02/09/2004 12:00AM

Rowland dies from head injuries

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Pat Lang/Lang Photography
Mike Rowland, aboard multiple stakes winner Hackendiffy, was three wins shy of 4,000 for his career.

Jockey Mike Rowland, who suffered severe head injuries last Wednesday night in a racing accident at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., died early Monday morning at University Hospital in Cincinnati. He was 41.

Rowland was leading the seventh race aboard World Trade, trained by Rowland's friend Bernie Flint, when the horse suddenly broke down and fell, unseating the rider. Two trailing horses were unable to avoid Rowland and World Trade, resulting in a three-horse accident that injured two other riders. Jessica Endres was bruised and shaken, and Mark Johnston broke his collarbone.

Rowland appeared to be struck by one or both of the trailing horses and was conscious immediately after the accident. He was taken to University Hospital for surgery, fell into a coma, and never recovered.

A jockey since 1979, Rowland won 3,997 races and was excitedly pursuing his 4,000th winner this winter at Turfway. The track had already prepared a banner to give to him upon reaching 4,000, a milestone that fewer than 45 jockeys have attained.

"He was an awesome guy - he loved life, his kids, his job. We loved each other," said his wife, Tammy Rowland. "If he had to go, this is how he would have wanted to go - doing something he loved."

Jockeys and spectators alike attributed Rowland's accident to terrible racing luck. Flint said World Trade was sound and although the track was muddy, no riders or horsemen's representatives openly complained about the condition of the surface.

According to The Jockeys' Guild, 143 Thoroughbred riders have died from ontrack accidents in North America since 1940. The last American jockey fatality came at Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio, on Dec. 22, 2001, when Arnold Ruiz suffered massive head injuries from a spill.

Although Rowland's last mounts came in Kentucky, he was most successful in Ohio, where he rode most of his 78 stakes victories. Seven times since 1985, Rowland led the annual rider standings at Thistledown near Cleveland.

At Beulah Park, where Rowland rode occasionally, jockeys said they would pay a tribute Monday to Rowland, according to Darrell Haire of The Jockeys' Guild.

"They know he was [three wins] short of 4,000 winners, and they're going to go out there today and get those wins for him," Haire said.

Rowland's friends and family said they have been touched by the support they have received. Tony Caminita, who rode regularly with Rowland at Thistledown, was one of many people who visited from out of town to offer comfort. "He was loved by everyone," Caminita said.

When Thistledown's meet ended late last year, Rowland chose to ride at Turfway for the winter to be with his wife, who trains horses there. In an interview less than a week before his accident, he spoke of how much he enjoyed riding her horses.

"People think when you're riding that you can hear the crowd, the announcer," he said. "You really can't hear anything. But you can hear my wife."

Tammy Rowland said Monday that she was sorting out her life and training career.

"At first I wanted to get rid of my horses, sell them," she said. "But I've come to peace with this a little bit, and it's not what Michael would have wanted me to do."

Rowland is survived by his wife; his mother, Cindy Briscoe; two sisters, Terry Comstock and Traci Samuelson; and three daughters, Sara, 8, Farren, 15, and Randi, 20.

A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Homestretch dining room at Turfway Park. In lieu of flowers, the family requested that donations be made to the Mike Rowland Fund. Contributions can be mailed to the Kentucky HBPA at 422 Heywood Avenue, Louisville, Ky., 40208.

Mike Rowland

Born: Sept. 12, 1962 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Career: Began in 1979. Rode 3,997 winners, including 78 stakes winners. Won 29 meet titles at Thistledown, and was annual leading rider there seven times.