01/06/2010 12:00AM

Tiny movement a huge achievement


And then he moved his toes.

Michael Straight was on the phone Tuesday afternoon with his twin brother, Matthew, a jockey at Tampa Bay Downs. Michael and his parents have rented a house just up the road in Gainesville, Fla., not far from the Brooks Center for Rehabilitation. The brothers were talking about Michael's feet, and the chances he would ever be able to use them again after fracturing four vertebrae in a one-horse crash at Arlington Park last summer.

And then he moved his toes.

"As soon as it happened," said Michael, "I called my parents into my room and said, 'You guys aren't gonna believe this. Watch my toes!' "

It was barely an hour later that this reporter called, from out of the blue, to check on Straight's progress in dealing with his new life as a wheelchair-dependent paraplegic. Straight was still buzzing from the small, though possibly significant movement in the toes of his left foot, which were finally, maybe, answering the signals being sent from his brain over the past four months.

"I was telling my brother that one day I was going to just throw down my feet and walk," Straight said. "He said, 'All right. I'd like to see that happen.' Then all of a sudden my toes started moving. It was very weird how that happened. For the first 10 minutes they were probably moving every five to 10 seconds. There were no spasms, like I can get. I know the difference. I don't have that much feeling in my toes, but now that I see them move, I can't even tell you how excited I am."

Straight was 23 when the accident occurred - the brothers turned 24 last November - and to that point Michael's toughest challenge had been keeping to the weight he needed to take full advantage of his apprentice allowances.

He was getting it done, though, and when he went down, in the eighth race on Aug. 26, he had won 39 races since his debut in January 2009, with 23 of them at Arlington, where he was beginning to win friends and fans. As a graduate of the high-profile North American Racing Academy run by Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, Straight came equipped with a higher level of expectations than the traditional apprentice, off the farm or off the street. By all accounts, Mike Straight was meeting them.

His final mount, I'm No Gentleman, was favored in that race for $10,000 claimers. The horse collapsed at the back of the pack and was dead when he, and Straight, hit the ground. In addition to his fractured vertebrae, Straight suffered a cerebral hematoma that abated before any brain damage was sustained. He also developed a potentially dangerous pressure sore during his recovery in a Chicago hospital and underwent further surgery.

By now, he has pretty much gone through the million-dollar medical insurance policy provided by the racetrack, as well as a much smaller amount for rehabilitation. As a stabilized outpatient, Straight is not running up bills at the same rate.

"I like it better this way," said Straight, who was raised in upstate New York. "I'm so lucky I've got my parents here to take care of me. I can get a little of this warm Florida sunshine going. The only thing I haven't been able to do is walk."

Straight, though, is not about to roll over.

"I've been doing a lot of research," Straight said. "I was very impressed with the stem cell research opportunities now in the United States. The University of California at Irvine has a huge program. They told me by the third quarter of this year they'd be up and running. So even if it doesn't work out and I can't walk before then, there's always that kind of opportunity."

Straight has had to deal with the obvious anxieties of going from a full speed career to a hard stop.

"Probably the hardest thing I have to do is be patient," he said. "I have to take my time with everything, do things in slow motion.

"You lose your legs and you need a lot of upper body strength," Straight went on. "The first couple days I was using a wheelchair my arms were so sore. But even with the spinal injury the top of my back is fine and my chest is fine. I can get in my parents' SUV with someone picking me up from the back, then I use one of the handles on the roof to pull myself into the seat. They stow my chair in the back, then put it together and I can hop right out of the car and into the seat."

At this point, Straight had passed his audition. The part was his . . . the resilience of youth.

"Riding horses is dangerous," Straight said. "And I know falling wasn't the best thing for me. I just can't help feeling, though, that it's all working out now.

"Anyway, racing was my life before and that won't change," he added. "Now that I'm down here, I hope to get over to Tampa to watch my brother ride, and down to Gulfstream Park."

In fact, if all goes well, Michael Straight could be returning to a racetrack for the first time since his injury on the afternoon of Jan. 17 to watch Sweet Lemon Chello run in the $100,000 Sweetest Chant Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Sweet Lemon Chello, owned by Slapshot Stables, separated herself cleanly from fellow Illinois-breds on Dec. 5 when she won the Pat Whitworth Stakes at Hawthorne by 8 1/2 lengths.

"I broke her maiden last summer," Straight said. "And her owners have become real good friends. They were looking for a race, and I found this one at Gulfstream, long on the grass, which she should like since she's by Lemon Drop Kid. I asked them if my brother could ride her. They said yes."

Clearly, Straight is already in rehearsal for his next career.

"As soon as I get back, the plan is to take my brother's book," Straight said. "Even if I'm in a wheelchair and I can still get around, that would be a great job for me. It would be an honor to be his agent, and back in the game again."

Then, just to make sure, he moved his toes.