09/01/2011 2:28PM

Saratoga: Davis has first starter as trainer, plans to ride again

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Barbara D. Livingston
Robbie Davis works Robin of Trinidad at Saratoga earlier this summer. He will have his first starter as a trainer on Sunday at Saratoga.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Robbie Davis stood in the middle of stall 1 in barn 5, guiding a less-than-cooperative gelding backward. Davis placed the bridle on, tightened the saddle, and with the assistance of a bale of straw, gave himself a leg up.

“I just breezed this guy yesterday, but he feels so good I got to take him out for a jog,” Davis said Wednesday morning.

Davis, who won more than 3,000 races as a jockey during a 20-year career, was talking about the unraced 4-year-old New York-bred gelding Sandyinthesun. He also could have been talking about himself. Since getting a partial knee replacement done last December, Davis has been feeling as good as he has in almost a decade.

That and his passion to compete is why Davis – who hasn’t ridden in a race in nearly nine years – wants to make a comeback at age 50. While his plan is to ride again, he also wants to train horses. Davis’s first starter as a trainer will be Sandyinthesun, who runs in Sunday’s eighth race at Saratoga. Davis thought about riding the horse himself, but he’s not quite fit yet and said the emotions may get the best of him.

“I might drop my whip and have to change my shorts,” Davis said.

Instead, he will give a leg up to his 24-year-old daughter, Jackie, one of Robbie’s six children with his wife Margarite.

“Just to run one has been my dream,” Davis said. “To leg my daughter up . . . and she’s a good jockey I’m legging up. I couldn’t even imagine winning it.”

Davis believes Sandyinthesun, a 4-year-old son of Say Florida Sandy owned by Thomas Ponterella and Hazarie Latchman, wants more ground than the 5 1/2 furlongs that Sunday’s race affords.

“If he comes running and finishes fourth, I’d be delighted,” Davis said.

Following his partial knee replacement surgery in December, Davis has been getting on horses almost daily since Saratoga opened its backside in May. In the spring, he had four horses stabled here, but three of them suffered injuries or infirmities. Davis is now a one-horse show and a one-man band. Groom, hotwalker, exercise rider, trainer.

“I have to do everything myself,” Davis said.

Davis rode his last horse Sept. 15, 2002, when Atfirst Blush finished fifth in the Grade 1 Futurity at Belmont. Three weeks earlier, Davis rode Atfirst Blush to a debut win at 46-1 at Saratoga. It would be the last of Davis’s 3,384 career victories. The pain in his left knee – which doctors said was bone on bone due to cartilage damage – had gotten unbearable. Davis now admits that for the last few months of his career he was riding at far less than full strength.

“I was at the bottom of the barrel, my leg was about 40 percent and I was trying to ride and I was faking it,” Davis said. “Getting beat, I was falling off, ended up with a concussion. I could barely get up a flight of stairs, my knee hurt so bad.”

Davis said he visited about 15 different doctors – including team physicians for the Jets, Giants, and Miami Dolphins – who could not fix his knee to the point where he could ride again. They all told him to forget about riding again.

Last year, Davis met Dr. Andrew Pearle, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, who through a new procedure told him “I can get you back in the saddle.”

“I was like ‘man, I’m 152 pounds, I’ve been off for nine years, do I really want to get back in the saddle?’ ” Davis said. “And as I sat around and sat around I said ‘you know what? I see a lot of guys my age doing it.’ I don’t think age is going to be a factor, it’s just the desire and I still feel the desire.”

Asked why he wants to ride again at his age, Davis said “I miss that glory coming across the wire. The thrill of victory. . . I got six kids and they’re all grown up and I’m a grandpa now and for them all to come to the track and see me ride it’d be a nice feather in my cap and something to talk about with my grandkids when they get older.”

During his career, Davis won many big races, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Champagne, Arlington Million, Beverly D., and Meadowlands Cup.

Davis said he is now down to 119 pounds. He wants to lose four or five more pounds before attempting to ride a race, something he hopes to do this fall at Belmont Park. If things work out, he would like to ride this winter at Tampa Bay Downs.

“My mind was wanting to race here in Saratoga, but my body just said ‘you’re not ready yet,’ ” Davis said. “You got to be realistic about it. Fifty-years-old, I wasn’t getting quite as fit as I wanted to as quick as I wanted to, but the knee started feeling really good, so I said I’d love to get back in the saddle. If I waited until I was 60, I couldn’t do it.”

In addition to getting on his own horse, Davis gets on horses for other trainers as well. Trainer Frank Alexander, who is stabled in the same barn as Davis, has used him and has been impressed with what he’s seen.

“He’s been working all my horses and he looks good and has a great opinion of what’s going on,” Alexander said.

Davis said the true test of his ability to ride pain-free will come when he breaks horses out of the starting gate.

“That was the worst problem I had, breaking out of the gate, I had a lot of pain,” Davis said. “I have no pain coming out of there now; maybe I have a little chance. Brett Favre had a lot of comebacks, didn’t he? If he comes back again this year, I know I’m good.”

In the four months that he has trained horses, Davis said he has a new-found respect for the profession.

“You got to cut this, trim that, wash this, paint that,” Davis said. “You come in, you got a [horse] with a snotty nose, a temperature, an ankle, a tendon. It’s like man, that’s a headache. I liked it a lot better when I got off them and said ‘feed them good’ and moved on to the next one.”