11/18/2015 2:46PM

Hovdey: When Paul Eddery was trumped by borderline call


Anyone who wants to know what it is like to be a foreign national arrested by U.S. immigration officials for overstaying a working visa in these perilous times of border sensitivity need only give Paul Eddery a call. He spent nearly two months in an El Paso, Texas, detention center last spring before he was repatriated to his native Ireland.

“You can call it detention if you want,” Eddery said this week from Newmarket, where he now is an assistant to trainer Rae Guest. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing but a posh word for prison.”

The story was sensational at the time: “Exercise rider of Sunland Derby winner Firing Line detained by immigration officers.” There followed a burst of concern on social-network websites, primarily fueled by Eddery’s fiancée, Kristen Sztyndor. And then, poof! The story went away, drowned in the rising tide of Triple Crown news.

By the time Firing Line finished a noble second to American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby, Eddery was back in the British Isles, welcomed by old mates like Frankie Dettori and Michael Hills and possessed of cautionary tales that should chill anyone from ever leaving the land of one’s birth for anything more than a brief vacation.

Eddery, 52, is the younger brother of 11-time British champion jockey Pat Eddery, who died Nov. 10 at age 63. Paul was a respected rider in his own right, with more than 1,000 wins, including four at the prestigious Royal Ascot meet. He wrapped up his British career in 2010, then tried to squeeze a bit more juice from the lemon with a stint under contract in Barbados, still a hotbed of British colonial culture.

“That’s not exactly the way you want to end your career,” Paul Eddery said. “But if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have met Kristen, who was on holiday there from her home in New York.”

Shortly afterward, Eddery began to carve out a life in Southern California, first as an exercise rider for John Sadler and Carla Gaines and then in a more substantial role with Simon Callaghan. In 2014, Eddery found himself on the road with Arnold and Ellen Zetcher’s Santa Anita Oaks winner, Fashion Plate. Likewise last March with the Zetchers’ Firing Line to New Mexico, by way of El Paso.

“I knew I’d overstayed my visa,” Eddery said. “That’s on me. At the time, I was trying to finalize my divorce, and I was in transition for a different status in the U.S. As it turned out, it was about the worst place for that to happen. There was another English guy detained who had only overstayed his visa by two days, and he even had a ticket home to London.”

Eddery was sent to a privately run detention center that also housed felons of varying degrees.

“I understand you need to have immigration laws, but I was being treated like a criminal,” Eddery said. “Actually, criminals have a lot more rights. It was a real eye-opener. You’re locked up 21 hours a day. Your phone calls are monitored. You can visit the library just once a week. There was television, all tuned to Spanish-language channels, and a few games. Mostly it’s just waiting.”

Finally, Eddery was going back to Ireland. But then his flight from Texas was diverted because of weather, and when he arrived in Atlanta, there was no gate available for the plane. When he finally debarked, accompanied by his very own immigration officer, all the flights to Ireland had left.

“So, they sent me back to El Paso,” he said, “for another two and a half weeks.”

For a pair of genial Irish lads, the Eddery brothers have been magnets for ripe tabloid headlines. Pat Eddery’s battles with alcoholism were of sad public knowledge, as was a messy divorce and a subsequent relationship. Paul was caught in the backwash when he worked briefly for his brother as an assistant trainer. That chapter ended up in court over owed wages, although the suit was not allowed.

All that’s now history, as far as Paul is concerned, in the wake of Pat’s death. He preferred to recall moments like the day he hung a close photo on his big brother in a race of some importance at York. There was a little bumping, and when pulling up, the conversation went something like this:

Pat (laughing): “I’m going to object.”

Paul: “You’ve got no chance. Besides, you bumped me first.”

Pat (more laughing): “I’m still going to object.”

The objection was allowed, marking up one of the 4,632 British winners recorded by Pat Eddery during a 35-year career that included four victories in the Arc de Triomphe, three in the Epsom Derby, and two Breeders’ Cup trophies. Only the legendary Sir Gordon Richards rode more winners in England.

“To me, he was always just my big brother,” Paul said. “But he was also the best jockey, day in and day out, that I’ve ever seen.”

Paul and Kristen were married in August. They are happy enough in Newmarket, but their goal is to return someday to the States in spite of Paul’s immigration nightmare.

“If I do come back, I’d feel obligated to shine a light on what happened to me because I think the system is wrong,” Eddery said. “But listen, one bad experience doesn’t mean the country’s bad. They say everything happens for a reason, so we’ll see.”