04/07/2014 12:38PM

Jay Bergman: Jeff Gregory is finally ready to spring into action

Michael Burns
Jeff Gregory drove champion trotter Chapter Seven in the 2011 Breeders Crown.

Spring is a season for optimism. In this sport the rise in the thermometer is a sign that better horses will emerge soon. It’s a sign that two-year-olds aren’t that far from hitting the racetrack for the first time.

Owners, trainers and even some drivers have reason to look ahead to the unknown that is now ever closer than it was during the dark days of winter.

For Jeff Gregory, the arrival of spring has many of those elements. He has been sidelined since September 6, 2013, when the horse he was driving at Freehold Raceway tripped on a hobble and fell to the ground causing a pile-up and catapulting Gregory from the race bike to the sidelines. The results of the crash left him with a shattered left elbow and a questionable future as a harness driver.

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“When it first happened the doctors wanted to put a plate in,” said Gregory about the initial objective to repair his elbow. “But it was shattered and there was no way a plate would work. They decided to wire it.”

The rehabilitation was painful for Gregory, who expected to be sidelined for four months and return ready to race this winter.

“After four months the elbow was repaired,” said Gregory, “But the wires were really causing me problems. It was like BBs at the top of my elbow. If I was always going to wear short sleeves it wouldn’t be a problem, but anytime something touched that area I felt it.”

Gregory decided to have the wires removed and that led to another two months on the sidelines.

For some the wait can be extraordinary. In a driver’s position, there is always the lingering doubt that all of the physical ability will return as well as the question of whether the lost drives will return.

“I wasn’t worried about returning from the injury,” said Gregory, “Every time the doctors monitored my progress they felt I would recover fully.”

But what about the drives, would trainers be looking for Jeff Gregory?

“There’s always doubt,” said Gregory, “But thankfully the phone started ringing when I let people know I was ready to come back and that was good to hear.”

Gregory started back by driving just one horse on Thursday (March 27) at Yonkers Raceway and he said that he felt good in the bike and had no issues with his elbow that would impact his driving ability.

“I felt good out there. It’s actually a good thing I only had one drive. It’s best if I don’t overdo it at the beginning,” Gregory said, with an eye towards the coming season.

One would think that having been in racing accidents, drivers could become gun shy or feel added pressure that another accident is around the corner. Gregory deflected those concerns.

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“I think the racing is much safer today than its ever been,” Gregory said, “Today when you go on the track you’re racing against the same group of drivers all of the time. They know each other and I think that helps make each race safer.”

Though races are much faster today than they’ve ever been, Gregory doesn’t believe the added pace has made the game more dangerous

While Gregory will be returning to full time action, another driver involved in that Freehold wreck and then involved in another one this winter, Cat Manzi, will not be making another comeback.

“I’m actually happy for Cat. We’ve been involved in some of the same accidents and in his case, I’m concerned about his concussions,” Gregory said.

“It seems like he was involved in a lot of accidents and it was never his fault,” said Gregory, lamenting the hard luck of his friend and rival.

“It’s going to be hard for him because he’s a workaholic,” said Gregory of Manzi’s situation, but he’s hopeful the decision to step away is best for Manzi’s future.

While John Campbell has come back from injury repeatedly, Gregory classifies that Hall of Famer in a different category from him and others. “Some guys just love driving,” Gregory said.

Jeff Gregory enjoys driving as well, but over the last six months he’s had plenty of time to reflect on the rigors of driving horses versus training horses.

“I like training horses, but there was a time I had a stable and I was racing in the day at Freehold and at night at Yonkers and it was impossible to maintain the horses,” said Gregory.

On his current path back to the racetrack, Gregory has had the opportunity to train some young horses, including a few he owns in partnership with William Richardson.

“I’ve gone partners with Bill over the last few years on yearlings,” said Gregory, “He had horses for my father and now I’m continuing that tradition.

Gregory has tried to focus on purchasing low to mid-priced yearlings over the years with a great deal of success for the minimal number of buys.

Thisgirlisonfire, a three-year-old Angus Hall-sired filly, was a $24,000 purchase and Magic City, a Conway Hall-sired two-year-old filly, was had for just $25,000 last fall.

The three-year-old earned $23,724 as a two-year-old without a victory.

Magic City has been training down well. Both fillies are under the care of trainer Linda Toscano, who has been a close friend of Gregory for a long time. Toscano had Gregory step in the bike for Chapter Seven’s three-year-old Breeders Crown at Woodbine, on a night his usual pilot was stranded in New Jersey. The 1:53 mile was one of the most memorable of the driver’s racing career.

Gregory has been a regular around the Toscano stable during his rehabilitation and comeback. He’s likely to be behind many of her horses this summer racing in the New York Sire Stakes program.

“I’d like to settle at Yonkers, but I expect I’ll be picking up some drives in the Sire Stakes,” said Gregory.

Gregory appears to have the one quality necessary to be a solid trainer and driver in this sport, and that is patience. He waited a little longer to return to full strength on the racetrack and he appears to have the same attitude when it comes to preparing horses to go on the racetrack.

While driving is his number-one priority at the moment, Gregory looked towards the future and thinks he could handle a small stable of young horses, primarily trotters, and still maintain a driving schedule. “I love being at the barn in the morning everyday,” Gregory said.

Welcome back Jeff.