,” Gordon said. “He kept yelling, ‘Electricity, electricity!’ It was in his legs and his whole body. When we were in the ambulance they were testing his legs, and that’s when we started to note that he couldn’t feel much. He had a lot of discomfort, but he was always conscious. I remember him saying, ‘I’m gonna pass out, I’m gonna pass out,’ but he didn’t.”
Rene Douglas has not walked on his own since getting aboard Born to Be in the Arlington paddock that late spring day more than 14 months ago. And Rene Douglas, undergoing physical therapy near his home in Aventura, Fla., learning to live without the use of his legs, attended to by his wife, pretty much stopped watching races.
“I don’t watch races,” Douglas, 43, said in a telephone interview this week. “I don’t want to watch.”
But if he could, Douglas would be watching the Prince of Wales Stakes on Sunday at Fort Erie in Canada. There is a horse running named Golden Moka, who has Douglas’s head back in the game for the first time since his terrible spill last year at Arlington. A Canadian-bred, Golden Moka has made all of his starts in Panama, where Douglas is from. Douglas analyzed video over and over of Golden Moka’s 3-for-3 Panamanian career, and he bought a piece of the horse along with Dr. Gordon, former Chicago Blackhawks coach Denis Savard, Chicagoan Dave Flanzbaum, and Judge Joe Casciatto. The Douglas partners all spent hours by his side in Chicago hospitals after the spill. The ownership group is called Good Friends Stable.
“I said to these guys, ‘One day I will find a horse for you,’ ” Douglas said. “This horse from Panama, I watched the tape on him, he ran three times, and he won all three easy.”
Douglas talks about the lesser central American competition that Golden Moka has faced but also his potential for improvement in longer races such as the Prince of Wales. He talks about Golden Moka’s strong gallops out after his races and about the intricacies of his trips, described with the sort of detail only a jockey would notice.
Rene Douglas is talking horses again.
“He doesn’t go to the track anymore, but he does think about it,” Natalia Douglas said. “I know he thinks about it a lot.”
For months, after Douglas left Chicago for Florida last August, the word around racetracks was that Douglas had cloaked himself in bitterness and depression as he coped with fallout from his injuries. Not that he should have been blamed, were that true. After nearly dying from the initial trauma of the spill, Douglas had a long surgery to repair two thoracic vertebrae pushing into his spinal cord. His neck was broken in two places, and he had broken ribs and a fractured sternum. In ensuing weeks, Gordon said, Douglas suffered from urinary tract infections, a bacterial infection of the colon, and terrible bedsores. He contracted pneumonia, and Douglas said his shoulder − badly damaged rotator cuff, it was later determined − hurt as much as anything. His physical therapy kept getting delayed, and as much as he might have wanted to start attacking his ailments, Douglas could do nothing but receive treatment and think about what had suddenly befallen him.
But Douglas said it has been only his naturally private nature that has kept him away from the heart of a sport he so thoroughly inhabited for years.
“First, I’m kind of focused on my thing,” Douglas said, his voice strong this week. “I’m kind of private. All my friends want me to do something in the game, but I don’t want to. Since I was 2 years old I’ve done something in the game.
“I had to deal with this problem,” he said. “I’m not going to sit down and say I’m laughing all the time. I’m going through good days and bad days. But I don’t think I have to be flashy and tell everybody what I’m doing every day. People know I’m going through a hard time.”
“It’s real hard,” Gordon said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs. Your hope is what doctors tell you. Doctors gave him some hope that in a year he could see some progress – that didn’t happen.”
But jockey Eddie Razo, riding this summer at Prairie Meadows and a good friend of Douglas’s, is hearing progress. Razo spent plenty of time with Douglas after the spill, and Natalia Douglas leaned on Razo’s wife, Doreen.
“I think at the beginning he really didn’t want to talk too much,” Razo said. “Sometimes it was really hard. You’d talk for 30 seconds, and he’d say, ‘See you later.’ Even guys who were close to him, he wouldn’t answer the phone. They were sad that he was going to shut down. Now he’s really coming around, and he’s actually having fun doing things. He didn’t want to know nothing about horses, but I’d say for the last two months, he’s talking more about horses.”
Time heals all wounds, or maybe it just dulls the pain of thinking about how they have changed your life. But in addition to the new horse, Douglas also has some measure of new hope. Douglas cannot watch Golden Moka in the Prince of Wales because on Thursday he traveled to Panama to receive stem cell therapy, a treatment that cannot be performed in the U.S. During the next month in Panama City, Dr. Pax Rodriguez, the nephew of a leading Panamanian horse trainer, will inject stem cells into Douglas’s spinal cord. The hope is for regeneration of nerves that will allow Douglas to regain the use of his legs.
“I guess because of lawsuits, nobody is going to promise you nothing in the U.S.,” Douglas said. “In Panama, it’s more like, ‘Come on, Rene, bring it! I’m going to do the best for you.’ They want to give you a good hope. Even if it doesn’t work for you it keeps your spirit up.”
Even if the stem cell treatment shows promise, Douglas will need another round of injections in six months. The treatment could be slow going; there are no guarantees.
“My husband is a person that never gives up,” Natalia Douglas said. “If he wants something, he’s going to try his best to get it. Right now he wants to walk again – he’s going to do everything he can to get it.”
Natalia Douglas has family living nearby, but she is also the primary caregiver for the three Douglas children − Christian, 10; Giancarlo, 14; and Michael, 20 – as well as for Douglas.
“He’s good, but listen to me, it’s a struggle, a daily struggle,” she said. “Some days it’s great and he feels good, not in so much pain. There’s pain every day, but some days it’s more manageable. Sometimes he thinks about something and he can get in a funk. Looking at the person you love struggling and in pain, it hurts. You wish things could be different, but he’s alive, right? The person you love is here. He thinks for himself, he’s here.
“There are things you want to do, but you can’t do,” she said. “Rene and I used to love dancing – we used to go dancing all the time. We can’t do that any more. My kids will never play soccer with him. Those are the moments when it’s really hard. There are moments when he knows there is nothing in his power to make it happen.”
“I’m telling you, my wife is my hero,” Rene Douglas said. “She’s my idol. Without my wife, I don’t know how I could do this.”
Douglas said he stopped physical therapy in mid-July in anticipation of his upcoming treatment. Before that, he was going to therapy three times a week for three hours a day. At therapy, he rides an FES (functional electrical stimulation) bike, which has a computer that initiates electric shocks that cause muscle contractions in paralyzed lower limbs to allow exercise. Also, Douglas said, he uses another machine that allows him to bear weight on his legs.
“If they do find the cure, they want you to be in good shape,” Douglas said.
Douglas said he has watched the 2009 Matron – once, and only once.
“It was hard for me,” he said. “Some day I will watch it more. My wife doesn’t want me to go through that. She gets emotional.”
Douglas hasn’t spoken with Jamie Theriot, who rode Sky Mom in the Matron, the horse who came out and bumped Born to Be. Theriot was suspended 30 days for his ride in the race. Douglas’s injury upset Theriot badly, and Theriot said last year he was rebuffed in his efforts to contact Douglas and explain his actions. The two had exchanged harsh words at Keeneland a month before the accident. But Douglas offered Theriot neither forgiveness nor further condemnation.
“I never wish anybody bad,” is all Douglas would say. “I don’t even want to go there. I had to deal with my situation, and that’s it.”
Between 2001 and 2008, Douglas won six riding titles at Arlington, and the two seasons he missed, he summered elsewhere. In 2002, he won 11 stakes, as many as any rider in a single Arlington season, and in 2003, Douglas had a seven-win Arlington day.
“It’s funny,” Douglas said. “At one time when I was in my early 30’s, I said that when I’m 40 I’m going to quit no matter what, and I didn’t. It’s hard to quit when you’re on top. I said, ‘I’m on top. You’ve got to keep going.’ ”
He didn’t quit when he was on top, but neither has he quit since hitting bottom. Rene Douglas keeps going.