10/01/2010 5:08PM

Some good-byes impossible to say


As this was written, opening day at Turf Paradise in Phoenix was unfolding, and part of the way through the Friday program a riderless lead pony wearing a saddle belonging to jockey Mark Anthony Villa would be taking the field to the post for the seventh race.

The race was named in honor of Villa, and it was to be run in an eerie silence, with track announcer Michael Chamberlain standing down for the duration of the five furlongs on the grass. After the race, the jockeys of Turf Paradise would don caps bearing Villa’s name and gather in the winner’s circle to pay somber tribute, while Krystal Villa would be presented a blanket emblazoned with her husband’s name.

This is as formal as it gets in horse racing when it comes to honoring those killed in battle. Mark Anthony Villa, 44, died from head and neck trauma on Saturday, Sept. 25, at Zia Park in New Mexico, when the 2-year-old Separate Money broke down at the finish line while qualifying for the estimated $300,000 Hobbs Quarter Horse Futurity on Oct. 10. Villa was thrown to the ground, then kicked by a trailing horse.

Let the record show that Villa was a veteran in demand, coming off a Ruidoso Downs meet during which he finished second in the Thoroughbred standings. He had a choice last Saturday of where to ride, but instead of heading to Albuquerque for a $40,000 futurity, Villa stayed at Zia Park for the promising Separate Money. Two races earlier, Villa won the third of five qualifiers with Bf Sonic Boom.

Throughout their 11 years of marriage, it was Krystal Villa’s custom to be at the races to watch her husband ride. This was not a foreign concept, since she was basically raised at the racetrack by her mother, Phoenix-based trainer Debi Ferguson. Last Saturday, however, Krystal, who is 33, decided not to make the four-hour drive to Zia Park from their home near El Paso.

“Thank God,” Krystal said earlier on Friday in Phoenix, as she prepared for the afternoon’s ceremony. “I told myself at first I should have been there. But looking back, I know I would have lived it over and over. I would have never gotten it out of my mind.”

Villa’s death comes on the heels of paralyzing injuries to jockeys Tad Leggett and Michael Martinez, names that were very much on Krystal Villa’s mind.

“We’d talked about serious injuries,” Krystal said. “We talked about that day he couldn’t ride anymore. But I can’t even say this is my worst nightmare, because we never, ever talked about anything like this.

“I used to say that I never feared for him going down. He was just so good at his job. But then you have kids, and you start to worry about it. The last couple months I’ve been more fearful, just because of Tad Leggett and Michael Martinez, jockeys who’ve been getting such severe injuries. But I never voiced those fears with him, because he never voiced them to me.

“He would comment that when some riders went down they would come back a little afraid, and that you should never ride if you’re afraid,” Krystal went on. “But I don’t know that he even had such things in the back of his mind. There’s nothing he loved more than his children, his family. But he loved riding to the core. Being a jockey was not just his career. It was him.”

The younger version of Mark Villa also was known as a party animal, a fact not lost on Krystal when they met in the summer of 1996.

“It was August,” she recalled. “He asked me out the very night I met him. He thought he was quite the ladies’ man, and he was a lot of fun. When he asked me to marry him it seemed like kind of a joke. He wasn’t on his knee or anything sincere like that. But he wasn’t kidding. I never thought I’d spend my life with him, but I was so thankful God gave him to me. Mark had led quite the life. But he was not the man he once was. He had become the perfect person for me and the kids.”

They were married on May 11, 1999.

Villa stood 5-foot-6 and fought weight throughout his riding life. He was credited with 1,726 winners, of those 1,076 aboard Thoroughbreds.

“It always amazed me, to see him on a horse, always on his belly,” Krystal said. “It takes a lot of strength to ride like that, as tall as he was. And if you asked him which he liked better – Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses – he couldn’t say. He liked the speed of the Quarter Horse, but he had the hands for a Thoroughbred.”

At the time of his death, Villa was still riding with a rod in his leg from a broken tibia, sustained in January of 2004, while Krystal was pregnant.

“We’d had some medical help, because the doctors thought Mark’s years being in the box had an affect on his reproductive capabilities,” Krystal said. “And they told me I had a 50-50 chance to have twins, but it never really occurred to us it would happen. We were waiting for our first ultrasound and looked at a picture on the wall, of what twins looked like. Then they showed us ours, and it was the same picture. The reality didn’t hit Mark for about an hour.”

Olivia and Garrett Villa were at their mother’s side for the Turf Paradise ceremony, as they would be for a more formal memorial service in Phoenix next Wednesday.

“My daughter understands what happened, and she has some really tough moments,” Krystal said. “My son is developmentally delayed, and he knows that his daddy is gone, and that he’s in heaven. But I’m not sure he understands that he won’t be back. I’m having a tough time coming to grips with it. Mark was my whole world. But to be frank, my children need me, so I have to go on.”