10/05/2017 10:50AM

Hovdey: Ferrer and his native land healing together


On Sept. 20, six days after being involved in a five-horse wreck at Delaware Park, Jose Ferrer underwent surgery to remove a build-up of fluid surrounding the lung, which was punctured by one or more of his eight fractured ribs. In addition to the ribs and the punctured lung, Ferrar also cracked two vertabrae in the accident and contracted pneumonia while hospitalized.

On the same day Ferrer was undergoing the lung procedure, some 1,500 miles to the south in his native Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria descended with a vengeance, wiping out whole communities, stripping the island of its lush vegetation, and rendering most of the 3.4 million residents without water and electricity while creating a humanitarian crisis that will linger long after Ferrer is back on his feet.

Ferrer’s hometown of Bayamon was among the suburbs of the capital of San Juan to feel the wrath of Maria. So was Santurce, where Angel Cordero grew up before becoming Puerto Rico’s most famous racing export, and Trujillo Alto, home of brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz.

“It’s a terrible mess,” said Cordero, who still has relatives on the island. “We’re trying to send things like batteries and food down there, the basics. There is so much destruction, they pretty much have to start over.”

The U.S. commonwealth is rich in racing history. Eddie Belmonte, winner of the 1970 Preakness and a host of major events, is also from Santurce. Hall of Famer John Velazquez hails from the city of Ponce, which was hit hard by Maria on Puerto Rico’s southern shore. Champion Bold Forbes, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, began his career at El Comandante Racetrack near San Juan, as did Mister Frisky, winner of the 1990 Santa Anita Derby.

Since 2007, the track has been known as Hipodromo Camarero. In the wake of the hurricane, vigorous relief efforts to save the 800 horses stabled there have been spearheaded by organizations like the Thoroughbred Charities of America and Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare. Thousands have fled the disaster, seeking sanctuary with friends and family on the U.S. mainland. But for now, the horses are stuck.

As he recovered from his lung surgery, Ferrer learned that family members still living in Bayamon had left Puerto Rico for Florida and others were heading to New Jersey, where he lives during the summer season. Ferrer himself will be traveling home to Tampa, Fla., as soon as doctors give him the green light.

“Everybody was hit hard, but they’re okay, thank God,” Ferrer said this week. “My parents, I feel so bad for them. It was only a month ago my sister died. Her name was Carmen. Now this.”

Ferrer, 53, was in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career when he went down. With Steve Worsley handling his book, the veteran was on pace to threaten his career-high mount earnings of $3.4 million from 1998.

Such numbers were far from Ferrer’s mind, though, as the end of the backstretch approached in the third race on a quiet Thursday afternoon at Delaware Park. That’s where the leading horse, ridden by Victor Carrasco, lost her footing on a wet patch of grass.

“When she went down I saw Victor in front of me,” Ferrer recalled. “I didn’t want to run over the top of him, so I just kind of pushed myself to the outside. But there was a horse outside of me, so I went over Victor’s horse.”

Carrasco, a former Eclipse Award-winning apprentice, sustained a seriously fractured lower right leg that required surgery.

“After that everything happened in a rush,” Ferrer went on. “The other horses came bam-bam-bam. When I hit the ground my back went numb. I thought I was paralyzed. Then my legs started to get warm, and I could move them around. That’s when the pain began.”

In the face of such trauma, the narcotic release of natural adrenalin can wear off quickly. Everything Ferrer had ever heard about the nightmarish pain of fractured ribs was instantly validated, especially since three of his broken eight were in pieces. Three weeks later, the agony persisted.

“I can’t pee, I can’t laugh, it hurts to breathe,” Ferrer said. “I can’t even yawn. And if I have to fart, I say, ‘Oh no.’ ”

At this he laughed, a little.

“I wouldn’t wish broken ribs on nobody,” he added. “I’m just glad to be home. Only my little boy knows he can’t jump on my lap. He tells everybody that daddy has a boo-boo.”

That would be Derek, who is 3. Baby brother Joseph is 20 months. Hold a good thought for wife and mother Steffi Ferrer, in charge of them all.

Ferrer has won 4,189 races. He came to the mainland at 16 and has paid regular visits to Puerto Rico ever since, most notably in 2003, when he won the inaugural Angel Cordero Jr. Jockey Challenge at El Comandante.

“It’s been three or four years since I was there,” Ferrer said. “Things were tough then. But now, it’s going to be so hard to come back from this.”

He could have been talking about himself. In a career that began in 1982, the longest he could remember being sidelined by injury was about a month.

“I think I’ll be okay, though, because I’ve been taking good care of myself, keeping fit,” Ferrer said. “So you can tell everyone: I’ll be back.”