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Dirt doesn’t soak up blood real well. So most of Saturday’s card at Pimlico was run over a stained track.
Rick Wilson’s blood provided the coloring. In the second race, Wilson, a 50-year-old jockey, was thrown over the front of his horse, Advance to Go, as the animal nearly fell coming out of the gate. Wilson landed right in the path of the 3-year-old gelding and took a steel-tipped hoof to his temple.
“Rider down!” race caller Dave Rodman said over the track’s PA as the horse ran over Wilson and kept going.
Rodman, a veteran of the Maryland tracks, has one of the sharpest minds in the business. As he’ll prove to a national audience during this weekend’s Preakness Stakes, he can track the progress of more than a dozen horses as they make their way around the oval, and describe the action with a narrative flow in real time.
But the sight of Wilson in a heap right in the middle of the track, motionless except for the bright red fluid pumping out of his head, briefly took Rodman off his game.
“Loose horse going ahead of the field,” he called after a few seconds of dead air while Advance to Go, unburdened by Wilson’s 117 pounds, circled the field and took the lead—in the first turn of the 1 1/16 mile race. Riderless horses are automatically disqualified, a concept that seemed lost on Advance to Go.
“Jockeys, we still have a rider down!” Rodman said as the field approached the final turn.
The medical staffers huddled around Wilson, taking up much of the home stretch and showing no indication that they’d be going anywhere anytime soon. Rodman then took the remarkable step of calling for the outriders, a mounted corps who gallop along the outer perimeter of the track during each race, to block the horses as they entered the stretch. Despite the warnings, Steve Hamilton, the jockey aboard the gelding Romaninahurry, kept on riding past the unconscious Wilson all the way to the finish line.
The track gets a cut of every dollar wagered, and with the betting pools over what is now an international gambling circuit potentially reaching in the millions for even a middling claiming race, there’s a lot of incentive to let a race go on. Even when a patron ran onto the track and stood in the path of a pack of oncoming horses during the 1999 Maryland Breeders Cup Handicap, a stake held on Preakness Day, the race was allowed to go into the books as official. (The man, named Lee Chang Ferrell, was unhurt in the incident, but was arrested and received probation and a lifetime ban from Maryland tracks for his acts.)
But with Wilson down, Rodman was ordered to red-flag the field.
“Hold all tickets!” was his final call of the race.
Wilson, comatose, was helicoptered to the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center in downtown Baltimore. A lot of Wilson’s blood, however, stayed behind.
Jockeys are getting an unusual amount of sympathy these days. The HBO special that debuted last month, Jockey, tells the rarely told tale of just how rough the life is that most of the little guys lead. And a few weeks ago, a federal court ruled that jockeys, most of whom are paid solely on commission and have no guaranteed income, had a First Amendment right to wear paid advertising on their silks during the recent Kentucky Derby.
But despite these small gains, jockeys are all very replaceable cogs in the racing machine; horse owners quickly found other riders to fill Wilson’s four remaining mounts for the day.
Now in his 32nd year in what is perhaps the most thankless job in sports,Wilson has spent almost his entire career on lesser circuits. For the last seven years, the Oklahoma native has been a regular at the Maryland tracks, Laurel Park and Pimlico. He’s picked up seven rides in Triple Crown races in his career but has never finished in the money in a Derby or Preakness.
But he’s done all right for himself, even without the recognition. As of the end of 2003, Wilson’s mounts had won 4,810 races and earned $74,437,043. Jockeys work on percentages—generally 10 percent for a winning ride—so millions have passed through Wilson’s bank account during his career.
After so many years in, and out, of the saddle, he’s certainly in better fiscal condition than physical.
Wilson broke his neck in a spill at Monmouth Park in New Jersey in 1996. Doctors used a piece of his hip to fuse the sixth and seventh vertebrae, and after the numbness in his right arm went away, he returned to riding. His best chance for real racing glory came in 2001, when he rode the Maryland-based filly Xtra Heat to several stakes victories and seemed headed toward a historic run against a field of male horses in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. But during a race at Pimlico less than a month before the Breeders’ Cup,Wilson’s mount, Home Verse, snapped a leg heading down the home stretch. Home Verse was destroyed. Wilson, who was run over by a trailing horse, broke his right leg and three ribs.
Far more painful: Xtra Heat ran in the Breeders’ Cup without him.
A lot of track veterans figured Wilson would hang up his whip then and there. But he came back after a 54-week layoff. And, though he’d reduced his workload, Wilson proved he could still ride: Going into last weekend, he’d won 25 percent of his mounts during the current spring meet, tops in Maryland. Conventional wisdom among Pimlico veterans after Saturday’s spill, however, was that Wilson is done with racing, even if he survives.
“You won’t see Rick around here anymore, at least not on a horse,” says Keith Feustle, who writes the Maryland race charts for Equibase, the sport’s premier record keeper. “He doesn’t need this.”
If this was indeed Wilson’s last race, he left a keepsake for everybody at Pimlico to remember him by. Despite all the tragedy and commotion, the third race went off at 2:18, only 8 minutes past its scheduled post time.But, bizarrely, Wilson’s blood wouldn’t go away.
Tractors came out between each race to till the soil on the front stretch, but that only made Wilson’s big, red oval bigger. Track doctors estimated that he’d lost a pint and a half of blood from his head wound, but this stain made that estimate seem wildly low. By the sixth race, which went off about the time Wilson was officially declared to be in critical condition, the crimson patch in the center of the stretch had grown to about 8 feet wide and had lost none of its sheen.
Before the seventh race, an attendant was sent out on foot to try to get rid of the tragic reminder with a rake. All he managed to do was turn the stain from a big red oval to a bigger, equally red square.
At the start of the eighth race, the last of the day on the dirt track, a horse named Dixie Feline stumbled out of the gate, much as Advance to Go had earlier, and tossed jockey Eric Rodriguez, much as Advance to Go had tossed Wilson.
“Horses don’t need jockeys!’ said one bettor. “Look at that! They’d be better off without ’em!”
While the others in the field headed for home along the rail, Dixie Feline took a detour to the middle of the track. The riderless horse, disqualified but running with purpose, left hoof prints in Wilson’s bloodstain before crossing the finish line.
As of press time, Wilson remained in critical condition. —Dave McKenna