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Updated on 09/16/2011 8:21AM
Romero's daily fight with his own body
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There are precious few lights in Randy Romero's life these days. Certainly, his family remains steadfast. His friends from the racing world have stepped up with inspirational support. And little Mia, his granddaughter of just six months, doesn't even know that her 44-year-old grandpa is sick.
But between the kidney dialysis and treatment for liver disease, and the lack of sufficient insurance to cover such expensive procedures - not to mention the fact that he feels lousy most of the time - Romero can be forgiven if he occasionally views the glass as half empty.
That is why Romero took such joy in the results of the Kentucky Derby. He picked War Emblem out of the pack last winter, while Romero was hustling Marlon St. Julien's book in New Orleans. And, even more to the point, Romero knew War Emblem's family like his own.
"His daddy is Personal Ensign's baby," Romero said. "The first time I saw him at the Fair Grounds, I loved the look of him. I was trying to get Marlon on him. Then I got sick. I lost contact with the horse."
Romero has a right to be proud. Personal Ensign is the dam of Our Emblem, sire of the Derby winner, and it was Romero who rode Personal Ensign in 12 of her 13 wins during a perfect career, including her last start in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs.
On the morning after the Derby, Romero felt good enough to visit trainer Bob Baffert's barn at Churchill Downs. Baffert was quick to make the connection.
"That mare really came out in him, didn't she?" Baffert said of War Emblem.
"She sure did," Romero replied. "She was tough as old shoe leather."
By Monday, the Triple Crown caravan was moving on to Baltimore and the Preakness, leaving Romero behind in Louisville to deal with a reality that requires fortitude far beyond anything he displayed in the saddle.
His riding career was a success by almost every measure: 4,294 winners, $75 million in purses earned by his mounts, three Breeders' Cup victories, and championships at Keeneland, Gulfstream Park, Hialeah, Arlington Park, and Belmont Park.
But that is ancient history now, and this was just another Monday, the worst day of the week in Romero's increasingly narrow world. By Monday afternoon, it has been nearly three days since his most recent dialysis session, and his bloodstream is overtaxed by his failing kidneys. He feels weak, as if he were being slowly poisoned, and he begins to retain fluid in his face, torso, and limbs.
His body, already scarred by countless injuries during a 25-year riding career, is sounding the alarm at the onset of uremia, a condition defined as "urine in the blood."
"The kidneys work, as long as I get on the machine every other day," Romero said. "What's even a worse problem is my liver. I need a transplant, but then they found a virus. So I can't even think about a transplant until they get rid of the virus.
"When I'm in there doing dialysis, I look around at these other people, and they're all doing great. Me, I get nauseated all the time. My headaches are getting real bad. And I'm never hungry. I hardly ever eat anymore. I'm just tired of being so sick."
Romero retired once and for all in June 1999, far from the heights he attained throughout the 1980's but still possessed of a reputation that gave him the credibility to stay in the game. He was universally liked and grudgingly admired for having survived so many disasters, and no one could resist the guileless Romero charm. He took the book of St. Julien, a rising young star from Romero's native Louisiana.
Eight years coming
Things were going well enough until earlier this year. That's when Romero's kidneys finally betrayed him after several years of deterioration. He knew this was coming.
"My doctor told me eight years ago that I'd have trouble," Romero said.
These days, Romero's home away from home is the Bio-Medical Applications Department of the Norton Suburban Medical Plaza II, just off Dutchman's Lane in Louisville. That is where he submits to a four-hour session of kidney dialysis each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon.
It is a peaceful enough room, well-lighted and lined with recliners. Visitors are allowed, and Romero's spot is near the door. As he settled in for a session on a recent Wednesday, a nurse attached the tubes from the dialysis machine to a shunt that is implanted in Romero's left arm, not far from the scars on the inside part of the elbow he broke in February of 1991.
He had a throw blanket, with some kind of Navajo pattern, to keep warm, and when he reached for his cellphone, a long scar on his abdomen (ruptured spleen removed) and a scar on his left ankle (compound fracture) caught the eye.
Then there is the crescent-shaped scar on his left shoulder, which was fractured along with eight ribs, when Go for Wand broke down near the end of the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Belmont Park.
The upper part of Romero's chest was partially exposed to accommodate heart monitors. His right shoulder and upper arm still bear the fine, waffle-like scars left by the burn bandages he wore after his Oaklawn Park hot-box accident in 1983, when he suffered third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body.
Romero's blood began to flow, from the venous tube, through the cleansing dialysis machine, and back into his arm via the arterial line. The speed of the filtration can be controlled. During this particular session, Romero's blood was being cleansed at the rate of 250 milliliters per minute. A young man hooked up next to Romero leaned toward Randy and said, "If you look close, you can see it says 'Fram' on the label." Romero laughed. Dialysis humor.
"The girl over there hooks herself up," Romero said, nodding toward a young woman across the room. "She's been getting dialysis since she was a kid."
His admiration was apparent. The young woman looked up from her sewing and smiled at Romero.
"Then there was an older woman here one day, right next to me," Romero said, nodding to his right. "She wanted a glass of water, and for some reason she couldn't wait for the nurse to get it. So she pulls out her tubes. I mean, there was blood spraying everywhere. All over my bag and everything."
This will be Romero's life, for at least the foreseeable future. Later this month, he will begin chemotherapy injections for his liver disease. He is prepared for side effects. His best hope lies with transplant surgery, and his brother Edwin is ready and willing to donate a kidney.
"Now that I need a liver, too, the organs have to come from the same donor or they'll reject," Randy said. "And you've got to be dead to donate a liver."
Not that the Romero brothers would hesitate. The five boys, all sons of the legendary Louisiana trainer Lloyd Romero, are close in age and spirit. Randy is in the middle, between older brothers Gerald and Edwin and younger brothers Kenneth and John.
"I talk to Randy every day," said Gerald, who trains a string of horses at Lone Star. "He's a tough trooper, as tough a human being as I've ever seen. If anybody can get through this, Randy can."
A price for hard living
The Romeros were raised side by side with horses. The family was the inspiration for the 1977 feature film "Casey's Shadow," directed by Martin Ritt and starring Walter Matthau as the patriarch. That Randy can no longer spend time working with horses is particularly painful.
"He's always been one of those guys who just loves to be around horseflesh," Gerald said. "That's got to hurt as much as anything."
No question, Romero would rather be walking hots than watching his blood pump through a machine. If nothing else, though, his illness has led him to contemplate the consequences of his life as a rider, and how things could have been different.
"I lived hard and chased the money, no doubt about it," Romero said.
"It's such a struggle. You're struggling with trainers, with owners, with other jockeys, and fighting weight, too. Only the strong survive. And you're on your own."
Romero attributes his current condition, in part, to the unhealthy methods of weight reduction he practiced, along with many of his colleagues. His daily routine included diuretics, sweating, and self-induced vomiting, called "flipping" around the jockeys' room.
"I knew what I was doing couldn't have been healthy," Romero said.
"I'd love to see the racing commissions raise the weight scale some to help these jocks, maybe five pounds.
"But that's not all," Romero said. "You've got to help riders change their habits. Put in some rules about how they take care of themselves. Get rid of the flipping bowls in the bathrooms."
Even more damaging than the reducing, however, was the quantity of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories Romero consumed to survive his many injuries and two dozen surgeries. It is the liver and kidneys that must filter such substances from the body.
"I used to take anti-inflammatories by the handful," Romero said. "Anything for the quick fix, just to get back to riding."
In between medical treatments, Romero still spends time at Churchill Downs, where he currently represents journeyman Danny Coa. Romero's son, 21-year-old Randy Jr., stays close to his father, learning the agent's trade while holding down a full-time UPS job of his own.
While he is still able, Romero is even more intent on taking his message of jockey health reform far and wide. He could get help from a documentary being produced for HBO, especially since a film crew has been following him regularly for the past several months.
"I think they're waiting to see what happens next with me," Romero said. "But I hope I don't have to die. I'd kind of like to see a little of that program."
Obviously, his sense of humor remains intact.
"Don't get me wrong, man," he said. "It was fun. The best thing about riding was the guys I rode with. Just going to work every day, having some kicks and laughs."
A lot of those same former competitors have risen to Romero's aide. Spearheaded by the efforts of Shane Sellers, Tom Walters, and Ron Ebanks, nearly $200,000 has been raised to help ease the burden of Romero's underinsured medical crisis. There were two benefits in Louisville during Derby week alone and another planned in the near future.
"It's nice to see people pull together like they are for Randy," said Cricket Romero, his wife. "It's just too bad it had to be over something like this."
For his part, Romero has been amazed by the support. He walks around feeling grateful and unworthy.
"I don't know how to thank all the people who have been supporting me like this," Romero said. "I'm just so fortunate to have such friends. I'm just so lucky."
Sorry for what you are going through. I'll never forget your ride on Personal Ensign storming down the Churchill Downs stretch to catch Gary Stevens on Winning Colors.