05/29/2009 11:00PM

No guarantees in this game

Benoit & Associates
Rene Douglas faces a difficult future after a spill at Arlington Park left him with spinal damage.

The wave of nausea that washed over the racing world last weekend has begun to recede, leaving behind the cold reality that Rene Douglas may never walk again. There are no silver linings.

It does not help to know that Douglas, a fit 42, has a better chance than the average Joe to recover quickly from the nearly eight hours of surgery required to stabilize the several fractures in his spine, since the spinal cord itself already may have sustained irreparable damage.

Neither is it a comfort that Jamie Theriot, held responsible for triggering the chain of events that caused Douglas to fall and his mount, Born to Be, to die, was suspended for 30 days by the Arlington Park board of stewards. As one justifiably bitter riding professional commented online, "Thirty days? Rene got life."

The circle of close friends surrounding the Douglas family harbors no delusions. They know a jockey goes to work each day with the threat of debilitating injury along for the ride. The fact that Douglas has been Arlington's top jockey for most of the past decade mattered not, because no one is immune.

Among those painfully aware of what Douglas is facing is Nancy LaSala, wife of Chicago-based jockey Jerry LaSala. Nancy LaSala is also the board chair of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, an independent organization that distributes more than $60,000 a month to 60 former jockeys who need support but no longer qualify for government or private permanent disability insurance payments - jockeys whose lives were changed forever in the same flash of tangled hooves and trauma that took Douglas down.

The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund emerged in 2006 from the wreckage of the financial scandal that rocked the Jockeys Guild. The fund gets its support from a number of racetracks and committed patrons of the game - such as Michael Bello of Megahertz fame, and Frank Calabrese, perennial leading Chicago owner - and from jockeys, primarily through fund-raising activities backed by the Jockeys Guild, now working its way out of bankruptcy.

This is inspiring, but shaky. Star-studded karaoke hoedowns, like the one held at Keeneland this spring, and jockey challenge competitions, like the one at Pimlico on Preakness eve, aren't exactly reliable funding mechanisms. According to LaSala, the disabled jockeys fund has about nine months worth of cushion. And, of course, that's if no more jockeys become permanently disabled. Fat chance.

"It was the formation of the PDJF that allowed us to increase what we could do for the individual," LaSala said. "Racetracks and individual owners have stepped up, because we need an industry-wide program. No jockey should be put in the situation of having nowhere to turn."

With career stats of 3,587 wins and $102.4 million earned by his mounts, Rene Douglas probably won't need jockeys fund aid down the line. He is in the minority, though. A more typical career total for a jockey with above-average success was logged by Frank Douglas, Rene's older brother, who retired in 2003 with 1,223 winners and $17.1 million earned by his mounts.

"Rene is tough," Frank said this week from Maryland, where he works as jockeys' agent. "This is just so sad. I was waiting until they took the tube out of his throat to go see him, so we could talk. They say he had some feeling in his feet right after he went down. But now, they don't know. Hopefully, he'll somehow be able to walk again, never mind ride. Right now, we have to pray for a miracle."

As miracles go, Frank Douglas would know. It was Aug. 31, 1997, when the elder Douglas went down in a chain reaction accident at Timonium Racetrack north of Baltimore, where the Maryland State Fair offers racing each summer. The fallen rider was kicked in the head by a passing horse, suffering injuries that required a frantic helicopter medevac to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. His odds were not good to survive the night as anything other than badly brain-damaged.

"I made it through those first few weeks," Frank said. "But I had a lot of rehabilitation ahead of me. I had no memory. I had to relearn everything - colors, names, the faces of people I knew. I told the doctors at the trauma center that I would ride again someday. But at first I really didn't know if I'd even be able to do the simple things."

Amazingly, it was just six months later that Frank Douglas began taking steps to resume his career.

"They asked me why I would want to go back to a job that almost killed me," Frank said. "I said that didn't really bother me, because I didn't remember anything about it. I saw it once on tape and didn't want to see it again.

"But when you have a head injury, you must prove all over again that you can do things, like drive a car," Frank said. "It was the same with riding a horse. The stewards would send out two jockeys with me in the morning to watch me ride before they even thought about giving me back my license."

Frank Douglas returned to riding on opening day of the 1998 Pimlico meet. As he told racing writer Bill Finley that spring, "Nobody comes back from what I went through. To live and then to ride again, it's not a miracle. It's a double miracle."

He rode five more years before a broken ankle, his second, convinced him to hang up the white pants. He was 42.

"I was having a hard time coming back from that one, so I just thought it was time to retire," Frank said. "It was hard to quit. But at least I had the choice. Rene didn't get a choice."