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Ready for the next step
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Since he was 10 years old, about all Mike Straight wanted to do was jump on a racehorse's back and ride.
This time last year, Straight spent his mornings working horses during racetrack training hours. Now, three times a week, two hours per session, Straight works afternoons, trying to train his body to walk again.
Mike Straight went down in a one-horse spill in the last race of Arlington Park's Aug. 26 program. The fall looked benign enough. Straight rode 13-10 favorite Im No Gentleman in a lower-level claimer, cruising on the outside as the field came off the far turn in a six-furlong Polytrack race. The official chart of the race says only that Im No Gentleman "fell at the top of the stretch." Mike Straight, and others, believe Im No Gentleman clipped heels after horses to the inside were allowed to drift out into him.
The minute details of the accident might be difficult to ascertain: Its aftermath is not. Mike Straight suffered a brain injury. That turned out to be relatively minor. Straight also fractured his back, breaking four vertebrae known as T3 through T6. The crushed bone jammed into Straight's spine. Straight lost feeling in his legs, and has yet to walk.
That is the focal point of Mike Straight's work-life right now - walking. As hard as Straight worked to become a jockey, the same concentrated effort pours into whatever rehabilitation exercise Straight is asked to perform.
"Rehab is my space when I work out, my space of strain and determination, just trying to get this done," Straight said during a visit to Keeneland in late April.
Straight, now 24, began rehab at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago last fall, but the earliest phase of his rehabilitation was hampered by a nasty bedsore that developed at the base of his tailbone. To escape the Chicago cold, and to be nearer to family, Straight and his parents, Sandy and Beth, moved to Jacksonville, Fla., over the winter, and Mike took up rehab at a facility there. In late March, they picked up and moved again, this time settling in Lexington, where Mike began rehabbing at Cardinal Hill Hospital.
Cardinal Hill, Straight said, has asked more of him than either of his previous rehab experiences. And if Straight is asked, Straight will give. Cardinal Hill owns one of the country's few Lokomats, a robotic device that allows a person without use of his legs to simulate walking. On the Lokomat, Straight basically is attached in harness to a robot that walks a treadmill; human joins machine and strolls along. In another exercise, Straight is fitted with special braces and, holding onto parallel bars and with some human assistance, walks as best he can. In a Cardinal Hill pool, Straight does more simulated walking with aid from the water's buoyancy and staff members' hands.
"They do so much with me here, it's unbelievable," said Straight. "I don't know if it's because I was a jockey, and they know I was a jockey, or if it's because I show promise. But it makes me walk, and that's the only thing I want to do, really."
It was during a recent pool session that Straight's physical therapist encouraged him to try to lift his left knee.
"She was like, 'Oh my God, feel this. Feel right here, put your hand right here,' and the muscle right above my knee was just moving," Straight said. "It was the first time anything like that had happened."
One tiny step toward Straight's goal - but do not begrudge the young man any shred of optimism. Straight visits Keeneland whenever he can and insisted his parents take him in February to Gulfstream Park, where he had exercised horses before beginning his riding career at Tampa Bay Downs early in 2009. Straight still loves being among other riders, going out to the track. He constantly updates his Facebook page with news of daily life. At a jockey's function during the Keeneland meet, Robby Albarado dragged Straight up onto the stage to sing karaoke. Straight loved it. Mike Straight's enthusiasm and good nature feel totally unforced: Whatever was taken away from him last summer, he has made some kind of peace with his circumstances.
Straight rode at Arlington the day Rene Douglas got caught in a horrible accident earlier in the 2009 meet. Douglas also broke his back, suffered spinal trauma, and lost the use of his legs. Douglas has chosen to keep entirely to himself and his family since returning to Florida from Chicago last year. Little news has come on his well-being or progress.
"I don't understand why Rene's hiding behind brick walls," Straight said. "I could never picture myself not coming back to the track. I had to come back to the track."
There have been times, of course, and there will be times, when bitterness or sadness or anger wells up.
"Some days I want to blame it on all the jockeys that were in the race and came out. Some days I want to blame it on Polytrack. Some days I don't want to blame anything, and just live my life," he said.
Straight's face has grown thicker than it was last summer, and his voice sounds different. Changes wrought by his injury gain visible force when Straight sits next to his twin brother, Matt. Both Straights went through Chris McCarron's North American Racing Academy, Matt graduating the year before Mike, in 2008. Mike rode at Tampa for several weeks, then moved on to Arlington, where he won 23 races last summer. Matt was riding at Ellis Park when Mike got hurt, and he drove to Chicago straightaway, spending much of the next six weeks by Mike's side.
"It was a rough process," Matt Straight said. "We used to talk to each other on the phone 10 or 15 times a day. It was just strange not being able to talk to my brother. We'd been able to talk to each other every day for the first 22 years of our lives, and all of a sudden, he was just gone, you know."
Straight, hospitalized at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, a northwest Chicago suburb, remained in a coma for about five weeks after he fell. He had bleeding on the brain, and stabilizing surgery was performed to insert a rod and 15 screws that remain in his back to this day. The two dark days before his accident, Straight had been home in Greenbush, N.Y., visiting his family. He remembers being in New York those two days but has no memory of what happened the next five weeks - not traveling back to Chicago, not the day of the race, and certainly not the fall itself. More than a month later, Straight's head began clearing.
"The first thing I did was I turned to someone - I can't remember which parent it was, my mom or dad - and I said, 'How did I get here? What's going on?' I was wondering why I was even in the hospital. The first thing I tried to do was get out of bed, and I couldn't move my legs at all. It was totally weird. My parents said I fell off a horse at Arlington, and so much stuff was going through my head, thinking about what could've happened," Straight said.
Some riders prefer not to watch a spill that has sent them sprawling. But Straight wanted the visual information as soon as possible.
"I had to watch it as soon as I could," he said. "I wanted to know what happened to me. I just typed in 'Arlington, Aug. 26,' and I sat there and watched the replay. My original thought was, 'That's it? And I'm like this?'"
"I watched the race many times," said Chris McCarron, who flew in to visit Straight days after his accident. "There's no rhyme or reason for trying to figure out how serious something is by looking at a race. If you watch a replay of an accident, you can't really tell by looking at it. I've seen some horrific accidents where the jocks get up and ride later in the day. It just depends on the way the rider falls on the track, where the impact occurs."
Straight and everyone else attending McCarron's riding school receive a danger briefing before they even begin their riding studies.
"First of all, when we interview them, we ask them if they understand how dangerous this is," McCarron said. "If they haven't done any research into the risk and reward ratio, I inform them right there. We go through that in the orientation. We are constantly reminding that it's not a question of if but when they will go down."
McCarron's academy has nine Equicizers on which students can simulate riding. Affixed to them is a quotation from Mark Twain: "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear."
Fear of falling - it flits through a young rider's head but stays quietly lodged in the mind of those close to him.
"It was always in the back of our minds," said Sandy Straight, Mike's father. "We knew how dangerous it was. We never thought this, though. You never think the worst. They went down before, riding in the mornings. It was funny; I started getting used to it. Matt had ridden quite a few races, you know. You never think it's going to be a catastrophic injury like that. Mike knew the risk he was taking, but you can't be thinking of that."
Sandy and Beth Straight worked for the New York state government in Albany. They owned bits of a racehorse here and there, but somehow, twin sons got hooked on the game.
"We brought them to Saratoga early on," Sandy Straight said. "They belonged to some fan clubs online, they joined this program called Kids to the Cup. We went to the Breeders' Cup. They just started hanging around at Saratoga, meeting the jockeys' kids and the jockeys. Mike Smith, Jose Santos. It just started snowballing, and at the age of 13, we went and bought them an Equicizer. They sat constantly watching OTB and riding it. Before that they rode pillows tied together on the couch. They used to dress up like jockeys, weigh each other. It all just evolved."
While Mike Straight labors to walk again, Matt Straight still rides, though not as many races as he would like. Coming back after Mike got hurt has not been easy. McCarron said the brothers "were almost joined at the hip, they were so close," and after Mike fell, Matt found it difficult to leave Mike behind for the track.
"Actually, I had to give him the okay to go back to riding," Mike said.
Matt Straight has won 76 races from 721 mounts in his career, but in 2010, he has ridden two winners from 52 starters while kicking around all manner of venues. This year, he has ridden at Beulah Park, Turfway Park, Indiana Downs, Tampa Bay Downs, Keeneland, and Churchill.
"I think sometimes I've handled it all worse than Mike has," Matt said. "It's hard for me because it's my work and my line of duty as well to come out here and do this every day. It's hard. You know, I'm going to the gate, and the pony boy's like, 'How's your brother? How's your brother? How's your brother?' That's the last thing I want to do before I get into the gate, to talk about how Mike fell. I've had a couple of assistant starters ask me in the gate, 'How's your brother?' I don't want to think about that right then."
The elder Straights have been on sick leave with half pay since they left New York to fly to Mike's side in Chicago the night of his spill. The family house in Greenbush recently was sold, and the Straights plan to make Lexington their home now. A new life. One son still goes off to ride horses. The other chases the dream of getting to his feet.
"Mike ain't never going to quit. He's not like that," Sandy Straight said. "He'll walk again. There's no doubt about that in my mind."
In Mike Straight's mind, there are thoughts about his body best left alone most of the time.
"If anything I'll think about it right before bed, if the lights are off, and no one's around. And then I might think about it for a second or so, but I learned not to really mess with it at all. Everything happened for a reason, I'm like this for a reason, and it's time to go on to tomorrow. The way I fell, and the way things were at the beginning, I feel blessed just to be here, blessed to be out at Keeneland right now.
"I'm at a racetrack," he said, "where I would've been today if I was fine."