03/22/2012 11:49AM

Fear factor: How jockeys cope with injuries

Barbara D. Livingston
Rosie Napravnik is attended to after her mount, Rough Sailing, stumbled in the 2010 BC Juvenile Turf. Napravnik, who walked away from this spill unhurt, said the risk of injury is the last thing on her mind when she rides.

Mike Smith, the 46-year-old Hall of Fame jockey who is close to his 5,000th career win, says that with each new serious hurt, a rider develops fears.

“We’re born with fear,” he said. “There’s no getting away from it. If a rider is not nervous before a big race, then he’s not ready.”

Smith is well equipped to speak to big races, having won 15 Breeders’ Cup races and three Triple Crown races. As for nerves, can you have the yips without having fear? Do five cases of nerves add up to one helping of fear? No matter how it’s sliced, no matter the length of the leap from one to the other, Smith says, “I use what I call nervousness in a positive way. It slows down any rush I might have and helps get me focused on the task at hand.”

A series of interviews, with jockeys both active and retired, with jockey agents and psychologists, indicates that fear on the racetrack depends on whom and when. The common thread, however, is that jockeys know injuries are part and parcel with the game. The threat of a spill is tied to their fears, albeit in varying degrees. Laffit Pincay Jr., once the winningest jockey ever, said he was afraid for only two weeks, as a teenager during his salad days in his native Panama. Like a light switch, the sinking feeling disappeared and never visited him again. Patti Barton, the first female rider to win 1,000 races, said she could tell when another jockey was riding scared. She rode against several who were and had to make adjustments should those fears translate into tentative riding. Angel Cordero Jr., a Hall of Famer and the Grand Intimidator for three decades, once left the country because of a bad dream about a spill. Those who rode against him would never have believed it.

Rosie Napravnik, hands down the leading rider at the Fair Grounds the last two years, might have cause to be riding with trepidations, but she pooh-poohs that suggestion. Napravnik, 24, won at Pimlico with the first mount she ever had, in 2005, but five months later she suffered a broken collarbone in a spill at Laurel and has been dogged by NASCAR-like crashes ever since. One of her badges of office is a scar that starts at one of her wrists and runs all the way to her elbow. You show me your scar, I’ll show you mine: Cordero’s pip of a scar runs seven inches − from his lower chest to his navel.

“Fear is not even in the back of my mind,” Napravnik said. “It’s the dark side of the job, getting hurt, but I still love what I’m doing. I’m so passionate about riding horses that it’s worth the risks that I have to take.”

Jay Granat, a psychotherapist in River Edge, N.J., who has experience with a cross section of athletes, including jockeys, was asked about conquering fear.

“There are all kinds of different ways,” he said. “Prayer. Music. The banter among jockeys in the jockeys’ room before a race. A rider can lose confidence after a fall. The jockeys who overcome this are the ones who have the strongest beliefs in themselves. A passion for anything, including race-riding, is a way of overcoming fear.”

Napravnik has lost more than a year of riding time because of injuries. Returning to action following the Laurel spill, she suffered a back injury, and three months of hors de combat after that were followed by another nasty spill at Colonial Downs. Not especially superstitious, Napravnik joked that if bad news came in threes, she had used up her quota. But whoever minted that maxim forgot to include a time frame. Spill No. 4, in the summer of 2008, came at Delaware Park, resulting in another three months on the sidelines. No. 5, at Delaware last July, came four years to the day of No. 3. Napravnik was hospitalized for 12 days and four surgeries were needed to put her back together again.

“Thank God for adrenalin,” Napravnik said. “That’s what gets me through all of this.”

In January at the Fair Grounds, No. 6 looked like a given after Napravnik’s mount, moving from the main track to the grass course during the post parade, reared up and dropped her hard. She thought she had broken both ankles.

“The pain was intense,” she said.

They cut away her boots, and as they carried Napravnik off the track, she heard an outrider say, “I heard a pop.” But X-rays showed that she had sprained both ankles and suffered a deep bone bruise. A schoolteacher would have called in sick for a couple of weeks, but Napravnik, ninth with Pants On Fire in her Kentucky Derby debut in 2011, wants to get back to Churchill Downs, and the prep races for the 3-year-old prospects at the Fair Grounds were just heating up. The weekend after she was thrown, she was back riding.

“After a while, you get sick of all the pain,” she said. “But in this job, any day, every day, there’s the possibility that something could happen. I ride the same way I always ride when I come back [from an injury]. I wouldn’t say I’m wary, but I’m cautious. Selectively cautious, maybe. After I hurt both ankles, you weren’t going to see me jump off a horse like I might have otherwise.”

There’s no right time for a collarbone injury, like the one she had at Laurel in 2005, but Napravnik can chuckle now at the timing of that spill. It came at an especially bad time. Napravnik was three months shy of her 18th birthday, and possibly as close to fear as she will ever come.

“The way it was, I was living an hour and a half’s drive from the track,” she said. “The morning of the races that day, I had just signed my first-ever lease for an apartment that was much closer. So I hadn’t even moved in yet. And there I was, hours later, with this collarbone.”

She said to herself, “What do I do now?”

What she did was move into her new apartment, start an accelerated rehab program, and get back up on horses in five weeks.

“I’m a pretty positive thinker,” she said. “But that first one was a real wake-up call.”

The son of a jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr. won 448 races in Panama before he came to the United States in 1966, at age 19. Multiple breaks in a bone in his neck forced his retirement in 2003. He had dislocated or broken his collarbone 13 times, the first when he was just starting out in his homeland.

“I remember the race in Panama,” he said. “I was riding a filly. . . . I really hit the ground hard.”

The first thing that flashed by was: “I should have listened to my mother. She had told me to finish school.”

She had also told him not to ride, it was too dangerous. But he quit school and headed for the track.

“For two weeks, I had this tremendous fear,” he said. “Not a fear of getting back on a horse, but afraid of what I might do with the rest of my life. I didn’t have much education that I could do anything else. By the third week, what kicked in was this need to get back on a horse. I couldn’t wait for that to happen. After that one spill, there was never a time when I didn’t want to come back after I got hurt.”

Even the 2003 spill at Santa Anita, which led to a lawsuit that was settled privately, might not have been the end. Pincay, convinced he had recovered, voted for more riding but was outpolled by the rest of his family.

“When they took [the halo brace] off, I was ready to return,” Pincay said. “I was doing very well, was getting my share of winners, and my weight was better than it had been in my entire career. But my family was strong against it. Bill Shoemaker called and said I ought to quit before anything worse happened. I listened especially to my family. They knew what was best for me.”

GRAPHIC: A detailed look at jockey injuries, from Cordero to Napravnik

DRF WEEKEND: Rachel, Zenyatta on social media | Q&A with Barry Irwin

Angel Cordero Jr., growing up in Puerto Rico, was, like Pincay, the son of a horseman.

“Before I came to the U.S., I was riding at home, and there was a bad spill,” Cordero said. “A jockey in the race died. He broke his neck. I stood there, watching him choke to death, and I got real scared.”

Cordero said his father picked up on the fear and, with a dose of tough love, began to question his manhood.

“He said this in front of my friends,” Cordero said. “Then they got on me. It hurt me very much. But that got me determined to hang in there, to keep riding, and never act like I was afraid again. It was a challenge never to act afraid again.”

By Cordero’s count, he was hospitalized 18 times from racetrack spills.

“All those times, I was never worried about coming back,” Cordero said. “But I used to dream a lot. Good dreams, bad dreams. Dreams of winning races, dreams about getting hurt. There was this one dream where I was really in a bad spill. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I talked about it so much that my wife said we should get away [from New York] for a while, take the kids, and go to Puerto Rico. So I told everybody that I was going away for a week. We went down there, and all it did was rain for seven days. It rained so much that you couldn’t even get out of the hotel. So I didn’t get rid of the dream, and I gained weight, too. The whole thing was a disaster.”

In 1973, the retired riding nonpareil Eddie Arcaro was dabbling in broadcasting, and during the Triple Crown series he and Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s jockey, were inseparable. They would meet for breakfast, they would have dinner together, they might have a drink after the races. On the phone from New Brunswick, Canada, recently, Turcotte recalled some of their conversations.

“Eddie said he was never worried about getting killed,” Turcotte said. “He said that if you get killed on the track, it’s over real quick. But he always worried about going down and getting paralyzed. He had seen some of his fellow riders go out that way, and he said he was glad that it never happened to him.”

Cordero was the same way. “If you had ever given me a choice, getting killing or coming away paralyzed, I wouldn’t have minded dying,” he said. “When you get paralyzed, everybody suffers. You suffer, your family suffers trying to take care of you.”

Five years after Secretariat swept the Triple Crown, and nine days before his 37th birthday, Turcotte went down in a race at Belmont Park, a spill that has left him a paraplegic.

“I’m a great believer in fate, and there were omens,” Turcotte said. “The day before, a jockey broke his leg in a race. Two months before, I went to Alberta for a special promotion and broke four or six ribs in a spill. But I never, ever thought twice about getting hurt. I was always very confident that I could handle my horse. If something happened, it was going to be because you can’t control the horses around you. It’s like driving a car. You might be in control, but you always have to watch out for the other guy.”

Turcotte had planned to ride until he was 45. Then he figured he would go into training horses.

“Jeffrey Fell rode the horse that knocked my filly off balance,” Turcotte said. “I’ve never held it against him.”

Even before Robbie Davis’s mount unavoidably crushed Mike Venezia’s skull in a fatal spill at Belmont in 1988, Davis was loath to forge close relationships with his fellow riders.

“I didn’t want to get next to anybody in the [jockeys’] room,” Davis said from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he owns a farm and trains horses. “If I ever hurt anybody, I felt that it would make it even worse if I knew them well.”

Ironically, the exception had been Venezia, who was 16 years older. Davis looked up to Venezia, who campaigned for riding safety through his position with the Jockeys’ Guild. Davis said Venezia was like a big brother.

After Venezia’s death, Davis, unable to ride because of severe depression, went into seclusion. He walked away from the best season of his budding career. He had already won 231 races in 1988 and ranked sixth nationally on the money list. He bought a 35-foot mobile home and drove his family − his wife, Marguerite, and their three young children − to his native Idaho. They stayed there until March 1989, five months after the Venezia death. Bobby Frankel, one of the leading trainers in California, called and told Davis that he would put him on many of his horses if he came to Santa Anita. Davis had already ruled out a return to New York − the memory of what happened at Belmont was too stark for him to ride there.

Davis walked into the Santa Anita jockeys’ room, and Chris McCarron gave him a big hug. Laffit Pincay, Gary Stevens, some of the best riders in the world, rolled out the welcome mat. But the realization that he was now part of what was arguably the best colony in the country was counter-productive.

“There was Chris on one stool,” Davis said. “There was Laffit on another. Next to him was Shoemaker. And Eddie Delahoussaye, and Gary Stevens, and all the rest. Every one of them a Hall of Famer. I built up such a fear. I was paranoid of hurting one of them out there. I never forgave myself [for Venezia], and now I was telling myself that I didn’t know what I would do if it happened to McCarron or Pincay or somebody else. I had a nightmare. I was the driver of a car, and I was stalled on the railroad tracks.”

His first race back, at the top of the stretch, Davis’s mount ran up on the heels of another horse, and he dropped the whip.

“I was having trouble getting my hands to do what my mind wanted them to do,” Davis said.

He saw a psychiatrist, who told him to seek inner peace from his family to get him through Venezia’s death. But the guilt wouldn’t go away, and Davis’s business languished.

“[Trainers] wouldn’t ride me on anything,” he said. “I had no control over the fear. It took me over. I got dehydrated and started drinking a lot of beer, too much beer. I was hanging on to my life. I was worried about getting killed or killing somebody else.”

In 1992, 3 1/2 years after Venezia died, Davis ratcheted up enough courage to ride in New York again. The fans at Belmont Park cheered his return.

“The time came when I just had to put it to rest,” he said.

Davis began winning important races, including the Wood Memorial, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Arlington Million. He retired in 2002 with 3,382 wins. He made an abortive attempt to resume riding, as a 50-year-old, last year.

“I got my weight down,” he said. “But I rode only one race. Let’s put it this way: The rider didn’t pull up very well after that one race.”

Jackie Davis, who is 25, the second-oldest of Davis’s six children, is now riding in New York. But not because her father wanted her to.

“I blindsided him,” she said. “I had gone to college for a year, and he thought I was kidding when I said I wanted to drop out and become a jockey. Then when he realized I wasn’t kidding, he said he wanted nothing to do with the idea. My mother said she was behind me, but she said that I was on my own, because ‘your dad doesn’t want this.’ ”

Jackie was 1 1/2 years old when Mike Venezia was killed. She had heard his name, but it didn’t sink in about what had happened until she was 10, when her father was given the Mike Venezia Memorial Award.

A few years ago, Robbie Davis tried a scare tactic to keep his daughter away from the track. For the first time, he told Jackie all the horrible details surrounding the day Venezia died: The cantaloupe-like sound Venezia’s head made when Davis’s horse crushed it; the sight of what was left of Venezia’s face when Davis went to the ambulance and insisted on pulling back the sheet that covered him; the sobering fact that his horse had killed a fellow rider (although the official version of the spill was that Venezia died as the result of an “unavoidable accident”).

She was undeterred. She enrolled in Chris McCarron’s North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky., and became one of its first graduates. Finally, her father came around. He had trouble watching her ride for a while, but he became her agent early on (Roger Sutton has her book now). Robbie loaned her his old riding helmet, saying that it would be a good-luck charm.

“I wouldn’t have gone into this if I had been afraid,” Jackie said. “Fear is on the back burner. When I fall off a horse, I get back on. The only thing that comes close to fear is when I get on a fairly important horse. There might be a pit in my stomach as we’re about to load in the gate. But by the time they open the gate, the feeling is gone. My dad told me I’d be risking my life every day if I rode. I’m willing to accept that.”

Randy Romero rode in 26,091 races, winning 4,294 of them. Several spills, plus the day at Oaklawn Park when an exploding sweat box in the jockeys’ room sauna caused burns over two-thirds of his body, kept him from winning more.

“I was always very gutsy out there,” Romero said from Lafayette, La., 30 miles from where he was born. “I would have lasted longer if I hadn’t been. But all my life, I didn’t know fear. I took all the chances, riding near the fence never bothered me, and I paid all the consequences. Maybe I would have been better off if I had ridden scared once in a while.”

Romero, 54, also rode hurt when he shouldn’t have. He rode in a Breeders’ Cup race after having cracked a couple of ribs and broken his pelvis earlier on the card. “That was a big mistake,” he said. “That kept me out longer than it should have been. But it was always that way − I just wanted to ride.”

These days, Romero works with his brother Gerald, who’s a trainer in Louisiana. Randy Romero, voted into the Hall of Fame in 2010, has been on dialysis for 11 years, and has had colon surgery. By rights, each of his tomorrows should look several furlongs away, but that’s not the case. It’s no-fear Romero, in or out of the saddle.