08/25/2008 11:00PM

Looking to get back on the pony

Email

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Pity the poor jockey agent or greenhorn reporter who ever dared to ask David Vance an unnecessary question or interrupt his morning routine. Vance does not suffer fools gladly - not even close.

"They should be out on the street," Vance said, smiling wryly but only half-joking. As a saddleworn cowpoke, a rugged individualist, a lifelong racetracker, Vance never had much use for extraneous fluff.

The growl is still there, but it has been tempered. The things that once got under his skin are largely irrelevant now. Vance nearly lost his life in a highway accident last winter, and the struggle to get rid of his motorized wheelchair dominates his thoughts.

"I feel all right, but I'm pretty ticked off mentally," said Vance, 68. "I'd like to be able to do what I've done for years, but now I don't have the time to get everything done."

So instead of being able fully to enjoy a major milestone - on Aug. 2, Vance became just the 22nd trainer in North American racing to win 3,000 races when Westline captured the first race at Presque Isle Downs - he is intensely focused on regaining his health. Among other injuries, Vance suffered a spinal injury and a fractured vertebra in the Dec. 9, 2007, crash and was rendered partially paralyzed, more so on his right side than his left. Today, he can stand for only a limited time with the aid of a walker. While his doctors have declined to put a time line on when he might be able to discard the wheelchair in favor of a walker or cane, they tell him he is making steady progress.

"They say it's possible that in two or three months, he could be on a walker," said Lynn Vance, his wife of 26 years. "But he has to keep improving."

On a recent morning on the backstretch at Churchill Downs, where he has a stable of 19 horses, Vance talked about how dramatically his life has changed since the one-vehicle accident, which occurred on Interstate 71 as he drove north from Louisville to Turfway Park near Cincinnati. His SUV swerved out of control "and just wouldn't stop," he recalled. It left the road at a high speed and flipped over, with his front and side airbags deploying. He never lost consciousness. "I remember thinking that these big rocks were going to come through the windshield and cut me all up," he said.

Vance could tell almost immediately that he had lost sensation in his extremities. He was transported by medical helicopter to a Cincinnati hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. After being stabilized for a few days, he was moved to the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute in his adopted hometown of Louisville, and for the last eight months he has undergone a rigorous physical-therapy program. His current routine calls for several hours of therapy five days a week, Monday through Friday. With Lynn driving him from their Louisville home, Vance watches his horses train every morning from the third-floor grandstand at Churchill before heading back to the barn, then to lunch, then to therapy during the week.

"It's called the locomotor program," said Lynn Vance. "He's on a walker for a half-hour and a computerized treadmill for an hour. They're trying to build back his strength and endurance."

For David Vance, there is an ultimate goal: "To get back on that pony," he said.

Born and raised in Logansport, Ind., Vance was riding horses at a young age on farms owned by his grandmother and his late father, Richard E. Vance, also a Thoroughbred trainer. It was the only lifestyle he ever knew or wanted. He assisted his father until he was 25, when he went out on his own. Within a few years, he hooked up with owner Dan Lasater, who in 1968 had opened his first Ponderosa steakhouse in Kokomo, Ind., near Logansport. By the early 1970s, having gone public, the Ponderosa chain was thriving across America while Lasater was assembling a second empire in the racing business.

No owner was more dominant than Lasater during that period. Assimilating a massive stable, Lasater led the North American owner standings in earnings (1973-76) and in races won (1974-77) for four straight years. Lasater, who long ago left the horse business and lives today in Little Rock, Ark., set a record that still stands when his horses won 494 races in 1974. Only Michael Gill, with 487 winners in 2004, has come close to threatening that mark.

Vance, in his 30s at the time, was the mastermind behind building what clearly was the forerunner to the mega-stables of today. Lasater had to employ other trainers besides Vance, because the rules were different than today.

"You had to actually be with your horses at least every third day or else the horses had to go in somebody else's name," recalled Vance. Jack Van Berg, who amassed six national races-won titles during a nine-year span (1968-76) during that era, "would just get in planes and fly all over the place. That's how he got to run so many horses in his name," said Vance

In those days, Vance usually kept about 60 horses "because that's all the stalls any one track would give you." Still, those years were the most productive of Vance's career, as he racked up his highest earnings and wins totals. From 1973 to 1976, Vance-trained horses earned a total of more than $6 million, a huge amount at the time. Campaigning at a wide variety of tracks in the East and Midwest, Vance won training titles virtually everywhere he went, including four at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Ark., which he long called home and where his four grown children were raised.

Today, Vance is still able to recall names, races, and incidents from the Lasater and subsequent eras with uncanny detail. Foremost among those memorable events was the 2000 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, in which he scored his richest career victory, with Caressing, a 47-1 shot owned by longtime client Carl Pollard.

"Mentally, David is as alert as he's ever been," said Pollard. "He's alert, he's sharp, and he's got everything planned out with all his horses. I don't see a lot of difference in terms of his enthusiasm for the game. He gets a little frustrated from time to time, but all in all, he's handled this about as well as anyone possibly could. He's very, very determined to regain all the physical skills he can. I think he's made great progress. Obviously he has a ways to go, but I'm confident he'll get there."

His daughter Trisha Vance, who has assumed most of the day-to-day duties as a longtime (albeit intermittent) assistant to her father for many years, has been back with her dad full time since May 2007.

"He's had a great attitude, really," she said. "He just wants to get back on his pony."

On any given morning before the accident, Vance, always aboard his pony, could be seen quietly moving about the other horses and riders on the racetrack, saying precious little to anyone except his help. He gave off the unmistakable impression that he was minding his own business, and you should, too, all the while reinforcing his image as the prototypical hardboot, an extraordinarily self-sufficient man in need of little other than his work and the outdoors.

Being all that from a wheelchair is torture.

"One thing I really miss is getting in the stalls and feeling the horses' legs," he said. "I'd do that every day with all of them."

Someday, he might be doing it again. But first he must get better. Lynn said doctors are cautiously optimistic, and that her husband's willpower is a major reason why.

"They expect me to walk again," said Vance, "and so do I."