Our Fallen Riders
Gary Birzer: Perseverance
By Jayme LaRocca
As a Jockeys and Jeans Committee Member and liaison to the Fallen Riders, I’ll be writing periodically about some of the jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries. Each one had a life-changing event, whether from a spinal cord injury or head trauma. Their on-track accidents happened in a split second and now some of the very basic things they took for granted are gone.
My first story will be on Gary Birzer. I had the opportunity to speak with him recently about his accident and his participation in the upcoming Jockeys and Jeans Charity Event, June 23rd, at Canterbury Park.
Gary Birzer is a quadriplegic from injuries he sustained to his neck and spinal cord from an on-track accident in 2004 at Mountaineer Race Track. He’s now paralyzed from the chest down. Gary says, “I don’t remember much about the accident”. He was riding Lil Bit of Rouge when the horse fell near the ½ mile pole throwing the then 27-year-old jockey to the ground. Now confined to a wheelchair, he continues doing physical therapy to get stronger. Gary says, “It’s really hard to do the therapy with the severe pain I have”.
Gary was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, in a horse racing family. When he was 2, the family moved to Arkansas where he would grow up. His brother Alex is a veteran jockey. Gary rode his first race at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Nebraska, at the age of 21. He had a successful career riding at various racetracks around the country, but he eventually settled at Mountaineer Race Track where he could ride year-round. Gary says, “I still miss being around horse racing, it’s in your blood”.
Gary will be one of the honorees at the Jockeys and Jeans Charity Event to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF). This year’s event will be held at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota, on June 23rd. He’s looking forward to the event where his kids and other family members will be in attendance. Gary says, “I’m so grateful for the PDJF, they help me pay for medical supplies and my everyday living expenses from the monthly stipend I receive from them”. “Without the PDJF, I would be in a world of hurt”.
For more information on the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, visit www.pdjf.org
For more information on Jockeys and Jeans, visit www.jockeysandjeans.com
(Gary with his 10-year-old son Nathan)
Jockey Tad Leggett: Breathing Easy in Bandera
By Rev Eddie Donnally
Former jockey Tad Leggett remembered his mount breaking from the starting gate then collapsing beneath him. His next memory a month later was waking up on a noisy private plane on the way to a rehab facility for spinal cord injuries. The breathing machine down his throat had malfunctioned. He struggled for his next breath.
“I was just starting to come around when we got on the plane,” said Leggett from his home in Bandera Texas. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I couldn’t move. It was scary.”
The successful jockey was riding a trial for the Black Gold Futurity at Oklahoma’s Fair Meadows Racetrack on July 30, 2010. His mount, Hoist the Colours, started wobbling and veering toward the inside rail. He didn’t know the two-year-old suffered rare broken vertebrae. He remembers the horse eventually collapsing. All went black. The spill broke Leggett’s neck, crushing his number three, four and five vertebrae and leaving him on a breathing machine, and at 45 a quadriplegic.
For Leggett, a story that begin in trauma and fear has progressed into an appreciation of life however differently lived. His is not only a story of survival, but one of hope and healing, anchored by his faith, his family, and his extended racetrack family.
Since 1940, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports 150 North American jockeys died in track accidents. Add American riders Juan Saez, who died at 17 following a 2014 spill and renowned Quarter Horse Jockey, Jacky Martin, who died April 4 from injuries suffered in 2011, and the number totals 152, an average of over two each year. Since its founding in 2006, the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which supports riders with a variety of catastrophic injuries, has assisted some 71 permanently disabled jockeys. An estimated 50 suffered career-ending spinal cord injuries. This in a group barely larger than NFL players.
These are facts jockeys deal with ever time they walk their mounts onto a racetrack. “I knew this could happen at any time,” Leggett said. “But did I think about it? Not at all.”
Leggett’s youngest son, Trevor, then 11, had traveled with his father to the trial races. He called his mother, Tina, an Emergency Room RN, telling her of the spill he saw, saying an ambulance had taken his dad to the hospital. “I tend to be an optimist and I’m thinking an overnight stay,” she said.
But friends she called at the hospital said her husband was not moving his limbs. Tina threw a few things in the car and with Travis, then 16, beside her drove all night to Tulsa. She learned from nurses Tad was not only immobile, he was not breathing at all without a ventilator. “In the Emergency Room, we’re trained to be calm and not shook up, and at that point the magnitude of his injury had not sunk in,” she said. “But I knew that all was being done that could be done, and it was still not working.”
On July 4, Leggett underwent a nine-hour surgery at Tulsa’s St. John Hospital. Using incisions in front and back, doctors inserted screws and plates. He developed pneumonia and doctors discovered nerve damage in his diaphragm. He clung to life.
Racetrack friends visited. Daughter Tiffany, 19 at the time, flew in. Tina stayed with Tad constantly, moving only early each morning to a room in the hospital basement. The family had become regulars at Ridin the River Cowboy Church in Bandera and between naps, Tina would pray. Tommy Griffin, the track chaplain, visited often, listening to her and praying with her. “I believe in miracles, and I believe in a healing God,” she said. “I didn’t just sit around thinking this was all I was going to get.”
Tad and Tina met at Custer County Fairgrounds near his home in Broken Bow, Nebraska two decades earlier. He was starting his career, and she was a groom. They married and moved to Bandera, where Tad could ride at Bandera Downs some nine months each year. But the track closed in 1995, and the rider spent much time on the road.
After two weeks, doctors removed the ventilator tube in Tad’s throat, opened a hole in his throat and attached a tracheotomy (trach) collar. Heavily sedated, he could mouth words and Tina learned to read his lips. Tad remembers none of this. Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund Director, Nancy LaSala—herself married to a former jockey—stayed in contact, something Tina called a huge help.
After a month, doctors told Tina her husband had stabilized. They suggested he go to an acute care nursing facility near their home. There were no plans to wean him from the ventilator or the feeding tube inserted into his stomach. Tina wanted more. Her search for a better facility proved fruitless. Late one night a nurse she didn’t know stopped by Tad’s room in ICU and suggested Craig Hospital in Denver. She considered it an answer to prayer. She and LaSala contacted them; they sent an assessment team and accepted him.
When he arrived there by private jet, the mechanical ventilator malfunctioned, and nurses had to insert a tube into his lungs and pump an attached plastic bag to keep him breathing. But soon he was breathing on his own and eating real food. “It was worth whatever it took,” said Tad. “They don’t tell you they’re going to teach you to walk, but they teach you how to live your life; how to brush your teeth, tie your shoelaces and get in your car. I had counseling, and it was painful, but I didn’t want any antidepressants.”
When he left three months later, he was moving a big toe and lifting an arm. Yet, Tina said the second they drove up to their home in Bandera and she saw the new wheelchair ramp, she knew their life was forever changed. “I finally realized that what we had done every day of our lives, we could no longer do. Frankly, I felt a little cheated.”
Time together, traveling or even having a cozy dinner at a restaurant was difficult if not impossible. Tina left her nursing job and for the next two years concentrated on taking care of Tad. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But it was still a lot better than our kids losing their dad and me losing my husband.”
One challenge was money. Several tracks held fundraisers for Tad, and Tina used the cash to negotiate lower fees from the hospital. Fair Meadows held a $500,000 catastrophic Insurance policy for its jockeys. Those funds ran out before Tad left Craig. The couple received a bill from the hospital for $60,000. She remembers piling the bills on their living room table and praying over them.
She contacted Craig to work out a payment plan. Officials there had her fill out an application and their charity cut the amount down to $6,000. She called again, and they told her the debt had been forgiven.
In 20 years, Tad had ridden some 9,000 Quarter Horse races and another 2,000 on thoroughbreds. He won at least 1,600 races, including 131 QH stakes races, with eight being Grade I. His mounts earned nearly $14 million. Still, with neither working they were soon living off what remained from the fundraisers and monthly payments from the Jockeys’ Guild and PDJF. “We didn’t live high off the hog,” Tina said. “But the money paid the bills and took care of Tad’s care. Without their help, there is no way I could have stayed home with Tad.”
“My injury was a life changing experience for the entire family,” Tad said. “For me it was catastrophic, but it had to be the same for all of us. It’s one thing for me to be hurt, but to see my family have to go through those changes was hard.”
And yes, Tad’s faith was severely tested. “I asked God, why did He let this happen? But I came to realize that Jesus didn’t let this happen, and we’re not going to go through anything that He is not there to help. And when you come out the other side, you’ll be a better person.”
Today, Tad concentrates on exercising, both at an outside facility and with a physical therapist at home, something paid for by PDJF. He walks up to 45 yards with the aid of a walker. If he has something to hold on to, he can rise to his feet. Yet, his hands are closed and only about 20% normal. Driving an auto is a goal. “I’m a quadriplegic, but I get around better than some paraplegics,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger. Therapy is great, and I praise God that they are there to help.”
Tina is back at work; a senior nurse for a local hospice. She also works most nights from home, assigning on-call nurses to emergency patient needs. She was accepted into a Masters Degree program and hopes to become a Nurse Practitioner.
They visited Las Vegas last fall and made trips to tracks to meet with their many friends, some of whom Tad says still call. He thanks track friends who “rolled in to visit” at Craig. He chiefly needs help getting in and out of bed, and with Trevor still in high school, spends a great deal of time alone.
Before fellow Quarter Horse jockey Jacky Martin died, the two often spoke by phone. Tad even made the trip to visit Martin in his Houston rehab hospital. Martin, 59, was also a quadriplegic, one permanently hooked to trach collar breathing machine. “He was my idol and it’s sad,” Leggett said. “Makes me realize things could be worse (for me).
“Sometimes I slow down and I’ve had time to search myself. I believe a lot of things in my life have changed for the better. I have some bad days, but I know I can dwell on the past all I want, and it won’t change anything. Every day isn’t easy, and I might talk light to some people. But there is a lot going on emotionally, physically and mentally. But by George, I know it’s like that for a lot of people. I look at it like my life is a book. One chapter is done, and now it’s time to go on to the next.”
Roger Blanco: How He used Three Decades in a Wheelchair to Help Others
By Eddie Donnally
Roger Blanco, in a wheelchair for 28 years, battles ongoing health issues common to paraplegics but still reaches out to offer encouragement and practical advice to fellow former jockeys who had similar injuries. He also credits the monthly stipend he receives from the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund with putting his income in the range required by a mortgage company to refinance his home. “If it wasn’t for that income I would have lost my home,” he said. “I’ve lived here a long time and that would have been hard to deal with.”
Injured in a spill in 1988 at Monmouth Park, the Cuban native lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Saying he “loves to make my own money,” he worked as a jockey agent until he dislocated a hip in a fall in the shower. After being divorced from Michele Blanco, the former marketing director at Calder, his son, 10 at the time of the accident, wanted to live with his dad, though his mother lives nearby and has always been a huge part of his life. Roger said his father helped and Christopher, 23, is now a student at the University of Florida.
Blanco swims each day to keep his upper body strong, but said his back has two herniated discs and his insurance will not pay to remove the rod that was inserted in his spine shortly after his injury, something his surgeons say is needed first. He said the pain is constant and takes painkilling medication each day.
Still, he has reached out to several paraplegic former jockeys whose injuries were recent. He even fixed the wheelchair for one who lives locally. Having gone through it, he knows adjustment to becoming a para- or quadriplegic is never easy. “One day you’re in front of 20,000 people in the grandstand and the next day you’re alone.
Thinking back, I realize God did not kill me the day of the accident, so there is a reason I’m alive. Maybe, I’m a prototype to see how much a person can take and still love God. Ethel Kennedy said, ‘God never gives you more than you can take.’ I never look at it like it was God’s punishment. It’s just a test and we’re all tested. Jockeys know what comes from the sport: you can be rich and famous or you can be dead. I’ve learned to not ask God ‘why me’ but ask God, ‘why not me?’”
Farewell to a friend, by Reverend Eddie Donnally
Former Jockey Leroy Allemand, 64, was killed in an auto accident on Interstate 10 in Northern Florida early Tuesday morning, Feb. 7. Friends say he was driving from his home in Summerville, SC to his native Louisiana to visit relatives.
His career as a Quarter Horse and thoroughbred jockey ended at the defunct Riverside Downs in Henderson Ky. In 1998 when a starting gate allegedly hooked to 110 volt electric current shocked the horses and riders. His story can be read on the “Fallen Heroes” Tab on JockeysandJeans.com.
In writing his story, I came to know the affable, positive and Christian former jockey whose chief goal in life was helping others as he acted as the chaplain in his building that housed the physically disabled.
I prayed with him several times and I know he rests in the arms of Jesus. Still, I enjoyed our conversations and will miss him as will his family and many friends
Leroy Allemand: Helping Others, Helping Himself
By Eddie Donnally
At the now defunct Riverside Downs in Henderson, Kentucky, jockey Leroy Allemand was atop his mount in the starting gate. The gate opened. All felt an electric current surge through their bodies. Every horse and jockey collapsed.
“I cut a flip and landed on my back,” said former Quarter Horse Jockey Leroy Allemand. “I got up and tried to get away from my mount. But he ran over me, and this time I knew I hurt my back bad.”
He said the starter, for reasons unknown, decided to power the door’s opening with a 110 volt line and not the usual 12 volt battery. While all the horses and riders were shocked, his was the only serious injury. The track closed down shortly after the incident, ending any hope of a law suit. The May 21, 1989 accident ended a 17-year career that included some 600 victories and several stakes race wins. He broke several vertebrae, spent weeks in a hospital and has had six back surgeries.
“I have pain 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said from his home in a Summerville, S.C.
apartment. “I wake up at all hours of the night and take pain pills. Then I can lie down again and sleep another couple of hours. I can’t walk very far, or sit for long. But I’m not a quitter. Even though I hurt all day long I tell all the people where I live to not give up. I know I never will.”
He lives in a building dedicated to the disabled. Some there, he said, have even more severe disabilities and he tries to help as much as possible. He recently aggravated his back injury by standing on a stool and helping one resident remove a can from her cabinet. He spends much of his time being their “defacto chaplain,” taking the time to listen to their laments and offer encouragement.
“I know how important it is to get things off your chest,” he said. “I try to help as much as I can. I believe by helping others God helps me. If I can make life better for anyone I’m going to do it. My faith is important to me “
He said he regularly attends church and often visits his former wife, his daughters, Danielle and Andrea, and his five grandchildren, all of whom live in the area. He said family is the reason he moved there after his injury.
He said the monthly check he receives from Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund is vital. “It pays the bills,” he said. “No way I could make it otherwise. I’d probably be homeless. “
Leroy, like many severely injured former jockeys, has managed to rebuild a shattered life. His life includes faith, family, friends and service to others, making it full by any standard. Despite his new life’s limitations and constant pain, the last thing Leroy or other severely injured riders want is sympathy.
“I’m a happy man,” he said. “I don’t look back. I look ahead. I’m thankful I can walk and I’m always going to do what I can to help others. People don’t know how much it helps them when they help somebody else.”
TONY DLUGOPOLSKI: WHEN LUCK RUNS OUT
By Eddie Donnally
When retired jockeys talk about their careers they usually list their various injuries and end with “but I was lucky.” Former jockey Anthony (Tony) Dlugopolski, who spent 25 years riding, has his own list; broken collarbone, ankle, back, six ribs, punctured lung, torn ligaments and several concussions. Only Tony doesn’t end with the typical “but I was lucky.” In his 25,429th race, his luck ran out.
He’s a quadriplegic.
On a bitter cold day four days after Christmas in 2002, he was in the middle of the pack in a race at Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort, trying to win his 3,426 race. A horse on his inside and in front of him was trying to veer toward the outside. The rider on the horses outside him, for the sake of self-preservation, was trying to hold him in. In a worst-case scenario, the lugging out horse got in front of that rival and continued his outward course. That rival clipped his heel and fell. “He turned a somersault, “Tony said “My mount went over his (outstretched) legs and fell sideways. It turned me upside down. I hit on my back and head. The track was frozen and it was like hitting concrete.”
Never unconscious, he knew one of the paramedics was named Mary. “She asked my age and I said I’m sixteen and never been kissed . . . but I’m paralyzed. I asked her where my arms were. I thought I’d knocked them off.”
The disc in his C3 vertebra was driven into the spinal cord. The Chicago native, who started riding at Illinois bush tracks at 16, underwent two surgeries and nearly two years in a rehabilitation facility. He and his wife Pam, who he married at 19, settled into a new life, one far different. Tony had not only been a jockey but worked at the Pittsburg International Airport loading pallets onto Boeing 747s. Night racing minor tracks is an excruciating schedule, rising at 6:00 a.m. to exercise up to a dozen horses, taking a nap, then returning to the Jockeys Room at 5:30 p.m. and ending with a final mount often near midnight. But for 13 years, he would dash to the airport after exercising horses each morning and dash back in time to race at night.
“I look back now and I don’t know how I did it,” he said. “But somehow we all do what we have to do.”
He spends his occasional days off and vacations in the surrounding mountains, hunting deer and wild Turkeys, and an occasional trip out west to hunt Antelope. “I would even build “stands” in trees and climb up them to hunt,” he said. “It was big joy in my life.”
His injury did not completely sever his spine and for a time he could walk short distances. But that didn’t stop him from the common maladies of those with severe spinal cord injuries. He had constant bladder infections and pressure sores. “I woke up one night in a pool of blood when one of the sores ruptured,” he said. “The wound vacuums in the hospital didn’t work right and I spent months getting well. The worse part of it all has been laying in bed so long and trying to get stronger.”
During a stay in a rehab facility he said a physical therapist tried to put one leg over the other to stretch the muscles and accidently broke his femur. Suffering from constant back pain and muscle spasms, he has a pain pump inserted beneath his abdomen skin that delivers a small dose of morphine directly to his spinal cord. “The pain is much better,” he said. “But I can’t walk anymore at all. I can stand and pivot, but I still need help getting into my wheelchair.”
But none of this has stopped him from hunting. Only now he uses a specially constructed bow, a device for shooting and an all-terrain wheelchair. “I hunt as much as I can because a man can relax out there and it takes away the tension,” he said. “I went hunting yesterday morning. The serenity is so great and it’s so peaceful. I saw a huge owl and a wild Turkey. A man can relax out there and it takes away the tension. “He proudly adds. “I just got a six-point buck.”
Divorced six years ago, he lives with his sister, Theresa and often sees his two grown children Nicole, Chad, and his four grandchildren who live nearby. He attends church weekly, something not easy given his condition, but his faith is important to him. “It’s hard for me to sleep at night and most nights I go to sleep praying.”
Theresa drives him to church, grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments and even hunting in a specially equipped van that allows him to ride in the rear. “The money I get from PDJF (Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund) goes to make the payment on that van which costs over $50,000,” he said. “It’d be tough without my van,” he said. “The money helps a lot.”
Not given to waxing eloquently on his condition, lament is not his plainspoken style. “I’ve had a rough life,” he said. “I’ve been hurt a lot and I still hurt a lot. I spoke to a priest about it once and he reminded me that Jesus suffered too. So, I really can’t complain. I loved what I did. It was exciting.”
He gives a short laugh. “I even enjoyed galloping horses though I had to do it for free.”
Tony will be one of six catastrophically injured jockeys honored at the fourth annual Jockeys and Jeans Event at Parx Racing near Philadelphia on June 3. Formed by a group of former jockeys in 2014, Jockeys and Jeans has raised nearly $700,000 for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund which make monthly payments to over 60 jockeys who suffered career ending injuries, over 40 of whom are either pari or quadriplegic.
Vincent Amico: The Zest Lives On
By Eddie Donnally
In a recent call to former jockey Vincent Amico for an interview, he was in obvious pain. Seems the paraplegic was mowing his considerable lawn with a riding mower using a stick to press the accelerator when he hit a bump hurling him into the machine’s front and badly bruising several ribs.“I thought I was having a heart attack it was so bad,” he said.
Such is the fast talking native of Sicily. He has been in a wheelchair since his racing accident 38 year ago. But he still repairs the aging pick-up truck he drives and he shops and cooks. His injury has not stopped him from wheelchair racing, playing basketball and Scuba Diving.
“I do everything,” he said. “My wife Lori helps, but I’m very independent. Attitude is very important. I don’t dwell on the past. I’m a happy person. I’m not a sad person.”
With an uncle as a sponsor he landed in Boston at 16 in 1971. While attending East Boston High School a teacher noted his size, and he and friends “hooked” school one day and drove to nearby Suffolk Downs. He spoke with several “clockers” who put him in touch with a jockey agent who helped land him a job with trainer John Rigatteri. While it usually requires two to four years of exercising racehorses before riding in a race, Amico said he rode his first race seven months later.
“The stewards and some jockeys watched me work a horse out of the gate and okayed me,” he said. “In my first race I thought I was at the finish line when I was really at the quarter pole. But I won in a dead heat on my second mount and won again on my third.”
He remembers being the leading apprentice during the fall meet in 1974. Equibase stats has him riding 1,742 races from 1976-78, winning 230. “They don’t even have me riding in 1974 or 75,” he said. “I have a Jockeys’ Guild article that shows I won 425.”
Regardless, by the time he was severely injured on July 30, 1978 at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, he was having a solid if not spectacular career. A month after turning 23 and four years into a riding career, it suddenly ended. He had earned a five-day suspension and could have started it that day. But he rode. One mount was a last minute pick up, oddly named Sherri’s Lucky Lady. The horse clipped a rival’s heels and fell. “I remember my legs were burning like they were on fire; like somebody was cooking them. I passed out and woke up in the (Boston University) Hospital.
A model patient, he spent four months in rehab. He was soon playing basketball and racing his chair in Boston, New York and Rhode Island. He was also encouraging other new paraplegics. In counseling one day, a psychiatrist asked him how it felt to be in a wheelchair.” I told him he’d never been in one and could never really understand. He asked me if I ever considered going to college to become a counselor.”
Amico never took him up on the offer, but he did spend several months volunteering for the college and traveling to other colleges and high schools to speak about spinal cord injuries. Since then, he has counseled and encouraged several other severely injured jockeys.
He worked as a jockeys’ agent and less than three years after his injury turned to training. According to Equibase, he started 1,070 horses and won 125 races. “I did everything,” he said. “I put on bandages and even walked some of my horses from the wheelchair. I loved it.”
Following his wife’s lead, he learned to Scuba Dive and earned a certification. They completed several dives at Florida Crystal River and Key Largo, completing over a dozen dives. “My wife would be above me, kicking and I would use my arms,” he said. “We once went down 98 feet. It was awesome.”
By 2005, thoroughbred racing was winding down at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs. He and his wife of 34 years sold their home in Florida and moved to Vinton LA near Delta Downs. But Hurricane Rita destroyed their new home and training barn, causing them to live in a motel room for seven months.
Soon he was down to training a few horses. Today, all that’s left of his training career are two foals. Paraplegics have life span years below normal and he is 60. “Five years ago I could climb a mountain,” he said. “But things are tougher, and now I make it day to day, but I still go to move and keep going.”
He said he uses the monthly payments from Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund to pay bills. “I’d be broke by the middle of the month if it wasn’t for them.”
In early December, doctors found a tumor on his liver. With doctors deciding not to yet operate, he was scheduled for another PET (Position Emission Tomography) Scan on May 27 to learn if it had grown. This is a week before he and Lori are scheduled to be at Jockeys and Jeans at Parx Racing on June 3, where Amico will become one of six catastrophically injured jockeys honored. Never one to avoid a risk, he insists on going. “My wife said go and have a good time with your friends. I don’t want to find out until I get back.”
He will turn 61 on June 2, the day before the event. That evening he will celebrate his birthday with other injured riders and a hoard of former and current jockeys. “It (the tumor) is scary and I don’t want to think about it now,” he said. “I’m not going to let it screw up my plans.”
Paul Nolan: Great Attitude
By Jayme LaRocca
Paul Nolan is a quadriplegic from an on-track accident that occurred at Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma, on April 18th of last year. He suffered a contusion to his neck at the C3 level, which also affected his respiratory muscles. Although there were no broken bones, his spinal cord was severely swollen and the prognosis is unknown. The veteran jockey of more than 30 years is now paralyzed from the neck down. He uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility. Paul has retained some sensation and movement of his arms and legs. He endures a tiring physical therapy program, which includes assisted walking 3-4 days a week using a walker.
The horse Paul was riding fell while galloping out after the race, throwing him to the ground and then rolling on top of him twice. Paul says, “That’s when everything went fuzzy”. “What I remember of the accident is the horse’s head just disappeared and me laying on the ground, unable to move or breathe”.
Paul’s not the only jockey in his family. His father, Paddy Nolan, was a well-known Irish Steeplechase jockey who would teach and be a big influence on Paul. He used to tag along with his father to the racetrack and got on horses when he could. Paul says, “For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a jockey”.
Paul emigrated from England to the US in the mid 1980’s to pursue a career as a jockey. He rode at many racetracks around the country and in 2006, he won the riding title at Canterbury Park, where he was known as the “Sod Surgeon”, for his abilities on the turf course. He has had many serious injuries throughout his career, but none of them compare to his current challenges. As far as the dangers of being a jockey, Paul says, “Most people don’t have an ambulance following them while at work”.
Paul has an amazing sense of humor and he has maintained it through his injury and rehabilitation. He puts you at ease with his jokes and punchlines. Because of his accident, Paul says, “I was able to cross two things off my bucket list; taking a helicopter ride and traveling in a Learjet”. Both were to transport him to hospitals. After a 3½ month rehab stay at Craig Hospital in Colorado, he’s now at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minnesota. Paul jokes, “I always wondered what it was like to be institutionalized”.
Paul plans to return to his Bloomington, Minnesota home in the next few weeks where he will continue his physical therapy program, which will bring nurses and medical professionals. Many financial expenses come along with having a spinal cord injury and it’s hard to finds ways to pay for them. Paul is grateful to everyone who has conducted fundraisers or made donations. He says, “I want to thank everyone for their support, it’s made a big difference”.
Racing fans will have an opportunity to meet Paul when he will be another one of the honorees at the Jockeys and Jeans Charity Event to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF). This year’s event will be held at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota, on June 23rd. Paul is looking forward to seeing his friends and fans at the track where he became such a popular figure.
Photo by Dustin Orona
Story by Beverly Lydick, Fremont [NE] Tribune
Jayme A. LaRocca, one-time busboy at Al’s Café in Fremont, NE, has plenty on his plate now as the new boss of a Kansas City, KS, race track. LaRocca, 44, was recently
named general manager of The Woodlands dog and horse track after serving as the track director of simulcasting since 1992.
But the 1980 Fremont High School grad’s track career really began when he was still a teenager living at home. “I was working as a bus boy at Al’s Café,” recalls LaRocca. “A guy who was there saw me and said I should be a jockey.” Not long after someone else made thesame suggestion on a different day, LaRocca found himself on a horse for the first time at age 16.
He soon began working at the Ak-Sar-Ben race track in Omaha, cleaning stalls, grooming horses and learning the business of the business. Getting to know horsemen Herb Rieken, Ben Glass, Jack Van Berg, Hoss Inman and others, LaRocca was soon riding professionally on the East Coast and in the Midwest, winning 30 races during one 60-day meet at Ak-Sar-Ben.
His riding career ended in 1982 at a West Virginia race track when his mount broke a leg and fell on him. Suffering a broken back in the accident, LaRocca now walks assisted by full leg braces.
LaRocca’s entry into the horse business begins in Fremont, NE as a sixteen-year-old bus boy at Al’s Cafe. A man came in the cafe and commented to LaRocca on his size. He suggested that because LaRocca was small, he should become a jockey. LaRocca later came to find out the man was the father of Randy and Monty Meier, prominent riders in the Midwest.
LaRocca never thought anything of it and went along. Several months later, Jim Schleis, a trainer from Ak-Sar-Ben, came in and said, “You’re awful small, you should try to be a jockey.” The trainer invited LaRocca out to Ak-Sar-Ben the next morning. “I’ve been in the business ever since,” LaRocca recounts of the story.
Armando Rivera, A Story of Faith,
By Jayme LaRocca.
Armando Rivera’s on-track accident occurred in 1979 at the Santa Rosa County Fair. As an 18-year-old jockey, he was working a horse in the morning when the accident occurred. Armando says, “I don’t remember exactly what happened”. The horse he was on rolled over on him after colliding with another horse. He fractured his spine at the T5 level and is now paralyzed from the waist down. Armando has been a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair for the past 39 years. He doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. He’s positive on life and focused on what he wants to do. Armando says, “I understood being a jockey was dangerous, but I really loved the competition”. After his accident, he turned to family. “I was really blessed to have a good support system”.
Armando got into racing as a young kid. His grandparents had quarter horses and he later met a jockey who helped him get into the business. After galloping horses and riding races in the bushes, he rode his first official race at Les Boise Park in Idaho.
Two years after his accident, Armando began training horses. He would go on to win 50 races as a trainer from 1983-2005. Training horses is demanding and doing it from a wheelchair is even more challenging. He ended his training career when, “it just got to be too much and I wanted to focus on myself”. He continues to stay updated on what’s going on in the quarter horse and thoroughbred racing world.
After he stopped training racehorses, Armando says, “I didn’t like it that I began to gain weight” and “It’s hard to get in shape when you’re in a wheelchair”. He turned to wheelchair races after watching others do it and that got him inspired to pursue it. “I wanted to compete and it looked like a lot of fun”. His current exercise routine is that of a long distant runner. He trains daily and participates in marathons, mainly on the west coast and is known by many of the other competitor’s. He competes against the likes of Roger Craig, former star running back for the San Francisco 49’ers and Nebraska alum. Armando says, “I would have beat Roger Craig in a race if not for the carpet near the finish line”. Armando would go on to tell Craig, “This is what we train for”.
While training and competing in marathon events, he is proud to wear his t-shirts and hats that display the PDJF logo. “I get inspired by being able to help get the PDJF name out there and raise awareness”, Armando says. “The PDJF gives me a monthly stipend so I can pay for wheelchair tires, everyday living expenses and many other things”. “They have been a blessing to me”.
Also, Armando is grateful to Jockeys and Jeans for the hard work they put in. “It’s amazing what they have done to help the PDJF”.
Armando will be another one of the honorees at the Jockeys and Jeans Charity Event to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF). This year’s event will be held at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota, on June 23rd.
For more information on the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, visit www.pdjf.org
For more information on Jockeys and Jeans, visit www.jockeysandjeans.com
(Armando participating in the Rock & Roll Marathon in Las Vegas)
Ann Von Rosen
Paraplegic Former Jockey Anne Von Rosen: ‘I Will Walk Again’
“A man does what he must—in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures—and that is the basis for all human morality.” John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage
Paraplegic former jockey, Anne Von Rosen, is writing her own chapter.
“I'm determined to fight and not give up,” she said from her apartment in Phoenix, Ariz. “Doctors never flat out told me I'd be paralyzed the rest of my life, but I accepted it to some degree. But I have said from the beginning that I will walk again.”
For paraplegics, the shocking new and complicated lifestyle of being wed to a wheelchair is virtually always balanced with hopes for a divorce. Reality versus hope is a theme common to us all. Yet, catastrophically injured former jockeys, who measure themselves by their physical and mental ability to get a racehorse to the finish line before others wearing identical goggles, soon learn this balance is precarious. And to radically tip either way is brutal for body and mind.
On March 11, 2014, Von Rosen finished second aboard Quarter Horse Panchita Bonita at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. “I don't remember the race,” she said. “But I remember galloping out thinking the mare had run a huge race. The next thing I know, I'm lying on the ground. I couldn't feel my legs, but the strange thing was it wasn't scary. I knew what had happened, and I accepted it. I always have. I think people don't know how dangerous this sport is.”
While there is no exact data this writer could find, the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which supports riders with many kinds of catastrophic injuries, has since its founding in 2006 assisted some 71 permanently disabled jockeys. Approximately 70% (49) have suffered paralysis or other spinal cord injuries severe enough to end their careers. This in a group barely larger than the number of players in the NFL.
Hours after the accident, a seven-hour emergency surgery dealt with her leaking spinal fluid. Two days later, another surgery stabilized her spine. Her T5 vertebra was severed. Medically termed “complete,” its healing at this point in time is virtually impossible, according to most doctors.
“I knew mine was complete, but maybe I just blocked it out,” she said. “I did a lot of visualization and visualized myself walking to the barn. From the beginning, I said I'd still walk.”
For Von Rosen, determination seems built in. Intelligent and personable, she is also known as a hard worker and independent. She worked on a breeding farm in her native Germany before moving to Italy, France and England, where she exercised horses at several major tracks. She gained a job as a vet tech at prestigious Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., became an assistant trainer, and then decided to become a jockey, first riding at bush tracks in South Dakota in 2001. As a seasoned veteran, she raced chiefly at Turf Paradise and Canterbury Downs, riding 5,000 races and winning a respectable 666.
Von Rosen, now 43, soon moved to Denver's Craig Hospital, renowned for helping those with severe spinal cord injuries. She refused counseling along with anti-depressants. “I didn't like it there,” she said. “They are good at getting you independent in a wheelchair, but I wanted to do other things, medically.”
Those things included the homeopathic medicine practiced by her father—a doctor in her native Germany— acupuncture and the stem-cell therapy that reportedly in 2011 healed a paralyzed donkey. She said Craig Hospital doctors were not cooperative, with one saying homeopathic medicine would interfere with the blood-thinners they prescribed.
“So much of this injury is psychosocial,” she said. “If you take away things I believe in, how can I get well? If it helps me, why take it away?”
After two weeks, Von Rosen moved back to her home and family in Germany where she underwent rehabilitation at a facility in Frankfurt while her father treated her with everything from reflexology, raindrop therapy (aromatherapy and massage with essential oils), and electroacupuncture — a form of acupuncture where a small electric current is passed between pairs of acupuncture needles.
Last September, she spent six weeks at Dr. Osvaldo Font's Pain Clinic in San Juan, Puerto Rico, receiving controversial electroneuromedular treatments. Long acupuncture needles are inserted deep inside the spinal cord, then connected to an electrical stimulus strong enough to cause sharp pain in previously unfeeling extremities. Several Latin and South American doctors perform this treatment, and claim that in some cases, it restores nerve connections inside injured spinal cord tissue. The practice is not yet approved in the U.S.
“The needle goes in deep,” said Von Rosen. “It hurts in the places where I can feel pain and it's dangerous. I can't yet feel pain in my legs which would be great. But it's helped. I'm starting to get my pelvis to work. There is no sensation yet, but I can still feel things inside. I can feel things move. It's hard to explain, but I believe it will help me walk again.”
She had treatments in Puerto Rico again in June, went back to Germany, moved to Phoenix last fall and plans to receive the same treatment in September.
In the meantime, her day-to-day battle goes on. It's a battle familiar to many. Former jockey Jackie Fires, a paraplegic since a horse he was exercising fell on him in 1977, said the first year after the injury is the hardest. “Your whole life changes,” he said. “You have to learn to live all over again. Your legs are gone so you have to use your hands and arms for everything. It's like being born again.”
For Von Rosen and other former jockeys now paraplegic, this new birth is often painful. There are high risks for developing dangerous urinary tract infections and pressure sores from sitting so much. And there are catheters to deal with, something Von Rosen said means getting up in the middle of the night to empty the catch bag.
“I still have pain in my upper body; my back actually. One of my ribs won't stay in place, and I have spasms in my legs when I move in my sleep. The pain wakes me up.”
Doing things most of us take for granted becomes lengthy, often impossible. “Just certain things you can't do,” she said, “like taking the dog for a walk, going into the kitchen and throwing together something to eat, getting ready and going out the door in twenty minutes. Everything takes so long. It's frustrating to do the little things you never thought about before.”
For Von Rosen, life has been reduced to dealing with her injury and healing from it. She gets up at 9:00 a.m., when various friends show up to help her get into the Swiss-made exercise machine her father purchased to help build her muscles. She spends hours on it each day. Three days a week, she goes out for physical therapy. She does standing exercises in a special frame at least a half-hour twice a day. She also hooks up her Acuscope, a device reported to have pain management properties.
She recently took time off to attend a day held in her honor at Turf Paradise, something she said was rewarding; most rewarding because she stood in leg braces for the world to see. Her voice turns cheery when she talks about the Doug O' Neill-trained Get Back Anne, who raced at Santa Anita, and a thoroughbred weanling named Running for Anne.
She does not feel forgotten. Ten months after her injury, friends still show up at her apartment to help in many ways. Because she does not yet have a hand controlled auto, they take her to physical therapy, help her shop, and assist with dishes and laundry.
“I'm grateful and thankful for all the people around me to help me get through this; to my family in Germany and my family in racing.”
While grateful, she's dislikes needing the help. “I've been lucky because the support is still there,” she said. “But the hardest part is having people take care of me because I'm so independent. It's frustrating because everything takes so long. But it's something I just have to bear.”
And yes, sometimes there are tears. “Some days I feel alone and cry.”
For Von Rosen and others like her, that delicate balance between hope and despair, lament and positive affirmation, giving in and going on is daily fare. She currently resides at the intersection of perspiration and aspiration.
Jockeys know the risks and accept them. Still, the exhilaration of being atop a half-ton racehorse, traveling inches apart at 40 MPH, with a paycheck, adulation and another “win” beside your name waiting at the finish line, is something never easy to give up. When it's snatched away too soon and replaced by a permanent lifelong injury, it's traumatic.
The same courage needed for the former is essential in the latter. Despite the daily battle, frustration and sometimes sadness, Von Rosen is not about to give up. Encouraging words are helpful, she said. Active on Facebook, she relishes chats, post comments, and especially prayers.
The “why it happened?” remains a work in progress. ”I know there is meaning in what happened to me. I think God had a reason, I just don't know what it is. I do know that whatever happens, there is a purpose out there for me. I am going to get out of this chair. I don't know when, but I will.”
Linda Hughes: Riding Beyond the Sunset
By Eddie Donnally
For jockeys, split-second accidents far too often change their lives forever. On Dec. 1, 1998 a rival’s mount veered out in front of Linda Hughes’s horse in a race at Calder Race Course. Her mount clipped heels and fell. The 18 years since have been spent in a wheelchair. A huge change for sure. But not all for the worse.
Today, she still finds joy in riding her aging Quarter Horse and fulfillment in teaching children, including those with traumatic brain injuries how to ride. “The accident taught me much about myself and about life,” she said. “I used to see a woman who was a quadriplegic beside the saddling paddock every time I rode. I could never bring myself to talk to her. But that same woman visited me in the hospital after the accident and we became friends. I always knew that an accident like mine was a possibility when I was riding but I never allowed myself to think about it.”
In a five year career, she rode 1,634 races won 122 on mounts earning over $1 million. She grew up in Rupert, Idaho and got her first job walking hot horses at Philadelphia Park. She groomed horses for three years, and exercised horses another three before she rode her first race at River Downs. She was the meeting’s leading apprentice and won the track’s Rodney Dickens Award, given for sportsmanship and ability.
As is often the case, she remembers little about the spill that severed her sixth vertebrae. “I woke up in the helicopter as it was taking off, threw myself up and then didn’t wake up again until five days later,” she said. Taken to the trauma center at the University of Miami and placed on a ventilator to assist her breathing the regained consciousness when doctors deemed it save to remove the breathing tube. “Fortunately I have use of my arms,” she said. “A couple of vertebrae higher and I would have been a quadriplegic. Here I am today, lucky to even be alive.”
She was able to buy a five acre farm with an eight stall barn about 45 minutes from the track. “But I don’t know how I would survive without the funds from PDJF (Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund),” she said. “If I didn’t have that money to count on, I would worry all the time. That money is super important to me.”
She has friends and family who live nearby and the place has a small mobile home she rents, usually to a “down on his luck racetracker.” She raises chickens and gives away most of their eggs. She has dogs and cats and a 31 year-old Quarter Horse, Tally. Each day she rides the former show horse, using a regular saddle and a special mounting station. She encourages others to bring disabled children, some with brain injuries for her personal therapeutic riding programs. Linda helps them generate the trust they need to mount and ride.
Linda hopes to turn the small ranch into a therapeutic riding center for use by children’s charities. “I’ve spent almost everything I have building all we need for this,” she said. “I just need one able-bodied assistant.”
She has overcome many of the health issues inherent in paraplegia, and is largely self-sufficient. Her home has lowered counters and an elevator to her loft bedroom. The arms she uses each day to get in and out of her wheelchair have biceps that belong on a body builder.
Yet, five years after her fall, she underwent Neobladder Surgery. This required removing her appendix to make a path for a tube to her belly button. This allows her to catheterize there, something she said is far superior to other type catheters most para and quadriplegics use. She also suffered a bout with pressure sores that required weeks of wound care in a hospital. Pushing her chair for 18 years has caused joint damage to her hands and she receives regular injections to relieve the pain.
“The anniversary day of my injury used to be a bad day,” she said. ”But now I hardly notice. The first five years were the hardest and I cried every day. I was in denial for years. Even now when friends come over and they want to see the pictures of me in silks, I get teary eyed.
“Racing was my entire life and I left that beneath a horse. But the things I thought were important, I discovered weren’t very important at all. When you’re a jockey your body is everything to you. But I learned that what you have inside is what really counts. And you just have to learn to find a way to live in peace with your new normal.”
Sidney Underwood: Life Goes on In Unusual Ways
By Eddie Donnally
When Sidney Underwood is honored at Parx racing, formerly Philadelphia Park for the June 3, Jockeys and Jeans, she and the other fallen jockey honorees will have their photos taken in the track’s Winners’ Circle following a race named in their honor. For Sydney it will be a particularly special moment. She will become the first honoree to be in the same Winners Circle she graced both as a jockey and trainer.
She became a paraplegic when her mount, Handsome Aswer ducked from a shadow at Atlantic City during night racing on June 19, 1992 and fell. At the time she had been riding for some eight years and won 199 races from 2,107 mounts and with her mounts earning $1.5 million,
She spent five months in a body cast, went through a year of rehab and eventually became strong enough to become a trainer. Racing on tracks chiefly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey she started 387 horses, winning 40 races and over $600,000. But she was incapable of much of the hands-on horse care trainers of small stables often provide, and she decided to move back home to Alabama. “What it takes somebody else five minutes to do with a horse, it takes me an hour and a half,” she said.
She lives in an ancient farmhouse and still helps as much as possible with the hands on boarding and training of 17 horses of various breeds. She was teaching other handicapped persons how to ride until her pony died of old age. She plans to find another.
In 2009, she said she was bankrupt and about to lose the farm. She had been bedridden for months and then hospitalized for months suffering from pressure sores, a serious malady common among paraplegics and one that requires massive doses of antibiotics and extensive wound care. When released, she tried to raise the funds to make her bathroom wheelchair assessable. Friends put an ad on Facebook. Nancy LaSala, the Director of PDJF saw it, called and she began receiving payments from the organization.
The following year she and her mother were between planes at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport when they struck up a conversation with Express Jet pilot Jeff King and shared their mutual love of horses. Two years later they were married.
“Married or not, the funds from PDJF literally saved my life,” she said. “I no longer have to worry about foreclosure and my property taxes. The funds make a huge difference. Medicaid doesn’t pay everything and I don’t think most people understand how expensive it is to be in a wheelchair.
She said at one point in rehab, “I was either going to blow my brains out or wind up in the Looney Bin,” she said. “I was never going to be someone who never stops moving to someone who never moves. I never had a backup plan.”
Thanks to family, friends, and faith, things have changed for the better. She said attending her Episcopal Church weekly is important to her. “You have to have something driving you forward or you’ll go crazy. Right now it’s hard on my pity days to be pitiful.”