08/15/2008 12:00AM

Long road back for a rider


DEL MAR, Calif. - On the evening of Friday, Dec. 3, 2004, Myra Truitt arrived to ride at Remington Park with her car loaded and ready for the road. The meet was wrapping up, and Truitt's introduction to Oklahoma racing had been tough. But she had made some contacts, and she was not about to give up on her plan to keep working her way east from California until she could land her dream job on a Kentucky Thoroughbred farm.

"I'd just turned 41 two days before that," Truitt recalled. "It was time to start thinking seriously about doing something other than being a jockey."

On that particular night, being a jockey - as defined by Truitt and the hundreds of other riders who scuffle for the table scraps of the game - meant that she would be riding a 100-1 shot named Slewadaeen in the 6 1/2-furlong sixth race, an $11,000 maiden event for Oklahoma-bred fillies and mares. Truitt had never ridden Slewadaeen before, and, based on an 0-for-7 career during which the horse had never hit the board, the jockey was not overly optimistic.

The good news was that Slewadaeen always came back to try again. That admirable quality meant nothing, however, when Speak Mother angled out and snapped a leg directly in front of Slewadaeen on the turn, giving Truitt no shot to steer clear. Three horses and three jockeys went down in the chain-reaction pileup. Speak Mother and Truitt stayed down.

The rider had fractured her second cervical vertebra, but worse, she had severely traumatized her spine, resulting in nerve damage that left her totally paralyzed in the immediate wake of the accident. Over the next two years - after neck surgery and subsequent rehabilitation - Truitt regained the ability to walk, sort of, and use her hands, kind of. Still, the odds were long that she would every lead anything resembling a normal life again.

Her plight was compounded by the fact that Remington Park, at the time, carried just $100,000 in medical coverage for an injured rider. Not long after Truitt's accident, that coverage was increased to $1 million, which did nothing to help her resolve more than $300,000 in crushing medical debt. When her rehab allotment ran out, she was reduced to living in a backstretch tack room in Northern California, pursued by bill collectors, in pain, alone.

The Myra Truitt who answered her phone in the racing office at the Humboldt County Fair this week was a far and miraculous cry from that busted-up jockey who went down on Slewadaeen nearly four years ago. Truitt is a regular racing office employee these days on the NoCal circuit, where fellow racetrackers have risen to her aid time and time again with support, both moral and financial.

"It was overwhelming," Truitt said. "For the two years I was learning to walk again, I'd get support from trainers, owners, even bettors who contributed to fundraisers for me. I really appreciated it all."

There is a litany of accommodations that Truitt must make each day, familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the scores of jockeys afflicted with spinal injuries through the years.

"People who haven't seen me for a while come up to me and say, 'Oh my god, you look so much better,'" Truitt said in her flat, Oregon farm-girl voice. "I remember one of my first trips to the mall, about a year after my accident, someone asked me if I was a stroke victim. I was so embarrassed. I was still recovering, but thought I was doing pretty good. At least I don't have that kind of reaction any more.

"I still don't have all the feeling in my hands," she went on. "Propriaception they call it. I put my hand in a bag or my pocket and can't feel what I'm after. Someone gave me a necklace and I can't wear it, because I can't do the clasp. And I don't buy shirts with buttons.

"I can get on a gentle saddle horse when I want to," Truitt added, "but there's not a lot of time for that, and anyway golf has become an important part of my physical therapy. It helps a lot in regaining touch in the hands. Sometimes I'll have someone who doesn't really know me tell me to not be quite so stiff when I swing. I tell them I'd like to but there's this screw in my neck."

She giggled at the thought, the self-deprecating giggle of a person who knows she is both very lucky and very unlucky, and still hasn't quite resolved the difference. Back in Oklahoma, though, there is only the memory of that awful night.

"I heard she died," said Evans Komardley, the owner of Slewadaeen. "So she's doing okay. Aw, man, that's good news. I never raced that mare again. She was okay. She's got a yearling and a foal on the way. But when that girl got hurt so bad, I never put her back on the track."

Somehow, that feels right. Myra Truitt's career was never displayed in lights, and Slewadaeen was hardly the second coming of Gallorette. They crossed paths in tragedy, survived, and now there's more life to be lived, just not inside the rails.

"People ask me if I miss it," Truitt said. "I know it's something I can't do anymore, and even if I could, I know at my age I was going to be retiring soon. Still, I wasn't quite ready."