The last thing Richard Migliore said to his wife before he left his home in Millbrook, N.Y., was "I'm going to win two or three races today."
Migliore wouldn't even make it to his second race that day, Jan. 23, 2010.
As the seven-horse field in the first race at Aqueduct turned for home on that sunny Saturday afternoon, jockey Channing Hill had his mount six lanes wide of the rail. Nearly 10 lengths ahead of him, Migliore was aboard Honest Wildcat, and seemed to be gaining speed for a late push. Honest Wildcat was running stride-for-stride with Cires in a duel for second.
Hill looked up and saw Migliore's horse take what he described as "a bad step." Then he saw Honest Wildcat's back legs flip over the front of his body, and the 4-year-old somersaulted onto the track, pitching Migliore forward as if he had been fired from a slingshot. Migliore landed headfirst on the dirt then rolled to his left, avoiding the flailing horse.
All Hill was thinking as he passed Migliore was, "Thank God I wasn't right behind him; I probably would have run right over the top of him."
As the field finished the six-furlong, $20,000 claiming race, Honest Wildcat and Migliore were both lying motionless on the track. Few spectators in the grandstand were paying attention to Offensive Attack's win. After what seemed like minutes -- in reality it was a matter of seconds -- Migliore got to his knees, his yellow silks caked with dirt. His goggles were still on and he appeared to be trying to compose himself.
"I felt like I could hear and I was conscious of things, I just couldn't see for a few seconds," he said almost two weeks later. Once he realized "there wasn't any blood and nothing felt broken," he crawled on his hands and knees to Honest Wildcat. The horse was lying behind him and appeared to be struggling to get up.
When Migliore, 45, reached Honest Wildcat, he remembered placing an arm across his neck and then he began to pet his head and talk into his ear.
The ambulance that trails the field during every race was on the scene within seconds. It wasn't until emergency medical technicians circled close that Migliore released Honest Wildcat and let the workers tend to him.
Migliore thought he was OK and asked an EMT whether he could try to get up. But as soon as he did, he said, "I had no legs; my legs felt like Jell-O." He lay back down, and the EMT fetched a stretcher from the back of the ambulance.
Then the Equine Ambulance arrived and two men got out of opposite sides of the over-sized vehicle. One jogged to Honest Wildcat's side, while the other pulled what appeared to be a black shower curtain from the back of the emergency vehicle. The curtain hid the scene from the spectators.
While Migliore was being loaded onto and then strapped down to the stretcher, officials were determining the fate of Honest Wildcat -- a 4-year-old bay colt who was running in his 10th race, having won one and earned $35,790 in his career. Should they simply put a splint on his leg, or would it be necessary to inject him with a paralytic, followed by a lethal barbiturate to stop the horse from suffering?
As the ambulance carrying Migliore left the track, heading for North Shore University Hospital in the nearby town of Manhasset on Long Island, a team of people tried to load Honest Wildcat, who was still alive, into the back of the horse ambulance. The horse, it turned out, fractured both sesamoids in his right front leg and had to be euthanized on the backstretch.
"It just kind of happened so fast," Migliore said. "A lot of times when a horse breaks a leg, they'll give you like a stride or two to where it almost breaks their momentum a little bit even if they're going to go down. This was just like he ran off the edge of the earth. I mean, he just disappeared."
In 1988, Richard Migliore almost died from a broken neck at Belmont Park when he was 24. Six months later he was back, doing the job he loved since he first walked on the racetrack at 14. For several anxious moments all those years later, it appeared he could be severely injured again, but 10 hours after the spill he left the hospital for home, some 90 miles north of Aqueduct. He had a concussion, blurred vision and general soreness.
He had no inkling that the spill would manifest itself in the weeks and months ahead. There would be days of profound pain, bouts of dizziness and calls to the track saying that he could not ride that day. As spring came and as the pain continued, Migliore, a man who had won 4,450 races, had to confront the question he didn't want to consider: Was his career ending?
The doctor agreed to release Migliore on the evening of Jan. 23 after a series of X-rays confirmed that the injury appeared to be just a concussion. It was also determined that there was a small, inconsequential crack in Migliore's hip, but nothing that would require him to stay overnight. Migliore's wife, Carmela, and his oldest son, Joey, 19, picked him up at the hospital.
With her husband's predictions from earlier in the day in mind, Carmela had been watching the live Internet stream on the family computer that afternoon and had called the children over when it appeared their father was going to make a move for the lead. They were watching when the spill occurred.
"Well in true testament to cruel irony, Rich's horse broke down in the first race today," Carmela said in a text message. "We got another bye and an angel was on his shoulder, no one was behind him, and he landed away from [the horse]. I felt uneasy all night talking about all the feelings spills bring, and bam, [I was] reminded yet again. My husband is a warrior, all tests are clear. Just a concussion."
The few days after the incident were the most difficult for Migliore. He had a persistent headache, and whenever he would try to get up and move about, he began to feel nauseated. The spill had caused swelling in his cornea, which prevented him from wearing his contacts and made him sensitive to bright light. Restricted to the confines of his bed or couch, the ultra-active Migliore found himself getting bored. "I couldn't play video games because it would bother me -- I would get dizzy," he said.
On the Monday after the spill, feeling a bit better and desperate to get outside, Migliore let his wife know that he was going to make the quarter-mile walk down to the mailbox. Halfway down the path, "I knew I wasn't going to be able to get back up the hill to the house," Migliore said. "I really didn't feel good, I started to get dizzy, really nauseous, so I called Carmela and she came down the driveway and picked me up, drove me back to the house."
The following week and a half was filled with trips to the neurologist and optometrist, and mostly resting. It did, however, give Migliore a lot of time with his family, which he enjoyed.
All the while, he was anxious to get back on a horse. His agent, Tommy Cordero, continued to line up mounts, knowing that Migliore could be ready to race at any time.
Though the spill and resulting concussion would keep him off horses for nearly two weeks, the injury was merely a hiccup in the bigger picture of Migliore's career.
"That's the thing about this game -- it can be so unpredictable in good ways and in bad ways," Migliore says. "You never know: One morning you wake up and you happen to get the mount on the next great horse, or, God forbid, you take a fall and get banged up a little. When they talk about highs and lows, I guess that embodies all of it right there. When you go out, the last thing on your mind is that is going to happen."
In the days leading up to his return to racing, Migliore, who appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2010, went out to Belmont Park on a few mornings to work horses and ease his way back into things. While he never second-guessed his decisions, and his family never asked him to step away, he wanted to be certain he didn't rush back. Only Migliore's fans questioned his return, sending him letters begging him to hang up the silks and think of his family. He also had offers for positions within the racing industry that didn't involve getting on a horse, including one from a television network in California that was looking to expand its East Coast coverage and wanted Migliore as a color commentator.
"Sure thing," he responded. "As soon as I'm done racing."
On Friday, Feb. 5, Migliore walked into the jockeys room at Aqueduct; he didn't seem to be 100 percent. By his count, this was the "sixth or seventh" concussion he suffered while racing.
Migliore's hands were buried deep in the pockets of his dark green coat; his shoulders were slouched slightly forward; and though there was a smile on his face, his usual ebullience was missing.
He had a mount on a 4-year-old filly named What A Pear. Migliore had been working with the horse and its trainer, Patrick Reynolds, for a few months, trying to get her back into winning form. Migliore managed to bring her home in second place, her best finish in her last nine starts, which delighted Reynolds, but the owners from Tri-Bone Stables were disappointed it wasn't a win. Migliore picked up another mount in the ninth race from Ramon Dominguez, the top jockey at the meet, who had to catch a plane for a race in Florida. The horse, Neversaywhen, started slowly and finished slower.
Walking out to his car that evening, Migliore admitted he was a bit dizzy, but he made it home safely.
The rest of that weekend was a whirlwind. On Saturday, Migliore had a mount in the $100,000 Whirlaway Stakes, on Peppi Knows. The heavy favorite in the race, Eightyfiveinafifty, was a large 3-year-old sprinter trained by Gary Contessa. There was speculation in the media and on the backstretch that the horse could be a Kentucky Derby contender.
Having done his homework on the race -- as he has always done for his mounts, studying the tapes of his horse and the horses he is racing against -- Migliore knew his horse would break quickly from the gate, whereas the favorite was heavy-footed. Eightyfiveinafifty had the inside post, and Migliore's post was the next one over. When the gates opened, Migliore immediately directed Peppi Knows toward the rail, forcing jockey Jorge Chavez to veer toward the rail as well. As they made the turn, after Eightyfiveinafifty had already blown past Migliore's horse despite the strategic tactic, the favorite drifted wide and eventually took himself out of the race entirely, crashing through the outside fence and racing toward the backstretch. Migliore went on to win the race, his biggest of the new year.
The next day, in the third race (his second mount of the day), Migliore was unseated from National Pride as they were coming out of the gate. He landed awkwardly on his feet, and twisted his left knee in the process. He was off his mounts the rest of the day. Five days later, Migliore was coming off his second mount and walking with a slight limp. "I'm beat up," he said.
Weeks later, on March 27, Migliore had one of his best days at Aqueduct. He had five mounts and won four. The last came on a 3-year-old bay filly, Lots of Stones, who showed tremendous closing speed in the stretch, going from seventh at the ¼-pole out to a three-and-half-length lead by the wire. Migliore was riding well throughout the day. But the pain through his neck and shoulders was acute. He spent the time between races lying on a bench in the jockey's room trying to alleviate some of the stress on his spine. "After winning four, I'd normally be really happy on my drive home," Migliore said. "But I really didn't care; I was in so much pain."
The neck and shoulder pain had become persistent and was frequently accompanied by numbness in his right hand. "It felt like someone was sticking a claw down my spine and turning it," Migliore said. He turned to painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs and even cortisone shots. Nothing helped. He tried to keep riding, hoping the pain would subside.
"When I was riding was the only time I wasn't aware of it," Migliore said. "It was one of the few times where I could leave the pain behind, but once I was done, it was twice as bad."
A week and a half after his four winners, Migliore was again back in the money on April 7, finishing third and second, respectively, on his first two mounts. His third mount was in the eighth race, and he was riding a 5-year-old bay colt named Success Fee. The horse didn't hold much promise, but Migliore had never been the type to doubt a mount.
Midway through the race, however, Migliore wasn't much concerned with the result. "I was dealing with the pain instead of trying to do my job," he said. The horse and jockey came home sixth. He canceled his remaining mounts. The pain was so great that he didn't think he could endure the three-hour drive back to Millbrook. Instead, he drove to a nearby hotel, got a room and laid flat on his back for 12 hours. In the morning he drove home uncomfortably and, with Carmela, decided it was time to find out what his body was telling him.
In mid-April, on a recommendation from a friend, Migliore went to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan to meet with Dr. Andrew Hecht, a spinal surgery specialist, who had worked with the New York Islanders and New York Jets. After a series of tests, including an MRI and a CAT scan, Hecht invited Migliore and his wife into his office. The Jan. 23 fall that had sent Migliore flying headfirst into the dirt had done more damage than initially suspected. The fall had "buckled" the fusion of the three cervical vertebrae (C3, C4, and C5) from the 1988 fall at Belmont. He had also fractured two new vertebrae (C6 and C7) below the original fusion. In effect, he had rebroken his neck.
As Hecht delivered the results of the tests, Carmela was shaking and couldn't hold back tears. Richard maintained a stunned gaze. Once they got to the car and Carmela broke down, he also let the tears flow. Back at home for a week he tried not to get too down on his situation. He wouldn't allow himself to think beyond the surgery. He spent his days watching "Cops" and "Survivor" and playing PlayStation. But he could stay upright for only 30 minutes at a time before needing to lie down to "settle" himself.
On Monday, April 25, Migliore went in for blood work, a few final tests, and a rundown of what the procedure would entail. A metal plate and a bone graft would be used to fuse the cervical vertebrae. The bone would come from the back of his pelvis. The surgery would not be going through the front of the neck, so there wouldn't be an effect on his voice box, as happened during the surgery in '88. He also would not have to wear a halo after the operation, which would ease the traumatic impact on his children. The recovery was expected to take anywhere from six to eight months.
"[Dr. Hecht] told me, 'If you were my brother, I'd tell you you're never going to race again, but as your doctor I can't say that, so we'll check your options after we get through it,'" Migliore said.
His only recurring regret is that had he known the ride on Success Fee might have been his last, he would have cherished it more.
Richard Migliore has made a career of riding horses; fast horses, the strongest horses -- thoroughbreds. He's competed in and won some of the most prestigious races in front of thousands of people, but on three occasions he has been told he would never race again. Once he was told he'd likely never walk again.
He's had some luck along the way. He broke his neck in a spill on May 30, 1988, at Belmont Park that was featured on the television show "Rescue 911"; he suffered a severe forearm injury when a horse in full gallop came down on the limb after Mig had been tossed from his horse, resulting in two permanent plates and 16 screws in his arm; and the day before he was to ride the favorite in the Breeders Cup Mile, a loose horse in the paddock plowed straight into him while he was on another mount. He fractured his ankle and fibula and partially ruptured his Achilles tendon.
And yet, he continued to race. Migliore's profession is often misunderstood and underappreciated in today's sporting world. To the average fan or viewer, the horses are the athletes, the jockeys just the passengers guiding them in the right direction. Most don't see beyond colorful outfits and diminutive frames.
"The thing about other sports, particularly baseball, most people have had some experience playing the game as a kid," Migliore says. "How many people have actually ridden a horse, let alone competitively, in any form? So it's hard for people to relate to me as an athlete, even though if you take all the tests, pound-for-pound we're probably some of the fittest and strongest athletes out there. But for you to look at a 114-pound guy and say this is a premier athlete, people have a hard time relating."
For Migliore, an alternative career has never been a consideration. Horse racing has been his livelihood from well before he had a driver's license. It's a sport that has taught him more about himself than he ever expected to learn, and also provided for him and his family. Which is why he approaches the sport differently than the rest of the men and women in the jock's room.
"I do this because I genuinely love to ride horses and I love what I do," Migliore says. "And I'm smart enough to know that everything that is good in my life, directly or indirectly, is because of horses."
Although the mounts continue to come for Migliore, he's beginning to settle into the next phase of his life. Beyond his racing talents, owners and trainers have come to value Migliore for his horsemanship. With all his years of riding, he has developed a sixth sense about the personalities and idiosyncrasies of horses. In the summer of 2009 he signed a contract with Godolphin Stables, a powerhouse in the game owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, to help prep and race the stable's top-level horses.
"People like to use me on younger horses because they know I'm going to teach them properly, that I'm going to help develop a racehorse for a career, not a single race," Migliore says. "In a way, I'm like a good player becoming a player-coach."
But that hasn't changed his approach to the life he loves. In Migliore's mind, he's still fooling everyone. The notion first struck him when he was riding first-class on a flight to Hong Kong in 2007, his seat fully reclined, staring out of the window to the stars above.
"I was lying there and it just hits me: I'm still getting away with it. Because I can ride a horse, I get to do cool things like this. They actually pay me to fly on this totally cool plane and look at the stars and go ride a horse 10,000 miles from home."
It's in these moments that the 14-year-old who left home to be a jockey, sacrificing a normal childhood, shows in his face. Sitting in a chair in the jock's room at Aqueduct, his feet up on the seat, hugging his knees to his chest, he shares this confession. The youngest of four children, who took his dad's advice to dream big, is smiling with self-appreciation.
Thirty-one years later, life went on as usual around the backstretch on a midwinter day at Belmont Park. Migliore arrived just after 6 a.m. to work a few horses. He had an appointment afterward, but had to cancel to get to Aqueduct. He needed to drop some weight before his first mount.
That morning he awakened and was 116 pounds; he prefers to be between 112 and 114. After winning a stakes race Sunday afternoon, he was in a festive mood and deviated from his typically rigorous eating habits. He blamed Carmela's chocolate cupcakes.
Some time reading in the steam room, a dip in the whirlpool, and he dropped two pounds. "I know it sounds absurd, but when you're so in tune with your weight, when you're carrying an extra pound or two, you really feel that difference," he said.
Migliore claims to feel the difference even when he's wearing his wedding ring, which is why he's usually so strict about his diet. Every morning he has his cup of coffee, just one. He takes his vitamins and supplements, and then he sips water throughout the day. He has only a single meal, typically at night, and doesn't snack. His one vice is that he likes to have a few glasses of wine at night with his meal.
No chicken ("it's too plain"), very little red meat ("because it makes me heavy"), but a whole lot of fish ("I love fish; I probably eat fish five nights a week"), he said.
In his early racing years, maintaining a consistent weight was the most challenging aspect of the life. Weight and injuries are the primary reasons why the average jockey's career span is only three years. For Migliore, adapting to the minimal calorie intake had a detrimental effect on his psyche.
"When I was a kid, I did it all wrong," he said. "It never showed up on me physically so much, but mentally I would break down. I just had no patience for people. People would say things that struck me as dumb, and I'd let them know about it."
Eventually he came to understand the nature of the industry. As much as he needed to discipline himself physically, he needed to also get himself together mentally.
In 1988, during the first race at Belmont on Oct. 30, he was riding Madam Alydar. As the pack rounded the turn for home, his horse collapsed. Migliore was thrown in the path of the field, and he was trampled. He suffered a broken neck, and according to the surgeon, Dr. Arthur Weber, at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Migliore was millimeters away from becoming a quadriplegic. The initial thinking was that he would certainly never race again, and that there was a good chance he wouldn't walk again.
After surgery was complete and he was ready to begin the rehabilitation process, he had faith he could get back on horses; he just needed to convince the rest of his support group. He said, "I was getting better and better, so nobody wanted to knock me down, to cut me down and put any kind of negativity on it. I'd say, 'I'm going to ride again,' and I would get the 'Oh, sure you are,' that real patronizing speak. And it would just infuriate me because I go, 'These people don't understand, I'm going to ride again. I'm coming back!"
Incrementally, he began to show progress. Once it was clear that the threat of paralysis was gone, both he and Carmela knew it was not if but when would he be back on horses.
"I remember how hard it was, how frustrating it was [to rehabilitate after the injury] and it kind of made me a better person, made me a better rider," he said. "I have a great belief that everything in life happens for a reason; we're just really, really lucky when we figure out what those reasons are. At the time, I went through a lot of feeling sorry for myself, 'Why did this happen to me?' I was fighting through the pain and it was a struggle. It was a really hard time, bad time in my life. And I remember when I started feeling a little bit better and I knew in my heart I was going to get back, I'm going to make it back, I swore to myself and made a deal with God, 'If I ever get back to doing what I love to do, which is riding horses, I'll never take it for granted, not one second of any day. I'm going to do it to the best of my ability, I'm going to treat it with the importance and the privilege that it is, not that it's my right to go out there and win races.' And I've never lost that feeling."
Six months later, Migliore was back and he maintains his feelings haven't changed.
"I think of the jocks' wives that push their guys around in wheelchairs now, it breaks my heart," Carmela says. "I know there are times where Richie thinks that his career has been filled with hard knocks. I don't feel that way, I really don't. We laugh sometimes; we were two kids who really had no license to get as far in the game as we did, especially Richie -- I mean, how many jockeys come from Brooklyn? We're still basically those two kids sitting out in the blanket room, that's what you call where they store the horse blankets, looking through the Racing Form, thinking, 'God, could we ever do this for a living? Imagine.'"
Migliore's horses have earned more than $160 million in purse money. His cut? Common practice is that a rider gets 10 percent of first-place finishes, 5 percent for seconds and thirds -- and his or her agent gets a quarter of whatever winnings the jockey brings in. Though the jockey is the one with his or her life on the line, the share is among the smallest. The owner also doles out 10 percent to the trainer, who then spreads some among the workers in the stable. The rest stays in the bank account of the owner. That's the game. Migliore knew this when he got started; all it meant was that he needed to keep winning.
According to Migliore, excelling in racing is as much about winning races as it is figuring out the psychology behind it all.
"What I always say about being a jockey," he said, "is that it's a lot like being an actor: The horses are the parts that we're auditioning for, and of course the Academy Award-winning parts are the horses who are going to win the big races, and just like with a great script, they probably have their choice of eight or 10 great actors. So, now it's what do you bring to the table that's going to push it in your direction? Same thing with horses. You know there are five or six other guys they can go to, how can you tip the scale in your favor? You're constantly having to sell yourself."
Through everything Migliore always has understood his role and what it means to everyone in the sport from the sheikh to the owners of claimers.
"In the big scope of what I do, maybe that [small-purse claim race] is small, but to somebody it's huge," he said. "Maybe it's the guy betting $2 on it, maybe it's the guy who bred the horse and he's having a hard time paying his bills at the farm, but if the mare he owns has a winner, now the yearling he's going to sell is going to get him out of the [financial] trouble he needs to pay for the next six months, or the groom who's there at 4:30 in the morning in the freezing cold getting him ready. So for me to say, 'Well, it's not that big of a deal,' there's a much bigger picture, a big trickle-down effect here, and it does mean something very big to somebody somewhere and it's incumbent on me to embrace that. I can't just take that for granted: 'Oh, it didn't impact me so big,' get in my car and go home. I have a responsibility to those people."
"This life," he continued, "forces you to sacrifice many family things. The game dictates when you're here, when you're there, and no matter what you miss things. It took me a long time, but I finally feel like I have a better handle on balancing."
Migliore missed his oldest son's high school graduation. After his daughter Gabrielle's dance recital, he would feel pangs of guilt for missing the last races of the day. When Carmela's cousin died in the Pan American Flight 103 bombing in 1988, he was off racing while the family was mourning.
But where horse racing has taken away, it has also provided. When he was the young dreamy-eyed kid working in Steve DiMauro's barns, he had eyes for the pretty dark-haired assistant trainer. She was older and had a boyfriend. But Carmela was the one person he could open up to, the person he could share his feelings with about racing.
Six years after meeting, the two were married.
Today, Richard Migliore has a beautiful wife and four healthy children. He has a house in the country across the street from a stable. He has a car with all of his "toys" and has seen the world. He has horse racing to thank for this. He also has two plates and 16 screws and no lateral pinch in his left arm. He can't feel the bottom of his feet and has to wear special boots to feel comfortable in the stirrups. And his knees aren't what they used to be.
Of his six or seven concussions, Migliore admits he's aware of the retired NFL players who have endured long-lasting effects from head injuries, including loss of memory, but he isn't yet concerned. In early March, however, Migliore admitted he had one episode that had him questioning: "Last night after leaving the track I had trouble finding Roosevelt Field Mall, I just had no clue of how to get there," Migliore said. "And I've been there dozens of times, but my mind was just blank. I had to put it in my GPS to figure it out."
Migliore didn't know whether to ascribe the episode to a long day of racing, combined with dehydration and hunger, or whether the concussions were having an effect. "If something like that were to happen again, I'd probably get checked out," he said.
And so he did. On May 4, Hecht operated on Migliore to repair the damage. The surgery is the first step. Migliore says he will reassess everything as his rehabilitation progresses. He says he is trying to keep the negativity out of his thoughts; it sounds easy, but it isn't. He came back once when he was 24. Now he is 46.
Migliore understands odds. He doesn't need the morning line to tell him how long they are for him now. "I have my tough moments. When I think about not breaking out of the gate and feeling the horse beneath me, I get all choked up," Migliore says. "But that's a conversation for another day."
On the afternoon of May 6, two days after the three-and-a-half-hour operation, Migliore is propped up in a bed in room 315 on the eighth floor of Mount Sinai Medical Center. His eyeglasses are on, and he's sipping at a cup of juice and eating a bran muffin from Starbucks. He's wearing a navy neck brace that causes him discomfort when he tries to swallow. There's an intravenous tube attached to the inside of his left forearm, sending fluids into his bloodstream. To his right, resting on the bed is a red tube that snakes behind where he is sitting. The tube is connected to the back of his neck, draining blood from where he had five vertebrae fused using a steel plate and more pins than he cared to know. The red tube is feeding to a clear bowl, which is the size of a saucer and is a third of the way full. He just woke up from an hour's nap, which had been induced by two Valium taken around noon.
His oldest brother, Nicholas, is standing at the foot of the bed, and Carmela is sitting at Richard's side.
"May I make a request?" asks Nicholas, a commanding officer with the highway patrol in Suffolk County, N.Y. "Will you please consider retiring?"
Migliore takes Carmela's hand but doesn't respond. No decisions have yet been made. The surgery was a success, but now the rehabilitation begins. His physical therapist told him people who have the type of surgery he endured lose 25 percent of their mobility. For your average mid-40s adult, that's manageable.
For a jockey, it's life-changing.
Chasen Marshall is a writer and photographer originally from Costa Mesa, Calif. He recently completed his master's at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.