06/13/2013 5:11PM

Jay Hovdey: Loss of Dominguez adds up to more than purses and wins

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Barbara D. Livingston
Ramon Dominguez's official retirement on Thursday brought to an end the agonizing speculation over any possibility of return from head injuries suffered in a crash at Aqueduct in January.

The elements of the Thoroughbred racing game are too vast and varied for a single person to make a fundamental difference, but Ramon Dominguez has come close.

His ascension through the ranks of the nation’s elite riders was accompanied by what could only be described as a singular grace under the intense pressure of riding more than 2,000 races a year. Horse racing does not expect its champions to ride like demons, dismount to the sound of catcalls and faint praise, and then treat the listener to a calm analysis full of disarming charm.

His official retirement on Thursday brought to an end the agonizing speculation over any possibility of return from head injuries suffered in a crash at Aqueduct in January. At the time of the accident Dominguez had won three straight Eclipse Awards as North America’s top jock. In purely mercenary terms, his retirement has freed up some $20 million a year in purses to be won by other riders. Given the verdict of his doctors, retirement also will allow Dominguez to watch his young sons, Matthew and Alexander, grow up.

Racing has never lost a superstar quite like this. There have been fatalities from a variety of terrible accidents – George Woolf, Avelino Gomez, Jack Westrope, and Alvaro Pineda come quickly to mind – while Chris Antley’s violent death at home came during a sad lull in his riding. As for the list of outstanding riders through history lost to paralysis, there’s not enough room on this page.

But this is different. Dominguez looks fine. There are no grotesquely broken bones, no braces, plates, or bolts holding him together after yet another trampling. He is the same handsome, firm-jawed, articulate athlete in rimless specs and a sharp suit who can hold forth on a variety of subjects without tipping his true profession.

“People take for granted what these guys do every day,” said Graham Motion, who was there in Maryland for Ground Zero of Ramon’s rocketing career. “We see jockeys get hurt all the time and move on to the next race.”

Motion heard the news about Dominguez in England, where he is preparing his Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom for the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot next Tuesday. Dominguez and Motion won their first major race together when Better Talk Now upset the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Lone Star Park.

“I’m sure Better Talk Now was a better horse for Ramon,” Motion said. “He’s done so much for my career. He helped put me on the map. In fact, he was a big help to me before the Dubai World Cup this year discussing strategy, post position, things like that. He’s always someone I’d turn to for advice because I have so much respect for his knowledge of the game.”

Gary Stevens, a Hall of Famer in the midst of an unconventional comeback, greeted the announcement with a heavy heart.

“It’s just sad,” Stevens said, “so sad when a guy so passionate about what he does can’t go out on his own terms. For him to have reached the pinnacle of his career last year, there was no reason to think it wasn’t going to last a long time. I can’t imagine what he’s been struggling with to admit it’s over.”

If you’ve got a spare 20 minutes, Stevens could take you on a tour of the damage horse racing has inflicted on his 50-year-old body. Still, it was a blow to the head in a horrific training accident at Santa Anita one morning in 1985 that nearly ended his career before it had a chance to catch fire.

“People would write about the injuries to my shoulder and my knee that day, but that was the least of the doctors’ worries,” Stevens said. “I had punctured my inner eardrum, and I had what they called a mini-stroke. My speech was messed up – I remember a doctor asking my wife, Toni, if I had a speech impediment – and I still have to concentrate when I get tired. They really didn’t know if I’d ever ride again. We kept it kind of quiet until we knew what we were up against, but two months later I was still having dizzy spells. I was 23.”

Richard Migliore was forced to retire from riding at age 46 after winning 4,450 races, the bulk of them in New York, and now works for the New York Racing Association in media, promotions, and as mentor to young riders.

“I’m not surprised, but that doesn’t keep me from being very sad about it,” Migliore said when he heard the news. “We’re so used to guys being able to bounce back from different injuries.”

About a month after Dominguez went down he sat for an on-camera interview with Migliore.

“Once you saw Ramon begin to talk in public a little, give interviews about wanting to come back, I think everybody assumed he was fine and it was just a matter of time,” Migliore said.

Of course, Migliore added, this is exactly what any driven, dedicated jockey would do. Migliore fell at Aqueduct in January of 2010 and fractured bones in his neck that had been agonizingly repaired some 20 years before. He was told, after successful surgery, that he could never fall again without suffering the worst possible outcome, and yet he required convincing.

“The jockey’s mentality is so strong-willed,” Migliore said. “Twenty minutes after our interview Ramon was telling Dave Grening and the Racing Form he wanted to be back by March so he could go ride in Dubai. We’re so conditioned to think that we’ve got to be in the next big race or at the next big event. Even if he had concerns, the jockey in him wasn’t going to allow those concerns to creep in. He had to be ready for the World Cup, the Triple Crown. I fully believe he thought he was going to make it back.”

Milestones hardly matter now. Dominguez won 4,985 races and his horses earned $191 million in purse money. His last, triumphant valedictory in the saddle came in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita when he nursed Little Mike wire-to-wire to defeat Point of Entry and St Nicholas Abbey in the Turf at odds of 17-1.

“Nothing’s going to fill this void for him,” Migliore said. “More important now is that he has a good, productive life and can enjoy his family, and do other things he enjoys doing. It sounds cliché, but it always could be worse, right?”

Absolutely right. And yes, it is a cliché, but it also has the benefit of being true. The mind boggles at the possible uses to which the sport could put an intellectual asset like Dominguez, if he is willing.

“I’ve no doubt he could do anything in any aspect of racing if he chose to do it,” Motion said. “Any way we could keep him in the game would be a big asset.”