12/21/2007 1:00AM

Injured teen talks of return

EmailSTICKNEY, Ill. - It's a hard-boiled crowd hanging out in the grandstand of Hawthorne Race Course late on a December morning. Cigarette smoke and talk of the early double. But down at the grandstand's east end on Friday was a fresh face not seen here at the track since Nov. 30. And anybody who saw the jockey Lyndie Wade walking around smiling and eating Christmas cookies - even those gritty regulars readying for the day's action - had to feel a warm glow welling up.

Wade's gait hasn't yet returned to normal. There still are some holes in his memory. But in the main, he is mostly back to himself, which is startlingly good news for a 16-year-old who quite frankly nearly died out on the track in a terrifying spill here Nov. 30.

Wade was aboard a claiming horse who broke down badly - and instantly - at the top of the Hawthorne homestretch. Wade went down like a sack of potatoes, bouncing hard several times as his body careened away from the rail. He lay motionless as John Fehr, a longtime emergency medical technician here at Hawthorne, rushed to his side.

"He had agonal respirations," Fehr said. "That means he was fighting to breathe."

Wade will turn 17 on Jan. 2. Born and raised in Louisiana, he is the son of Rita Wade, who briefly held a jockey's license, and who has been around the racetrack her entire adult life. Lyndie Wade rode ponies as a little kid, and started galloping horses - both before and after school - at age 14. Earlier this year, he received an apprentice jockey's license and began riding at Louisiana Downs.

"It was pretty much Lyndie's decision to start riding," said Rita Wade, reached by phone on Friday. "Once he decided that's what he wanted to do, I didn't discourage it."

In September, after Louisiana Downs had cut back to three-day racing weeks, Wade left home and came to the big city for the first time. Hoping to make the most of his time with a five-pound apprentice weight allowance, he moved his tack to Hawthorne, which races five-day weeks into January. Wade moved in with his new agent, Jay Fedor, and began winning races at a steady clip. Through the end of November, he had 26 wins, and Wade still ranks seventh in the Hawthorne standings.

When Wade went down in the third race on that dark Friday afternoon, many longtime Chicago racetrackers harked back to 1991, when rider Rodney Dickens was killed in an awful spill at Sportsman's Park. Fehr, who has worked as a paramedic at the track for some 30 years, was there that day, too.

As he checked on Randy Meier, who had also gone down in the spill, and turned his attention to Wade, Fehr feared the worse.

"We stabilized him, got him into the ambulance and out of the weather," Fehr said. "That time of day, with traffic, it took 12 to 15 minutes to get him to Loyola [Medical Center]. They were waiting for him there."

Flash to an offtrack betting parlor in Shreveport, La. Rita Wade was watching live when her son went down.

"It was devastating to see," she said.

Wade had suffered a collapsed lung and a broken jaw, but the major injury was his head trauma. He had minor bleeding on the brain, which was bruised and swollen. Wade was heavily medicated and put into an induced coma - typical medical procedure - to give his brain a chance to heal, but even when he was taken off the drugs on Saturday, about 24 hours after his spill, Wade didn't wake up. He showed signs of awareness - squeezing hands, moving when people spoke his name - through the weekend, but it was not until Tuesday that Wade actually regained consciousness. He had no idea where he was, or what had happened.

"It freaked me out pretty bad," Wade said. "I was scared - really scared."

Wade has no recollection of the spill. He remembers being at a pizza parlor a couple of days before, but the next thing he can recall is hearing Fedor's voice at the hospital, before he was fully awake. Wade watched the accident for the first time on Thursday.

"When I first saw it on the computer, it didn't look that bad," he said. "But then, when I saw it on TV, I saw myself flying across the TV, and it looked bad. I guess I feel detached from it, because I didn't remember being a part of it at all. But, it happened to me, and that's pretty crazy."

Wade is in physical therapy now. His mind seems clear, and his brain and muscles are learning to work together again. Doctors have all along predicted a complete recovery, but Wade right now is still processing the news that it could be a year before it's safe for him to ride again. However long it takes - and Wade hopes to be back in much less than a year - he says he's determined to get back in the saddle again.

"My motto is 'Hard work pays off,' " he said, youthful enthusiasm from a sweet, baby-faced young man.

Rita Wade described the last three weeks as "a roller-coaster ride, something no parent should ever have to go through." She also has come to terms with the knowledge that her son has every intention of picking himself up and getting back on horses - as soon as he can.

"Hey, it's his dream," she said. "I can't deny a person his dream. I'll be horrified, but I can't stop him. We'll say our prayers and go on with it."