04/18/2012 2:33PM

Hovdey: Straight family keeping the faith

Barbara D. Livingston
Michael Straight, paralyzed in a 2009 spill, visits Churchill Downs with his parents.

The Straight family was already having a bad day last Sunday at Keeneland when Big Flirt, their family jewel, was claimed out of the second race.

Big Flirt had raced 13 times for the Straights in 2011, each time ridden by Matthew Straight and flying the blue and orange colors of Matthew’s parents, Beth and Sandy Straight. He won only once in that stretch, but with six seconds and four thirds the old boy was a hero to the exotic players and more than earned his own way in the barn. The claim price of $10,000 did nothing to stem the tide of tears that flowed as the 6-year-old gray was led away, the red tag dangling from his bridle.

Life goes on, and 90 minutes later Matthew Straight was back to work riding the 107-1 shot Maid on a Mission in a straight maiden event on the Keeneland turf for Tommy Mills, her owner and trainer. Straight put the filly on the lead – to at least make the others go where he had already been – and found himself still in front as the field approached the final furlong. As the opposition loomed, Straight threw a couple of crosses and gave his filly a tap left-handed. Unfortunately, Maid on a Mission seemed more distracted by horses swarming to her right. She suddenly swerved left and into the plastic rail, sending Straight rocketing to the firm ground.

Just like that, losing Big Flirt became ancient history. The Straights had been here before. In a flash, Matthew’s parents raced down from the stands and across the track to be by the side of their fallen son, and if he could have, Matthew’s twin brother Michael would have been right alongside – except for the fact that he was in a wheelchair.

Michael Straight has been paralyzed from the mid-chest south since Aug. 26, 2009, when he went down in a one-horse wreck at Arlington Park. He was 23 at the time. He had been riding for all of seven months, and he had already taken a good bite out of his apprenticeship with 39 wins, 23 of them at competitive Arlington.

On Wednesday, reached at home in Lexington, Ky., Michael relayed the news that Matthew was going to be okay – “okay” being a relative term when talking about jockeys. Surgery was scheduled for that afternoon to repair two fractures to Matthew’s shoulder, and several months of healing and rehab would follow. Matthew was rightfully dismayed at the interruption in what is a career on the rise, but as Michael noted the last thing his brother needed was a reminder of how bad it could have been.

“He landed on his knees and went straight down to the shoulder,” Michael said. “Going that fast, you can imagine the impact. He’s really bummed out, because he was doing well. Then he looked at me, and a couple months didn’t sound quite so bad.”

The Straight brothers (Matthew is one minute older) graduated with considerable promise from the North American Racing Academy run by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron. Since his injury, however, Michael’s primary occupation has been coping with the challenges presented by a world geared almost exclusively to the ambulatory. He receives financial support from both the Jockeys’ Guild and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, and to hear him tell it, he’s doing better than most.

Michael qualified for his driver’s license last September and now can be found behind the wheel of his customized GMC Sierra pickup, with hand controls, a swivel driver’s seat that lowers to wheelchair height, and hydraulic truck bed-lift.

“Getting my license was tough, but I wanted it that bad,” Michael said. “That first day I felt like I was breaking out of the gate all over again.”

So admirable has been his rehabilitation that Michael has been asked to address a symposium next month in Lexington on the subject of brain and spinal cord injuries (he fractured four vertebrae). He’s been a regular presence at the Thoroughbred Training Center near Lexington, where he and his parents had stabled Big Flirt, and maintains contacts throughout the racing community. Michael even found time to get himself engaged to Meredith Pritchett, a case manager at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital in Lexington.

“There really isn’t a wedding date set yet, but she just finalized the adoption of her two boys,” said Michael, instant father-to-be. “They’re six and seven, and they surprised me last Halloween by dressing up like jockeys, kind of in my honor. It was really neat. I didn’t know they made jockey pants that small.”

The boys were with Michael when Matthew went down the other day.

“They understand that jockeys fall and when they do they can get hurt,” Michael said. “Right then, I think they were more worried about my mom and dad running across the track.

“It just shows how strong my parents are, dealing with this now,” Michael added. “After my fall, I’m sure that’s all they think about whenever Matt’s riding.”

These days Michael gets around outside with a new Power Assist chair – “One push and I’m flying,” he said – but there are physical effects from his injury beyond a change in mobility.

“The one thing that really bothers me is called neuropathic pain,” Michael said. “It’s something I’ll have to deal with the rest of my life. My brain keeps sending messages to nerves that stop at my injury line in my chest. The reaction to the miscommunication is a terrible, stabbing pain. I got on a medication last November that helped, but it seems now in the last week my chest has been hurting a lot. I’m sure stress doesn’t help it out at all.”

To Michael’s relief, indications are that Matthew will be able to resume his riding career. As for the Straight racing stable . . .

My dad would go to the Training Center every day we had Big Flirt to work with him, and do his stall,” Michael said. “Matt would come by when he was through with his breezes, even try to get on him when he could. He was the family horse, and it was tough losing him.

“Maybe down the road we can claim another one, or even claim Big Flirt back,” Michael added. “Hopefully we can stay in the game.”