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Fateful move that changed two lives
In the hierarchy of bad things that can happen to a jockey, the two worst seem clear: You can get killed, and you can be permanently disabled.
Below that come the less obvious. You can be the rider that walks away from a spill where another jockey doesn't get up. And that is the path Jamie Theriot has been walking since last May 23 at Arlington Park.
In the Arlington Matron Handicap late that afternoon, Theriot had the mount on Sky Mom for one of his main clients, trainer Al Stall. Rene Douglas was aboard a Woodbine shipper he never had ridden named Born to Be. At the quarter pole, Theriot was trapped at the fence, just behind the leader. Douglas and Born to Be raced a couple paths off the rail. A hole opened outside the lead horse, and, steering outside, Theriot went for it. So did Douglas. The two horses came together. More violent bumps regularly occur in horse races. But for whatever reason, Born to Be careened crazily to the outside, clipping heels, and going down in a grotesque fall.
The filly eventually died from her fall, and her rider was terribly hurt. Douglas had emergency surgery later that night to fuse vertebrae in his spine, and he had more broken bones higher up his back. Douglas, 42, has not walked since he took his seat on Born to Be, and he may never regain use of his legs. His life - changed inexorably.
Theriot (pronounced TAIR-ee-o) bears no external scars. His horse completed the race unscathed. Theriot did not even know Douglas had gone down until after the finish. But the Douglas fall has changed Theriot, too.
"I've been in spills, with me and other people," Theriot, 30, said during the Keeneland meet in October. "But no, I never had somebody fall and have my number get taken down. First time in 13 years I dropped a rider, ever. I remember it like it was yesterday."
Do not chalk the incident up to lack of skill: Few current jockeys have been more seasoned than Theriot. Theriot began race-riding at 16, at Evangeline Downs, near his birthplace in Breaux Bridge, La. He branched out from regional to national jock after becoming first-call rider for once-powerful trainer Cole Norman in 2002. He won his first Grade 1 race in 2007 at Keeneland and was leading rider at Fair Grounds during the 2007-08 meeting. And even while still in the shadow of the Douglas incident, Theriot went to Saratoga for the first time last summer and won the Grade 1 Hopeful aboard Dublin for trainer Wayne Lukas.
Theriot could be among the last of a generation of Cajun riders from the area around Lafayette in central Louisiana, the region that has produced stars such as Eddie Delahoussaye, Kent Desormeaux, and Robby Albarado. Calvin Borel is the first cousin of Theriot's father, Harold. The jockey Larry Melancon is the brother of Theriot's mother, Judy. Harold Theriot's grandmother was a trainer, and his father had racehorses that Harold rode at the bush tracks in the area.
THE TURN FOR HOME
|Frames from the videotape of the Arlington Matron Handicap on May 23, with Jamie Theriot on Sky Mom and Rene Douglas on Born to Be. Elapsed times into the 1 1/8-mile race calculated by Daily Racing Form.|
|1:26.15 - Douglas and Theriot race as a team behind a wall of horses.|
The bushes, unsanctioned weekend race meets held in the fields around Lafayette, were where the young Cajun jocks cut their teeth. Race-riding as kids gave them an edge on young riders from other parts of the country less saturated in horse racing. Jamie Theriot rode some at the bush track,s too, but by then, there were only a couple left, and most of the local trainers had started racing at nearby Evangeline Downs or at Delta Downs in Vinton.
"I didn't let him ride the bushes a lot when he was young," said Harold Theriot, 57, who still trains the odd horse or two and has always supplemented equine work with a second job. "There were a couple left, but it wasn't like when I was growing up. People didn't care anymore. They'd put you on anything."
Back then, Harold Theriot had a barn full of horses. At 5, Jamie figured out how to grab onto a stirrup and climb onto a tacked-up horse. By the time he was 9, he was regularly galloping around the three-eighths-mile training track on the family farm.
"I was raised to be around racehorses," Jamie said. "There was never any fear. I would fall, get right back on, never scared."
The bush tracks are gone now, and Cajun kids no longer get that kind of early schooling. But there is another Theriot generation coming up. Jamie is the father of boys, 8 and 5, who are being raised by his parents outside Breaux Bridge. Their mother's relationship with Jamie ended years ago, and she has struggled with addiction. Both boys are said to have been bitten by the riding bug. Theriot has remarried, and his wife, Dawn, mother of three children from former relationships, is expecting a child.
Theriot's mother, Judy, said riding was all he ever wanted to do. He has broken a leg several times and has suffered the typical litany of injuries to longtime jockeys - broken collarbones, punctured lungs, and the like - but mostly, his career has been ascendant, in great part because he had a strong idea of how to ride from the start.
"He didn't want to think of anything else," said Judy Theriot, 55. "He was a little kid, out there practicing switching sticks."
Theriot said he never had a problem walking the fine line between doing everything possible to win a race and doing so within bounds considered safe.
"Like all young riders, you want to be cocky and this and that, think you know certain things," Theriot said. "Once you get out there in that real world, that attitude changes. I mean, the older riders showed me a lot. When I had the bug, I never got screamed at for being a loose rider or anything. I knew where I was. I made a mistake maybe going in a spot late, taking too long to make a decision. I think that comes to every rider with time. But as for being a loose rider, no. I went a long time before I got my first set of days."
Theriot's voice becomes forceful, assertive, when asked about his awareness of unfolding events on the track. "Every race I ride, no matter where I'm laying, I know how many there is behind me or in front of me," he said.
So this is Theriot's personal and professional opinion: He did nothing wrong in the Matron.
"We both were going for the same hole," Theriot said. "His horse just overreacted and lost control. We both were going for the same hole - that's the first thing that came to my mind when it was occurring, and it's still there to this day: We were going for the same hole. It happens every day, it really does."
Arlington stewards handed Theriot a 30-day suspension, far longer than the typical careless-riding penalty ranging from three to seven days. Eddie Arroyo, the state steward, declined to comment on the ruling, citing possible future legal action concerning the accident. The ruling, dated May 25, cited Theriot for allowing Sky Mom to "jostle" another horse, then went into territory not usually covered by saying that Theriot's actions caused "the jostled horse to clip heels and fall injuring both horse and rider."
Theriot, one could say, was being punished not just for committing a foul; the suspension also accounted for what happened after the foul had been committed.
Theriot, who filed and then dropped an appeal of the stewards' ruling, said he believes the suspension was punitive and unwarranted. And it hardly could have come at a worse time, in the midst of the Churchill Downs spring-summer season, one of Theriot's prime meets.
If the penalty seemed harsh, Theriot was being judged more harshly by some people inside racing. Many seemed to know that Theriot and Douglas had exchanged heated words at Keeneland the month before.
"Jamie said to me, 'Daddy, we did have a few words,'" Harold Theriot said. "But they all do that. You might say something one day. Rene got up at Keeneland and told him something, and Jamie said something back to him."
Douglas and his wife, Natalia, did not respond to repeated interview requests. In September, Douglas said in an interview with the Horse Racing Television network: "I didn't see the race yet, but I will see it, and I think that accident should never have happened."
Douglas's best friend among Chicago jockeys is the rider Eddie Razo. Razo's wife, Doreen, was among the first to reach the stricken Douglas on the Arlington racetrack. But even Razo said he cannot support the idea that Theriot was trying to drop Douglas.
"I never heard him say it," said Razo. "Several people said that [Theriot] told him that, but in my mind, I don't think he meant it.
"It's Rene's decision to blame who he wants to blame. I don't want to be part of blaming nobody. It's not fair for me to blame somebody when my emotions don't go that way. Like I said, Rene is my friend, but I don't want to be blaming Jamie Theriot. Hopefully, he's sorry about what happened. That's all I can say about that. It's better just to keep your words to yourself. I've been riding for so many years; I never felt going to a track, even if a guy is mad at me, he will ever try to drop me."
|Benoit & Associates|
15px;">Rene Douglas (right) still has no feeling in his legs and has not walked since the May 23 incident.
Razo said that threats, and even threatening moves during a race, are common among riders.
"I know some guys, even myself sometimes, put someone in a tight switch, but I've got it under control," he said. "It's never in my mind to cause something like that."
So Theriot took his 30 days. His boys came up from Louisiana, and they spent time boating. The family times felt good, but just beneath the surface, Theriot brooded on the part he had played in Douglas's accident.
"It was tough, the first couple weeks, and it's still tough when I think about it," said Theriot. "It's something unfortunate that you know happened. But it's something I can't just think about all the time because it would make me miserable. I try to put it behind me. I still think about Rene and his family. It's a bad deal all the way around, it really is."
Theriot's suspension ended in late June.
"To be honest with you, when I came back to riding, my first two races I rode at Churchill I won, and going into them, I didn't think about it," Theriot said. "But you know when it hit me, was when I crossed the wire. I thought about Rene."
Robby Albarado, Theriot's friend and rival, said he saw the Douglas incident take its toll on Theriot.
"Believe me, I saw him in tears at Churchill Downs," said Albarado. "He's a good kid, very thoughtful. It hit him pretty hard."
"He's called up and cried many a time with me," said Judy Theriot.
Whatever grief and guilt he felt, Theriot kept moving forward. Riding horses is his job. His mother calls him a workaholic. Theriot doesn't drink, said he's never touched drugs. While other teenagers went out at night, Theriot went to bed. Up at 4:30 or 5, chores, school, work around the barn: That was the routine. And at almost 5-foot-9, tall for a jockey, Theriot tacks 118 pounds; his size demands rigid discipline to maintain weight.
"He's a solid guy, and I don't think he's made many mistakes," said Stall. "He shows up in the mornings, and he shows up in the afternoon. He's got the perfect way of thinking about all this, I believe. He's young enough, and he knows in his heart there wasn't anything malicious about what he did."
Theriot has wanted to say as much to Douglas himself, but to no avail: His efforts to reach the Douglases have been rebuffed. Late this summer, after suffering setbacks that prevented him from fully engaging in physical therapy, Douglas moved from Chicago back to Florida, where his family has long had a home. Douglas still has no feeling in his legs and has continued his rehabilitation, but reports on his condition have been rare since he left Chicago.
"We've had no contact," Theriot said. "I think with time it's going to heal itself. We'll somehow get in contact with each other. I still want to. If he called me today, I'd pick up the phone. I would listen to him. I'd listen if it takes him an hour to tell me what he needs to tell me. I'd sit there and listen to him. If he wanted to cuss and holler and all that, well, so be it. And, when he's done, I'd say, 'You need to hear how I feel and how I felt.' And we can go from there."
* Handicapping roundups from Aqueduct, Hollywood, and Calder
* Jay Privman's Q&A with jockey Ramon Dominguez
* Steve Andersen on jockey Joe Talamo, who rides in Sunday's Hong Kong Sprint
* Matt Hegarty on Churchill's plans to weather racing's economic doldrums
* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes