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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.
I think the nicest ride I ever saw Ricky make was in the slop at monmouth abord Margo's gift in a pre-breeders cup race. Rode the rail all the way to a 30-1 upset....I know cause I nailed it...Thanks for all the nice rides brother.............
Best wishes to you Mr Frazier, and good luck in the future. I too was reminded of Ramon D when reading of your struggle; he is probably one of very few who can truly understand how hard this is.
I remember watching the "Win a Jockey" Race thinking that if I had my choice of which jockey to choose, then it would surely be Ricky for sure. He was great at Emerald Downs and while I'm sure we're all sad to see him have to retire, we're thrilled that he would honor us with the ceremony. Ricky you'll always be a fan favorite in Washington and I'm sure I speak for all the fans of Emerald Downs wishing you nothing but future happiness.
A really good rider. The thing that separates the average rider from the good rider is consistently putting their horses in a position to win and getting a wide variety of horses to run for them. Ricky did both very well...
I always teased Ricky and said we were cousins since our families are from the Midwest, Oklahoma and Arkansas. A classy guy and even if he isn't a cousin, I intend to claim it anyway Many Frazier's have been jockeys and Ricky is right at the top as one of the best of the family. Hang in there because there is life after riding.
Im Rickys father,To see him have to give up riding was one of the hardest things I think in all my years of racing to see,He was born to be a jockey,I tried so hard in the beginning to head him in the direction of education,But after a few years him working at the stable with me,I knew he was going to learn under me or some one else,When he broke his neck in New Orleans I really was thinking he may be done,ever day of that year he was injured he got up ever day with only one thought in mine when could he get released to ride again.I tolded Ricky the other day the hardest decision I ever made in my life was to not ride any more,Any Jockey that has ever thru his leg over a thoroughbred knows what I mean,I give up horse training a lot easier than riding,Ricky is not just my son he also my best friend,What ever he decides to do with the rest of his life he will do good and be loved,thats the kind of man is and always will be,It has been a true pleasure to call him my son.
Glad to hear your doing better and continued good health and enjoy your retirement. You are a household name in the Sport Of Kings
My heart goes out to Ricky and wish I could tell him in person. I know him well. He was one of the riders in the movie, "Seabiscuit," and he once rode seven winners on a Louisiana Downs card. I remember because I was writing and handicapping for the Dallas Morning News at the time and had him in my selections in all seven races. I also picked three other winners on the same card, giving me 10 of 11. Ricky was also featured in the TV documentary, produced by Corey Johnsen and I, "Ride like the Wind," which won the 2006 Eclipse for TV Documentary. In it he talked about the risk he was taking because of previous fall that I think injured his head. Even then he was risking a lot to continue riding. He continued for a long time. It all bring home the dangers inherent in race riding. I do hope and pray he has a full recovery. He's a very brave person. Glad you considered him worthy of one of your always interesting articles, Jay.
I didn't know what happened to Ricky Frazier, he kinda of disappeared off the map. I rode with Ricky when he had the bug in New York. I always knew he was going to be an outstanding rider. I wish him well in his retirement, knowing how difficult it can be.
Sorry to hear this. I saw this journeyman when he was riding at Delaware about 15 years back. Good rider, always gave his best shot I'd say.