05/11/2004 11:00PM

When it ceases to become just a game


BALTIMORE - Man down.

Jockey Rick Wilson came off Advance to Go leaving the gate in last Saturday's second race at Pimlico, a $25,000 claimer at 1 1/16 miles on the dirt. Advance to Go kicked Wilson in the head and continued down the track. Wilson never moved. The race was declared no contest when the rest of the field had to be pulled up to avoid him lying on the track.

At 2:05, 25 minutes after post time, a state police helicopter landed. At 2:09, Wilson, 50, was transported to the University of Maryland's shock trauma unit. He groaned in response to questions during the trip - a good sign.

At 2:18, seven maiden claimers broke from the gate for the third race.

Although the task at hand - running races - continued, the mood of the jocks' room changed just like it does every time someone goes down and doesn't get up. Rubber bands went on tighter around wrists. Playing cards sat on the table without any players. Whips felt foreign in hands that were suddenly not as loose. Banter was replaced by silence.

"It gets quiet, real quiet," said Wilson's valet, Bruce Gill. "All day, it's 'Did you hear anything? Did you hear anything?' Hoping the old soldier will be all right."

"It happens all the time," said 22-year veteran jockey Alberto Delgado. "You get up, shake the dust off, and keep on going. But he never moved. You worry about things like that happening. You think about it, and then you don't think about it. You give it five minutes, and then you have to put it out of your mind and go out there and ride."

Ryan Fogelsonger won the third on One Genius, the fourth on Debbie's Gone, and the fifth with I'm Alarming. Greg Hutton won the sixth with Missthewire. Horacio Karamanos won the seventh on Hummel. Jozbin Santana took the eighth with Love Match. Fogelsonger won the ninth, the Hilltop Stakes, on Western Ransom.

The results were simply results, as the valets and jockeys hoped for good news about Wilson. The jocks' room phone rang all day, as Wilson's comrades called.

A native of Oklahoma, Wilson rode his first Thoroughbred race in New Mexico. That was 1972. He has shared a lot of corners with a lot of jockeys in a lot of rooms since then. Harry Vega called. Carlos Marquez called. Ramon Dominguez called. Edgar Prado called. Jeremy Rose called.

Kenny Wilson, at 16 the youngest of Rick and Jean Wilson's four children, answered many of the calls. He was watching the race on television in the jocks' room when his dad went down.

"I always have a bad feeling when they go in the gate, because that's usually where the bad stuff happens," Kenny Wilson said. "When he stumbled, he usually picks them back up, but this time he fell off. I was hoping he'd get up. They kept saying, 'Rider's down, rider's down.' I just wanted him to get up."

Kenny Wilson spent the better part of Saturday night at the hospital. Kenny Wilson's mother, his sisters, Jennifer and Kristy, his brother, Ricky, his father's agent, John Salzman Jr., and countless well-wishers came and went while Wilson underwent surgery for head injuries and a cut to his ear.

You don't ride more more than 24,000 races and win 4,939 if you don't know how to fight. Doctors were keeping Wilson in a sedated state, because every time he came to, he thrashed around like there was another race to ride.

"I talked to him; I'm sure he could hear us," Kenny Wilson said. "I just told him I hoped he got better. I'm trying to keep it together for him, but it's hard. I'm trying."

Tough words for a son to say about his father. Kenny Wilson came back to the Pimlico jocks' room Sunday to drop off his dad's boots, to get his mind off that hospital bed, and to dispel any of the rumors that were flying around. He told a continuous line of jockeys and valets that doctors had removed his dad from the ventilator, that his dad was moving, that his dad was breathing on his own, that his dad was opening his eyes.

"The hardest thing is seeing him come home all those times and now seeing him in the hospital," Kenny Wilson said. "He's just a good, hard-working guy. Never seen him stop moving. He's always moving, doing something. He's a real good father, strict but he's good. He won't tell you wrong. He'll always point you in the right direction."

Proud words for a son to say about his father. Rick Wilson broke his neck in 1997. He broke his leg and three ribs in 2001. He also won 13 races on Eclipse Award winner Xtra Heat. His son has seen it all.

"He wants that mark, 5,000 wins. If he can, he'll be out here again," Wilson said. "It was a great sport until the second race on Saturday."