07/31/2014 12:50PM

Hovdey: Double dose of reality for Van Dyke


The sixth race at Del Mar was underway last Friday, July 25, at around 6:30 p.m. Pacific as Gary Stevens settled into a meal of hospital food at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. One thing did not necessarily have anything to do with the other, except for the fact that Stevens, his right knee finally replaced that morning after years of horseback abuse, also was tuned into the races at just the right moment to see his young friend and colleague, Drayden Van Dyke, go down in a three-horse pile on the backstretch of the Del Mar turf course.

Van Dyke and his horse got up – another horse wasn’t as lucky – and Stevens finished his meal, then continued the immediate rehabilitation that may or may not end his colorful Hall of Fame career once and for all. Down south, Van Dyke went home that night with his roommate, Hall of Famer Mike Smith, having survived his first racing accident unscathed.

Then, the following day, he went down again.

The fact that Van Dyke, 19, went eight months and 618 mounts before his first crash speaks to a run of good fortune that has been a key part of his hot start as an apprentice. The fact that he crashed again, less than 24 hours later, gave him a pretty good idea of what could happen on any given day if he insisted on making his living as a professional jockey.

“In that first one, obviously I saw the horse fall in front of me,” Van Dyke said. He was in the jocks’ room Wednesday, back to work after missing Sunday’s program.

“There was nowhere I could go,” he added. “I was just trying to avoid the jockey and I guess ended up running over the horse. When my horse stepped on his horse, my horse kind of went everywhere. I tried to hold my horse up if she tried to fall, but I lost all balance and came off.”

Brice Blanc was already down, and Tyler Baze followed. Other than the fatal injury sustained by Blanc’s horse, Yes She’s Unusual, none of the other fallen horses or riders were seriously injured.

Then came Saturday, when Van Dyke’s baptism of misfortune included his first ambulance ride, his first hospital visit as a jockey, and, sadly, the first horse who broke down beneath him. Lil Swiss Echo was her name, a 5-year-old mare making her 10th lifetime start for trainer Vladimir Cerin. Van Dyke had ridden her twice before, and she gave him one of his 102 wins, which is why you believed him when he said he had “a soft spot in his heart” for Lil Swiss Echo.

“The horse warmed up good,” Van Dyke said. “Didn’t feel like any kind of sore. The only thing with her was not wanting to go into the gate. She never did that before. I just figured with her on the outside of 13 horses, with a pond right there not far away, there was just a lot of new stuff for her to look at.”

About a mile into the 1 1/16-mile race, Lil Swiss Echo broke a leg.

“I really didn’t know what was happening,” Van Dyke said. “I thought she stumbled. As she broke down, I was pulling my whip through with my left hand because she’d been lugging in a little bit. Her head came up and hit me in the face. I fell off and hit my head real hard on the ground, but I didn’t get run over. I was lucky.”

Members of the gate crew made a beeline to the fallen horse and rider.

“They told me to stay down,” Van Dyke said. “I asked them what happened. Thinking she stumbled, I was kind of embarrassed for falling off. They told me she broke down really bad.”

As Lil Miss Echo was being euthanized, her jockey was getting strapped onto a stretcher and transported to the track’s first-aid station. The damage included only a jammed finger, a bloody nose, a cut lip, and a touch of whiplash. Then came the question.

“They asked me, ‘Do you know what happened?’ ” Van Dyke said. “I said no, but I should have answered better. I knew why I was there, but I thought they meant what happened to the horse, and I really didn’t know that for sure. So, they sent me to the hospital as a precaution.”

Once there, it did not take long to discover that Van Dyke was lucid and showing no symptoms of a head injury. He was sent home without being admitted, which turned out to be a lot different from the last time he visited a hospital.

“It had been since the third grade, when I had surgery on my right hip,” Van Dyke said. “I had a bone disease. The leg wasn’t growing. I was in a wheelchair, then crutches and a walker. I missed six months of school and had to take summer school so I wouldn’t fall a grade behind.”

Van Dyke was describing Legg-Calve-Perthes disease – Perthes for short – a bone disorder of the ball joint of the hip that affects around one in 1,200 children, mostly active boys between 4 and 10. Guess who was diagnosed at age 6.

“You’re kidding me,” Stevens said. “Drayden had Perthes, too? I’ll be damned. That explains why he’s as tough as he is.”

Stevens, now 51, spent 18 months in a brace and then, after a period of prodigious development, won 4,988 races and three Kentucky Derbies. More recently, while dealing with his impending knee-replacement surgery and now the aftermath, Stevens has found satisfaction in the role of mentor to Van Dyke. If the apprentice wants to talk to the master about horses breaking down, there is plenty of experience from which to draw.

“Sometimes they’ll give you a warning, and with seasoning, he’ll know,” Stevens said. “But when one just drops from underneath you, it’s an awful, helpless feeling, and it takes some time to get over.”

At 19, the getting over tends to come a lot quicker, even when crashes happen back-to-back. Van Dyke showed no signs that he was shaken any more than he should have been. Still, there was one thing he couldn’t quite wrap his head around.

“Gary had Perthes?” Van Dyke said. “Maybe that means something good for me.”