It was the night before the Breeders' Cup when they took jockey Mike Lapensee off life support. He was 58, never a star, never the sort who could even dream of having a mount in the Breeders' Cup. He put up with this dangerous sport because he had to: riding was how he fed his family. In the end, his devotion was what got him killed. At an age when most jockeys would have been long since retired, he lost his life riding a $4,000 claimer at Suffolk Downs, trying to make $372, the amount paid to the winning jockey.
When the biggest riding stars in the sport, many of them millionaires, gathered for the Breeders' Cup and their slice of the more than $15 million being awarded that day, Richard Migliore was on the sidelines. Nine days earlier, he broke his leg in a freakish accident in the paddock at Belmont Park. He knew the second it happened that his dream of winning his first Breeders' Cup race was done for this year. He couldn't have known exactly how it would feel when one of his two Breeders' Cup mounts, Artie Schiller, won the Mile.
"It was like getting punched in the nose...you know, when tears well up in your eyes and everything is kind of stuck behind your eyes," Migliore said of his post-race reaction. "That was the feeling. I was proud of Artie and I was so proud of Jimmy Jerkens. Yet, I felt bad that it wasn't me."
The whole thing hit him pretty hard, so much so that the night of the race he just went home and pretty much wanted to be left alone. That gave him time to think, and not just about Artie Schiller, but about Mike Lapensee.
He had met him a couple of times, once when he went up to ride at Rockingham, once when Lapensee made a rare visit to Aqueduct.
"I remember one time I went up to Rockingham and I won the stakes up there," Migliore said. "We talked a little bit. He just seemed like a really good guy. I didn't know him well. We just had a couple of chance meetings."
Their paths rarely crossed because Lapensee and Migliore weren't in the same league. Though Migliore may not be a star on par with a Jerry Bailey or Edgar Prado, he rides at the best tracks in the country, makes a lot of money and, for him, winning a Breeders' Cup race is a realistic goal. He rides for fortune and for fame.
Lapensee last won a stakes race in 2000, and that was in a $25,000 race at Suffolk Downs. Before the Oct. 24 accident that claimed his life, he had won 25 races this year for purse earnings of $392,697 or about $39,000 after he got his cut. Subbing for Migliore, Garret Gomez made $105,000 for 96 seconds of work in the Mile.
"After Artie won, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have that split second where I thought, 'why couldn't that have been me?'" Migliore said. "It was just a split second, though. Quite honestly, the night before the Breeders' Cup I went on line and I saw that they had taken Michael Lapensee off life support.
"Let's gain some perspective here. I've been extremely fortunate my whole career to ride in a great place, to ride really good horses for really good people. And I've been very successful and have been able to do something that I dreamed about doing since I was a little kid. I'm not going to feel sorry for myself. Here was a poor man riding a $4,000 claimer to support his family and he lost his life doing it. I'm not going to go boo-hoo because I broke my leg and didn't win the Breeders' Cup? Get realistic."
In 2004, Migliore was injured in the starting gate two days before the Breeders' Cup, but said he felt well enough to accept his two Breeders' Cup mounts, Artie Schiller and sprinter Bwana Charlie. After he failed to win on either mount, it was discovered that he had a broken wrist and a broken rib and he missed the next two months. He has been injured more than most, a reason why his career has never cracked the very top echelon of his profession.
"If God has a Breeders' Cup with my name on it, it will happen," Migliore said. "If it doesn't, I'll never make any excuses to anybody. I'll know that I went out there every day and did the best I could and that's all you can ever ask of yourself."
Migliore will get out of his cast around Thanksgiving time and then will begin a couple of weeks of therapy. He'll be back in time for the prime racing season in 2006 and there's no reason why he can't get back aboard Artie Schiller for next year's Breeders' Cup.
Mike Lapensee will be buried tomorrow.