04/01/2010 11:00PM

Romero's saga not for the squeamish


The journey of Randy Romero is a tale so horrifying that it might not even qualify as cautionary. It is just plain horrifying.

Yes, there are plenty of traditional racing highlights sprinkled liberally throughout Romero's new biography by Bill Heller, "Randy Romero's Remarkable Ride" (Pelican Publishing Company), and rightfully so. Romero was inseparably associated with two of the most endearing fillies of the past half-century - Personal Ensign and Go for Wand - and his hustling, never-take-no-for-an-answer riding style accounted for 4,294 official victories, plus who knows how many more at country Cajun tracks in his native Louisiana.

But when all is said and the hard work done, Romero will be remembered as perhaps the most physically battered top drawer jockey in the history of the American sport. Mel Gibson should make the movie.

After a while, Heller's litany of injuries piled upon injuries tends to numb even the most sadistic reader. But Romero is what he is, and with few exceptions he comes across as a soft, genial soul spiced by a fierce competitive streak. What is crystal clear is that Romero might have ended up with career totals in the Cordero and McCarron range of 7,000 winners were it not for the lost time he spent healing from all those broken bones.

The question is begged, however. Why, at least in the telling of this book, did Romero seem to shatter something nearly every time he fell? Heller touches upon, but does not explore, the consequences of Romero's lifelong bulimia on the resilience of his body. Romero himself is quoted as conceding that, "It works on your mind, your nervous system. It works on your body. It eats your muscles."

If it can be concluded that Romero's bulimia led in part to the severity of his injuries, the treatment of those injuries and drugs ingested for pain no doubt contributed mightily to the failure of his kidneys that has threatened his life in the decade since his retirement. Cautionary, horrifying . . . the reader gets to make the call.

A jockey's barbaric world of weight reduction offers few humane alternatives, though. Even health guru Laffit Pincay Jr. came to his balanced diet regimen very late in the day. Heller goes to great lengths to describe the most gruesome of all Romero's physical traumas, which was the hot-box explosion at Oaklawn Park in April 1983. Romero suffered second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body, accompanied by suffering so stark that his telling of it in Heller's chronicle should bring tears to the toughest eyes. Romero returned to riding barely four months later and went on to add 2,343 winners to his final sum.

Considerably less detail is devoted to the brutality heaped upon the young Romero and his family by patriarch Lloyd Romero, although several voices, including Randy's, attest to the abuse, both physical and psychological. Lloyd Romero himself is heard only once in the book, in an inconsequential comment about Randy's ability as a rider. Apparently, this was a dark corridor the biographer was unwilling to tread to any great lengths.

There is enough, though, to conclude that Randy Romero is a remarkable man to have come through such a life still beaming with the joy of being above ground. And there are any number of choice moments that add texture to Romero's journey, like the screw taken out of his repaired ankle without anesthesia so he could ride that day, or the apocalyptic warning Romero gave the Del Carroll barn that Sportin' Life's saddle needed repair. The next day Carroll was killed galloping the colt.

And then there was that night at Jefferson Downs, when the young Romero was in the middle of a race just as the levee holding back Lake Ponchartrain broke.

"I thought it was the end of the world," Romero recalled. "I could hear people and horses making noises. I fell. I covered up my head. And a horse stepped on my leg, the back of my leg, and made a hoof print. They found my horse swimming in Lake Ponchartrain, the saddle still on her."

Heller employs a boatload of news clips and quotes from the plentiful coverage of Romero through the years. They are occasionally effective in moving the narrative, but often repeat information already supplied. Heller's primary sources, though, sing throughout. They include Romero's wife, Cricket; his mother, Joyce; his brother, Gerald; and his son, Randy II, as well as key players from the racing world such as Ronnie Ebanks, Mark Guidry, Shug McGaughey, and Bill Mott.

It was Mott, whose career was ascending at the same time as Romero's, who recalled Randy awakening from a nightmare in the hotel room next door during a trip to Chicago, two years after the hotbox accident at Oaklawn.

"He said, 'I was dreaming I was on fire,' " Mott recalled, adding, "It was one of the saddest moments in my life."

Heller is the inexhaustible author of some 21 books. His most recent foray into Thoroughbred racing was a clear-eyed look at horse slaughter and the challenge to deal with racehorses at the end of their careers. After that, the story of Romero might have been a lilting stroll through the park. In the end, through fire and flood, disease and damage, the highs and lows of Randy Romero's remarkable career stand as an extreme symbol of what his profession requires, and how the best tend to rise above.