01/26/2011 4:39PM

Lakeman ready to begin training career 44 months after paralyzing spill

Barbara D. Livingston
Thisskysabeauty, who will make his first start Saturday, puts his head in trainer Andrew Lakeman’s lap in September at Belmont Park.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Jockey Andrew Lakeman nearly died as a result of injuries he suffered in a spill at Belmont Park in May 2007. There were times he wished he had.

Instead, Lakeman was paralyzed from the chest down, confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. Not the ideal place for an athlete accustomed to running six or seven miles a day, getting on a handful or two of horses each morning, and trying to make a career as a jockey in New York, arguably the toughest racing circuit in the country.

Mix in an addiction to drugs and alcohol, and the ingredients were there for a life-ending experience. At least, that’s what Kristina Dupps, a friend of Lakeman’s, thought.

“My biggest fear was that he would try and commit suicide,” said Dupps, a former trainer who now works as an assistant to George Weaver.

But in hindsight, Dupps now believes Lakeman’s accident “might very well have changed his life enough so that he could survive,” she said.

Forty-four months later, Lakeman is surviving. He has come to terms with his fate that he will never walk again. He has been clean and sober for nearly 17 months. And, with the help of a 3-year-old colt named Thisskysabeauty, the 36-year-old Lakeman is realizing his dream of becoming a trainer. Thisskysabeauty, a son of Sky Mesa, will debut in a six-furlong maiden race Saturday at Aqueduct. He will break from post 5, with leading jockey Ramon Dominguez aboard.

“This is my passion, this is my life,” Lakeman said Wednesday before sending Thisskysabeauty out in the snow for a gallop over Belmont Park’s training track. “To have this horse and to try and do good with him gives me a purpose.”

Four years ago, Lakeman lay in a Long Island hospital wondering if his life would ever have purpose again. On May 25, 2007, at Belmont Park, Lakeman fractured three vertebrae in his neck, cracked his sternum in two places, and suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung as a result of the spill in which his mount, Our Montana Dream, clipped heels with the horse in front of her, hurling Lakeman to the ground face first. Lakeman was then hit by a trailing horse.

Lakeman, who was nine months into a recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, spent five weeks in a Long Island hospital before spending another five weeks in a rehabilitation center.

Many figured that Lakeman would return home to England to live with his family. But Lakeman told his parents and friends – including Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens – that he wanted to try to become a trainer.

“He always liked horses, he always tried to find the best way to make them go right,” said Jerkens, for whom Lakeman won five races including the Huntington Stakes as a jockey in 2005. “He was always a little more interested than the average exercise rider. It’s a shame that happened to him.”

Lakeman spent most of 2008 undergoing physical therapy three times a week. Seven months after his spill, Lakeman was driving. After briefly relapsing into his past reliance of drugs and alcohol, Lakeman decided to take control of his life. According to Lakeman, he celebrated a year of sobriety on Sept. 7, 2010.

“I looked at myself in the mirror one day and said ‘Andrew that has got to stop,’ “ Lakeman said of his alcohol and drug abuse. “I had to put 100 percent of my time to take care of Andrew.”

Though he had a desire to train, Lakeman wondered who exactly would give a paralyzed former jockey – who won just seven career races – a chance to train.

Lakeman said: “I was thinking how am I going to get started? Where am I going to find an owner that is going to give me some horses to train and how do I produce myself in a wheelchair?”

Out of the blue, Lakeman called Carlos Morales, a former trainer for whom Lakeman had once worked and who now works with Joe Applebaum’s Off the Hook Stable. Morales had been preparing a son of Sky Mesa for a 2-year-old sale but had to stop on him due to sore shins. He agreed to sell the colt to Lakeman for $40,000. Thisskysabeauty is out of the dam Lovely Beauty, who is a half-sister to Imperialism, a multiple Grade 2 stakes winner who finished third to Smarty Jones in the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

“He’s a gift, he’s beautiful,” Lakeman said of the nearly black colt. “He’s everything you want in a horse and more.”

The horse came to Lakeman in August. Lakeman has been patient with the colt’s preparation. When the horse displayed the slightest issue – such as tying up when he trained on wet tracks – Lakeman backed off. The horse worked three furlongs on Oct. 24 and will show a dozen works leading up to his debut.

“I think I got him as fit as I can get him,” Lakeman said. “I think he’ll try hard because he has such a big heart.”

Thisskysabeauty has proven to be kind as well. Lakeman, who gets around in a motorized wheelchair, goes into Thisskysabeauty’s stall and checks his legs like any other trainer would do. Lakeman has one employee, Alfonso Camacho, who serves as the colt’s groom and exercise rider.

“The first day he came in, I went up to him and he put his head in my lap,” Lakeman recalled.

Lakeman, a native of Sunderland, England, was once regarded as a top exercise rider. He seemed to have a way with difficult horses. Trainers such as Tom Skiffington, Nick Zito, Michael Dickinson, Frank Martin, and Dupps used him.

“I gave him a chance on a filly called Blond Dancer,” Dupps recalled. “She was very difficult; difficult to train, difficult to run. She had at one point just about destroyed half the paddock, flipped in the gate and all sorts of things before we had gotten her. Andrew worked hard to get her to relax and quite frankly not many other jockeys wanted to get on her.”

Dupps will saddle Thisskysabeauty for Lakeman on Saturday. She said she is excited to finally see Lakeman’s dream of becoming a trainer realized.

“It’s all up to the horse now, because I think Andrew has really taken good care of him,” Dupps said. “He’s asked a million people for advice, which is good. He’s asking the right type of people. He’s given him the time; if he has a problem, he’s taken care of it.”

Dupps, who once feared the worst for Lakeman, now can’t stop thinking that good things might be in store for her friend.

“Sometimes I stop myself and think can you imagine if something really wonderful turns out of all this?” she said. “Wouldn’t that be something?”