04/18/2007 12:00AM

Thistledown: Cloninger glad to be back

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No jockey was more eager for the return of racing to Thistledown than Weldon Cloninger Jr. Cloninger's 2006 season ended abruptly when one of his mounts, Jaded Heat, broke down on the June 18 Father's Day card at Thistledown.

"Usually you can hear or feel something when a horse is about to go down and you can try to pull 'em up " said Cloninger. "But in my incident, all I saw was the ground. That's all I remember. I don't remember the horse running me through a meat-grinder."

Cloninger, 37, was so seriously injured he was airlifted to Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.

"Two of the vertebrae in my back were fractured and two other collapsed," he said. "I broke three ribs and chipped another and fractured my sternum."

Despite missing the last five months of the Thistledown season, Cloninger ended up 14th in the jockey standings with 27 winners. He began this year's meet by winning four races opening week and is tied for the lead in the standings.

Cloninger's wedding had been scheduled for June 27. Although he was advised to get five weeks of bed rest after spending the better part of a week in the hospital, Cloninger was determined to proceed. He was wheeled into the Mediterranean Party Center in Bedford Heights for the ceremony.

"I stayed for the reception, talked to my guests, and then headed back home and slept for two days," he said.- Chuck Scaravilli