06/28/2013 5:06PM

Jay Hovdey: Frazier's heart can't overcome head injuries


Call it a celebration. Call it a farewell. Call it a chance just to say thanks once more when on Wednesday two of Thoroughbred racing’s noble warriors, both reluctantly retired, will be honored for their service as the holiday week kicks off at Emerald Downs, the tidy little track up there in Seattle doing business in the shadow of Mount Rainier.

Noosa Beach, the winner of the 2010 Longacres Mile, is 7 years old and was gearing up for another summer season when he sustained a career-ending ankle injury in training. As the winner of a record 11 stakes at Emerald Downs, Noosa Beach probably has drawn more fans to the track over the past four years than all the Bud Light nights and T-shirt giveaways combined. He deserves that gold watch and a cushy desk job.

Ricky Frazier was aboard Noosa Beach for their Longacres Mile victory over no less an individual than Jersey Town, who later that year took the Cigar Mile. Frazier and Noosa Beach were regular partners and would have continued their Emerald Downs romance had it not been for the afternoon of Oct. 17, 2010, when the rider suffered serious head injuries in a freakish post parade incident at California’s Big Fresno Fair.

The injuries brought to a sudden halt a colorfully varied career that had settled into a successful, satisfying routine. At the moment he lay there in the Fresno dirt, stunned into unconsciousness, Frazier had just won his fourth Fresno riding title and was fresh from his fifth Emerald Downs championship in the past seven years, a brief window during which he had won 847 Emerald Downs races, far outpacing such local institutions as Juan Gutierrez and Gallyn Mitchell. And Frazier had done it all after he’d turned 40.

It was, as far as a journeyman like Frazier was concerned, the perfect way to put the icing on a career that began at the knee of his father, Roy Frazier, a jockey-turned-trainer who legged up his son in his first race at Churchill Downs in May of 1980, two months before Ricky turned 16. In the race just before he was injured, Frazier won Fresno’s richest race, the Bull Dog Stakes, for his 3,469th victory of a career that had taken him to just about every major U.S. track, and a whole lot of the minors.

“I’d done more than I ever expected to do,” Frazier said this week from his home in his native Arkansas. “When I first started they were thinking I’d be able to get two or three years in before I got too big. But I definitely had a lot more I felt I could accomplish. I felt like I was peaking, like I was riding better horses. I wasn’t riding twelve months a year, but I was winning more races riding more quality horses nine or ten months a year. The way I was going, I thought I’d be able to ride forever.”

Frazier didn’t really mean forever, but you get the idea. Jockeys over 40 tend to bring something to the table in terms of judgment and guile they did not have in their youth. They’ll never see it all, but they’ve seen enough to be able to make better, faster decisions than jockeys who are still compiling data. As long as they can keep pace physically and get up when they fall, they figure they’ve got an edge.

Now, Frazier can’t even get on a horse.

“I expected to return to riding for sure, even though at the beginning my memory was bad, and in my speech I couldn’t even finish sentences,” he said. “But the doctors kept showing me what I couldn’t do. And my family was telling me things I didn’t realize.

“My equilibrium just never came back,” he went on. “Even things like riding a bike or driving a car, which I can do, just doesn’t feel the same. They even tried to let me get on a horse, and my balance just isn’t there any more.

“So the athletic part of my life isn’t the same, but you learn to adapt,” he said. “I put it this way to people: Instead of going water skiing you get to ride the boat. You try to enjoy life the way it’s going to be, but it’s not the same.”

Frazier recently became a grandfather for the first time, and he has taken up fishing, which means he will need to be content with the quiet joys that life can bring for those of us who’ve never thrilled to the adrenalin rush of riding a Thoroughbred racehorse with the money down.

“I watch the races on television and try to keep up on how people are doing, but it’s hard to go to the track,” Frazier said. “There’s so many questions to answer, and it gets kind of hard.

“This will be the first time I’ve been back to Emerald since I got hurt,” Frazier noted. “I was asked why I chose there to officially retire, since I’ve ridden at so many tracks. I said it was kind of a second home to me. It was my agent, Boone McCanna, who brought me there. But it was the fans and horsemen were why I stayed. They definitely felt like family.”

Since late in 2010, Frazier has gone through the physical and emotional ups and downs of an athlete torn unwillingly from his vocation. The prospect of publicly acknowledging that he would never ride again was something he’d been avoiding for a very long time.

“It’s been two and a half years for me, and it’s still hard to say I’m not riding again,” he said. “At the beginning the doctors were telling me there was a possibility I might ride again, but after about a year they said I’d gotten to a point it was as good as it was going to get. I’d fired two doctors who said I’d never ride again after breaking my ankle in 2002, but I didn’t know enough about the brain to know how different an injury it can be. I guess if you’re going to have an injury, I wouldn’t want to be in a wheelchair.”

It will be impossible to watch Frazier stand in front of the Emerald Downs crowd on Wednesday and not think about Ramon Dominguez, whose flowering Hall of Fame career came to a sudden end this year, at age 36, because of head injuries suffered in a fall at Aqueduct.

“I rode with Ramon a little bit when I was on the East Coast,” Frazier said, hearkening to his swing through the Mid-Atlantic. “He was in the middle of the standings, just on his way up. A really classy guy. You could see he was going places. I was really sorry to see what happened.”

Informed of Frazier’s struggles, and his decision to finally turn the page, Dominguez responded in a text message:

“I understand what he is going through. Please tell him I say hello.”

Frazier’s fans will take care of the rest.