08/06/2010 8:14PM

Like inflatable clown punching bags, jockeys always bounce back


DEL MAR, Calif. – They fall. They get up. They fall. They get up. After a while, you would think it would get old, and they would just stay down, by their own choice, and find something else to do. But taking such a path seems contrary to their deepest nature, the spiritual equivalent of wrapping themselves in the white flag of surrender. And so they fall. They get up. They fall.

Tyler Baze is 27, and he loves his job. He loves everything about being a jockey, which includes all the rough stuff, the rejection, and losing more than 80 percent of the time. Okay, he doesn’t like that part so much, nor does he arise each morning looking forward to the demands of extreme weight control. But that’s all part of the tour for which he signed on, body and soul, and the mantra is simple: It’s worth it.

That is why he is determined to get back to work as quickly as possible, just as soon as his facial fractures heal from an incident at Del Mar on the first Saturday of the meet, when a horse lashed back and cracked Baze flush in the mug behind the starting gate, shattering the orbital bone around his right eye and otherwise turning Tyler’s choirboy countenance black and blue. He would like to be able to say, “You should see the other guy.” But in racing, is doesn’t work that way.

Baze is not alone, which is no consolation, but at least provides recent context. Tad Leggett, 45, broke his neck on June 30 at Fair Meadows in Tulsa, Okla., when the Quarter Horse he was riding fell while pulling up. Craig Gibbs, 22, suffered head trauma when he went down between horses at Penn National on July 24, the same day Baze was hurt. On Thursday of this week at Del Mar, Joe Talamo, 20, fractured his left wrist when his horse broke down near the finish line of a turf race.

And then there is Scott Stevens, 49, who was trampled at Canterbury Park on the evening of July 2 when his mount broke both front legs while leading the field. Three other riders went down in the ensuing pile-up, but it was Stevens who had to be helicoptered to a nearby hospital in critical condition.

“Right now it’s the ribs and the sternum that’s the painful part,” said Stevens, older brother of Hall of Famer Gary Stevens. “The sternum’s broke in three pieces, and when I asked my doctor how many ribs were broken, he said somewhere between six and 22.”

The pain Stevens can deal with. Even a degree of numbness in both hands will eventually abate, when the swelling on pinched nerves subsides. What sticks with Stevens, though, is the awful memory of his collapsed lungs, and the fact that he could not breathe.

“There’s been lots of times I’ve had the wind knocked out of me, and I’m thinking, okay, in a minute it will come back,” Stevens said. “But it got worse and worse. They had oxygen on me, and it wasn’t making any difference. Then I started getting into a panic. Later on I thanked my doctor for saving me, and he said I needed to thank the paramedics. If they hadn’t decompressed my chest right there on the racetrack, I had about another minute.”

Both Baze and Stevens survived variations on a dangerous theme: full force contact with the head of a horse. At such moments, the awful memory of Alvaro Pineda comes to life, from Jan. 18, 1975, when he was killed in the starting gate at Santa Anita.

“I believe I was hurt before I ever hit the ground,” Stevens said. “When she broke both in front, she just dropped. And instead of it pulling me in front of her, she threw me right on top of her head. No question the vest probably saved my life. But I broke my helmet when I got hit from behind. I have a perfect hoof print on the top of the left side.”

Stevens was told, at least in the view of one reporter, that after a career of 34 years and more than 4,000 winners, he could take a year off if he wanted. See some sights. Get a tan. Who knows? Maybe even retire.

“I’ve thought about it, and there’s still nothing definite,” Stevens said. “But I don’t want to quit that way. Right now I’m just very grateful for all the prayers and good wishes of so many people.”

Spend enough time around these guys, and it becomes doubtful if they ever want to quit at all. Sure, the money can be good, if they’re lucky, and from time to time the job has the intoxicating air of show biz. Then things go wrong, and it can smell like a hospital corridor, like last Tuesday for Tyler Baze.

“I thought I was looking pretty good,” Baze said of his pre-surgery damage. “The swelling was totally out. But they said if I left it alone my eye could sink back in my head, and then I’d really look weird. So they put a mesh plate in under my eye to hold the eye socket in, then some kind of stints in my nose to straighten it out so I could breathe better. Those come out next week.”

Baze was back home near Santa Anita, where he will wait out his recovery under the supervision of his wife, Christina. He hopes to be back for the Oak Tree meet in the fall.

“I couldn’t ask for anyone better than her,” Baze said. “I know right now I’m not the easiest person to get along with. And I think I’ve seen everything in Blockbuster.

“It was a small thing,“ Baze added, “but it could have been real serious because it we’re talking about the head. No doubt, I got very lucky.”