He wakes up to a million-dollar view, the waters of Lake Michigan glistening in golden sunlight beyond his window. It is picture-perfect, might as well be a postcard scene. But something in the idyllic freedom of it all taunts Rene Douglas.
Two months ago, he walked through such sunlight to the jockeys' room at Arlington Park, a full day of riding ahead. Hours later he was crushed beneath his mount, a victim of the most tragic accident in the track's 82-year history. Now, in Room 718 at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, he is facing the greatest challenge of his life.
It is July 18, nearly two months since a brutal fall left the jockey with no feeling in his lower extremities. Douglas sits by the window, exhaustion etched deep into his face. Physical progress this morning was delayed by the searing pain that often plagues him; he skipped therapy because they started early and at that time he could barely handle the thought of getting out of bed. But in the past few hours, he has made significant mental and emotional strides. Filming a statement for an upcoming golf tournament and dinner to be held in his honor, he has made himself available to select members of the media for the first time since his fall.
This hasn't been easy. Crews from Horse Racing Television, in from California to catch his statement on tape and collect footage for an upcoming short, have just departed. Now it's on to the next interview. Douglas takes a deep breath. It has been a long day, half good and half bad -- like most of the weeks and months he has spent in recovery thus far. It's tough, hard for him to explain.
He couldn't talk because of the breathing tube, but he just looked at me, and a tear rolled down his face, and I lost it. I just lost it.
”-- Natalia Douglas, Rene's wife
His ongoing treatment is delayed by fluid buildup in his lungs and a few setbacks: bouts with pneumonia, returns to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, breaks in therapy. Originally, doctors thought he'd be in rehab for two months, but because of the trips back and forth from the hospital, his progress has been slowed.
"Sometimes I still get dizzy," he says. "A lot of times I'm in a lot of pain. But the therapy is making me stronger; I've been coming around in the past two weeks."
He's slowly trying to get rid of that pain, which is difficult because he's also trying to wean himself from his medication. All things considered, though, he's doing amazingly well. When he does make it to therapy, he puts forth extraordinary effort. And as his wife, Natalia, says: "You can't ask for any more than he can give."
What Rene Douglas has already given to horse racing, ultimately, is 42 years -- his entire life. Born into a Panamanian racing family, he grew up around the track and attended his country's jockey school. He came to the United States at 16, riding his way to victory over tracks across the country. En route to 3,588 wins, he earned three leading rider titles each at Florida's Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, one at Hollywood Park in California, and seven -- including a record four consecutive -- at Arlington Park near Chicago.
He was bringing home horses such as 1996 Belmont Stakes winner Editor's Note and 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Dreaming of Anna. He had everything in his hand, winning all those stakes, climbing to the top. If I fall, I fall, he thought -- when he thought about it at all. I've had a lot of spills.
"You never think this can happen to you," Natalia says. "You think, I'm doing so well, this cannot happen to me!"
But it did.
* * *
People ask Natalia if she saw the fall. The irony of that question makes her laugh, because she never watched live races. Even at the track, she'd wait until the field crossed the finish line. If all the riders -- not just her husband, but everybody -- galloped back to unsaddle near the winner's circle, then and only then would she turn to see the replay. Because then she knew that they'd come home safe, that it was OK to look.
"Do you think I'm going to watch it now, knowing what happened in the race?" she says. "I don't think so. It's just not going to happen, ever."
Footage of the May 23 disaster demonstrates what neither of them wants to see. Douglas' mount, jostled in the final yards of the Arlington Matron, throws her head, loses her footing, and jackknifes through the air. There is a split second of suspense as the jockey launches skyward, propelled by his flailing mount. Then he hits the ground, 1,200 pounds of unconscious Thoroughbred crashing down on top of him.
* * *
Doreen Razo made the call. She's a jockey's wife, knows what it's like to live with the fear, six or eight daily chances that her husband Eddie Razo may not come walking back to her again. The fall had been bad, she told Natalia. Bad. It seemed like such a small word, so inadequate, but both women knew what it meant.
Eddie, sitting out the Matron back in the jockeys' room, was preparing to ride his biggest race of the day -- the $150,000 Arlington Classic -- aboard a horse he hadn't raced since November. He had been working the colt, 3-year-old Turf contender Giant Oak, over Arlington's artificial surface. He loved his chances. Douglas, an avid horseman, did too.
A relationship between the two jockeys began at the 1989 Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park, when Razo was tackling the Sprint aboard Black Tie Affair. They developed an instant bond. It was always the same, no matter where they rode or how much time elapsed before they saw each other again. They felt like brothers.
"I always admired the way he rode," Razo says. "I would think, Rene, I wish I could be like you. I never told him, but he inspired me, he helped my career. For two or three years in Chicago, I finished second to him in the standings. Sometimes you get mad because a guy is beating you all the time, but with him I didn't mind. He always told trainers, 'Hey, why don't you put Eusabio on your horses?' I couldn't tell people to use him because they already were using him, but I would tell the young riders, 'You want to be good, you look at Rene.'"
A few days before the Arlington Classic, Douglas had given Razo a pep talk -- "You know, man, that's a really good horse, you could win with that horse!" -- and now Razo was thinking about strategy, getting in the zone. He wasn't really paying attention as the horses hurtled homeward in the Matron, just keeping an eye on the television monitor as most riders did between races. Then came the accident. He went numb.
"I've seen a lot of guys go down and get hurt bad," Razo says. "And I'm thinking, What do I do? Do I run out to see him? Do I wait for my race to come? I gotta do my job. I wanna help my friend."
He went out and rode in the Classic, which he won. But the postrace celebration was a blur, the taste of victory soured by his concern for Douglas. As soon as he could, Razo fled the winner's circle. Bits and pieces of information kept coming back to him, the severity of the situation masked by uncertainty.
"They kept saying he was hurt 'bad,' and I'm thinking, 'Bad' is a broken wrist, a broken shoulder, a broken leg," Eddie says. "In some ways, I didn't want to know. That's just what I wanted to keep on thinking."
* * *
At home in Miami, Natalia threw two T-shirts and a pair of jeans into a suitcase. She left their sons, 13-year-old Giancarlo and 8-year-old Christian, in care of family. She bought a ticket to Chicago and drove to the airport. The whole time she just kept thinking, Make sure I get there first, to say goodbye or see him one more time.
On the way, she spoke to Dr. Hilton Gordon, who had been at the races that day. Gordon, Douglas' friend and personal physician, had sprinted to the fallen rider's side.
"You get on that ambulance and you do not leave my husband," Natalia said. "I don't want him to feel lonely. I don't want him to die alone."
She touched down in Chicago at 11:00 p.m., just in time to see Douglas before he was wheeled into surgery. The damage was far beyond Razo's initial fears -- much more extensive than anyone could have imagined. In addition to several broken ribs and a fractured sternum, there were two fractured vertebrae in the jockey's neck. Two compressed thoracic disks, the T-5 and T-6 vertebrae, were pressing into his spinal cord. He was lucky to be alive.
"He looked at me," Natalia says. "He couldn't talk because of the breathing tube, but he just looked at me, and a tear rolled down his face, and I lost it. I just lost it."
She waited outside as a team of specialists cut her husband open from neck to buttocks, inserting screws into his upper vertebrae and decompressing the lower ones. It was laborious work. At one point, a discouraged observer from the viewing room came out and reached a grim conclusion: "He'll never walk again."
Of course we're thinking about everything that can happen. But the bottom line is, we're not stopping. We're just trying to figure out the way to walk again.
”-- Rene Douglas
But surgeons from the actual operating team weren't entirely without hope. The procedure, which they had expected to last up to nine hours, was completed within seven. And the spinal cord, that delicate bundle of nerves and fluid, had not been punctured or severed by the floating pieces of bone. They called the surgery a success. The waiting game began.
The racing world waited as well, eager for the news that filtered through the jockey's agent, Dennis Cooper. A tall, rangy Midwesterner with an inclination toward baseball caps and chewing tobacco, Cooper rules the roost at Arlington whenever he holds the book of a talented rider. He's the one who scheduled all those mounts for Douglas, the stakes winners and the horses that carried them to the top of the standings for so many years. They were a solid team, had a good thing going. Now it was over.
In the days following the accident, Cooper holed up in his home, doing his best to serve as a switchboard operator for the hundreds of calls coming in from around the country, around the world. He could not go to the hospital, and they didn't expect him to do so. He would have broken down.
It was Natalia who finally got through to the distraught agent, telling him to find a new rider and keep on going.
"She told him, 'Rene's alive,'" Doreen Razo says. "'That's all that matters.'"
* * *
It should be all that matters, but it isn't. For there is another jockey, one who isn't paralyzed -- Jamie Theriot -- whose horse began the domino effect that resulted in Douglas' spill. He was riding on the rail, caught up in the drive for home, when his mount went for a hole that wasn't there. The ensuing chaos, as her body slammed into the shoulder of Douglas' runner, was one of those terrible moments all riders seek to avoid. The aftermath has been even worse.
Theriot is 30 years old, the nephew of veteran jockey Larry Melancon, who rides at tracks in Kentucky and Louisiana. His life became a living hell in the weeks following the accident, as he was caught up in a swirl of allegations and conflicting rumors. He would have given anything to have not come to Arlington, to have not ridden in the Matron that weekend.
An earlier feud between the two jockeys, over a race run at Keeneland in April, complicated the situation. It was a typical postrace flare-up, one that happens all the time when riders -- still high on the adrenaline rush from competition -- lash out at each other. As in most cases, the drama died down quickly; the two didn't speak to each other for a few days, but by the first week in May they were back on even, if somewhat competitive, terms. Still, as the severity of Douglas' injuries hit the media, many were quick to jump to conclusions. They said Theriot was a danger to his fellow riders, reckless, a hot-tempered troublemaker. And although the Illinois Racing Board handed him a 30-day suspension, the doubts of his peers and his own regrets were far worse punishment.
It hurts that, you know, people look at me differently, because I would never do something like that intentionally -- put my fellow riders in danger, put our horses in danger. I would never drop another rider.
”-- Jockey Jamie Theriot
"It was bad timing, limited room," Theriot says. "My horse came out about a foot -- and a foot means a lot. We're talking about inches out there, and it was tight. I knew we bumped, but I didn't even know he went down. Nobody screamed, I didn't see, I didn't know anybody fell until I pulled up and turned around and came back toward the winner's circle and saw him laying there."
The image is seared into his mind. He cries when he talks about it, and while the depth of his sorrow can be judged only by those closest to him, it is clear that the accident altered not only Douglas' life, but also Theriot's.
"It hurts that, you know, people look at me differently, because I would never do something like that intentionally -- put my fellow riders in danger, put our horses in danger. I would never drop another rider," Theriot says. "This is something I never thought would ever happen. I never thought I would be part of something like it."
It's clear that both jockeys understand the inherent risks of the profession they chose. That doesn't make Theriot's position any less regrettable, nor Douglas' situation any easier to bear. But it cements in their minds the here-today-gone-tomorrow reality of the racetrack. And when Douglas speaks of the men who are still riding, athletes he could match strength and wits with every day -- he seems newly attuned to the fragility of their success.
"You see the top riders -- you see [Garrett] Gomez, you see [Kent] Desormeaux, you see Johnny Velazquez, you see [Edgar] Prado -- all those riders have been the best for the last 10 years," he says. "But seeing them, with all they've accomplished, and they're still riding …"
His voice trails off. When he continues, he chooses his words carefully.
"I'm not here to tell them to retire, but, you know, anything can happen in a single second," he says. "And it's not up to you. Look at me. One thing, it takes, and that's all. That's just … that's just all."
Many parallels have been drawn between horse racing and boxing, two now-lagging sports that once shared glory days. And in many ways, the riders are like boxers, determined to stay on top of the game until something profound forces them out. For Douglas, the subject is an emotional one, because he always gave 110 percent of his effort when he rode, and he won races, and it shouldn't have ended this way. It's emotional because these are his friends, his brothers, doing the same thing, taking the same risks, their lives suspended on two little silver stirrups in the hands of fate. It's emotional because now he realizes more than ever that every time he passed the wire and every time he came home safely to his family, it was another day he had been given, as a gift.
* * *
The time will come when Douglas will leave this room at the rehabilitation center and head home to Florida, to continue outpatient therapy and the single-minded pursuit of his only goal: to walk again. It is a goal he is determined to accomplish, no matter what the price, if humanly possible or if made possible by science. For now he's doing research -- spinal cord injuries, stem cell treatments -- exploring his options should therapy not produce the results he desires.
"Of course we're thinking about all the possible things that can help us if things don't go our way physically," he says. "Of course we're thinking about everything that can happen. But the bottom line is, we're not stopping. We're just trying to figure out the way to walk again."
"I just want him to get the best care possible," Natalia says. "I would love for him to walk again; we'll do whatever it takes."
Rene has been slightly in front of Natalia as she shares her thoughts; that was just the way the chairs were positioned when everyone sat down. But now, as the tears fill her eyes, he laboriously unlocks the brakes on his wheelchair and backs up until they are sitting side by side. He reaches out and takes her hand. Having her next to him is everything.
Obviously, if Rene doesn't walk again, they will be forced to move on. They haven't reached that point yet. They're taking one day at a time.
"Whatever," Natalia says. "We'll retire and be happy, and that's it -- that's all there is."
"We'll go on an island where we don't have racing," he says. Then adds, quietly: "I don't want to watch racing anymore."
The words aren't bitter. Just tired. The room falls silent. Rene stares straight ahead. Finally, Natalia picks up the conversation.
"I'm happy that he's alive," she says. "I know it's hard. I know it's going to be a long road. This is just the beginning. And I know once we get home and we're doing all of this ourselves, I know it's going to be harder."
She pauses, eyes welling up with tears, and Rene grips her hand as if to show her she can stop now, it's OK. Instead, she presses on.
"But for me, it doesn't matter what the shape, whether he walks or not ever again. I'm thankful because he's alive, and I tell him every day, 'You have to be thankful.'"
The tears have spilled over, and now she is talking more to Rene than to anybody else in the room.
"I could be burying you, and trying to explain to my kids why they don't have a dad," she says. "But I have you here. And if this is the worst that could happen to you, then for that, I'm thankful."
* * *
On July 20, more than 300 people generated more than $130,000 at the golf outing and dinner that Doreen and Eddie Razo and other Arlington Park horsemen organized in honor of Rene Douglas. Dennis Cooper's new jockeys, Jermaine Bridgmohan and Fernando Jara, were there. During the live auction, Razo bid steadily on a halter that had been worn by the great Storm Cat. He was wearing a Rene Douglas baseball cap. He did not smile.
But when the last bidder finally dropped out and the hammer fell and the auctioneer pointed to Razo, he broke into a triumphant grin. And he jumped from his seat, arms extended in celebration, fingers raised in a "V," for victory.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.