07/26/2011 3:06PM

Emerald Downs: Whitaker a winner in comeback


AUBURN, Wash. – After suffering severe injuries when she was thrown from a horse more than five months before, Jennifer Whitaker found a soft landing spot for her return to race-riding last Sunday. Reunited with Libby Creek, a 7-year-old mare with whom she had won five races previously, Whitaker worked out a last-to-first trip and landed triumphant in the Emerald Downs winner’s circle.

As small victories go, this one was huge. Whitaker, 40, is the all-time leading female rider at Emerald Downs, with 372 career wins, but as her injury rehabilitation lingered from February into the heat of the summer, she saw many of her would-be mounts get handed off to other riders, with little chance to get them back. But trainer Howard Belvoir has always valued Whitakers’s work – she won the 2008 Longacres Mile aboard his horse Wasserman – and was thrilled to give her a leg up on Libby Creek.

“It’s great to have her back,” Belvoir said. “It’s tough to come in in the middle of the meet, but this filly, she knows her so well, and Jen’s an asset in the mornings, too. That was a storybook finish right there.”

“Mentally, I needed to get back to work,” said Whitaker, who suffered a broken humerus in her left arm, a dislocated left shoulder and a torn rotator cuff in a training accident aboard one of Belvoir’s horses on Valentine’s Day. “It’s hard to be away from here.”

Whitaker underwent surgery to piece together her arm and shoulder and then wore a sling for about three months. She got back on horses in the mornings about a month ago. She said her injuries would require “a few more repairs” somewhere down the road, but judging by her clever ride aboard Libby Creek, who paid $27.20, her timing is in midseason form.

“It’s good now,” she said of her shoulder. “It was three months of not moving, not doing anything. It took a long time to get it mobile again. I told my boss I wanted to be 100 percent when I came back, and now I am.”

Whitaker returns too late to reclaim her seat on Wasserman, who has been ridden by Javier Matias in his five starts at the meeting. Whitaker had been Wasserman’s constant companion, mornings and afternoons, for most of the past decade.

“Other people have jumped in and got it done, and you have to be fair to them,” she said. “But I miss him. I’ve been on him for eight years.”