Tracks filled with survivors, or those trying to survive
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Minutes before they stride into the Churchill Downs paddock for the biggest race of the year, the Kentucky Derby riders gather on the roof outside the jockeys' quarters for an annual rite: the group picture.
Brightly outfitted in their racing silks and brimming with the excitement of the moment, the grinning little men in the picture don't display the savage realities of the job.
In every recent Derby picture there have been multiple drug addicts and alcoholics (some recovering, some not). From 1989 through 2004 -- from Patrick Valenzuela to the late Chris Antley to Pat Day to Jerry Bailey to Jose Santos to Stewart Elliott -- at least half of the Kentucky Derbies were won by riders with documented or admitted substance-abuse problems at some point in their professional careers.
There are bulimics with false teeth, after years of ritual vomiting rotted away the originals. There are hollow-cheeked anorexics, smiling like skeletons.
And almost everyone in the pictures is a spill survivor, their once-broken bodies held together by titanium plates and screws.
No athletic enclave in America is home to more reclamation projects -- physical, mental, emotional -- than the jocks' room. Even at the high end of the sport.
This year alone, the group picture of 20 Derby jockeys will include at least four recovering addicts who came traumatically close to losing their careers, families and lives; several current and former binge-and-purge weight reducers; and at least a dozen riders who suffered major injuries in life-threatening crashes.
"It's a very competitive, dangerous sport -- and you can't eat," said mega-trainer Bob Baffert, a former rider in his youth. "You don't see many 40-year-old bull fighters; this is the same thing. You can't live a normal life."
Normal is a long way from the day-to-day existence of a jockey. Here's the basic job description:
Hold a thin strip of leather in your hands and balance your feet on a pair of inch-wide steel bars. Use your knees to hug the sides of an animal 10 times your weight, while hurtling along in tight quarters at 35 mph. If you fall off or your horse goes down, something will break. Hopefully not your neck, spine or skull.
"You can go out and ride a race and not come back, or get paralyzed," said retired jockey Patti Cooksey, the second-winningest female rider in history behind Julie Krone. "That's just a fact."
John Velazquez got lucky just last month, when his mount at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., broke down after the finish line. Velazquez was thrown and then his horse rolled over him, breaking his shoulder blade and forcing one of the nation's top riders out of the Derby. But those who saw the fall say it could have been much worse.
"You go in every day with the mind-set that it's inevitable -- you're going to get hurt," said Robby Albarado, who will ride in his eighth Derby aboard Steppenwolfer. "Then a week after it happens, you can't wait to get back. That's the thing about jockeys, I don't know why."
Albarado has fractured his skull twice and has a plate in his head. He also has screws in his wrist and pelvis after a fall in 2001 that also included broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
"I'm full of titanium," Albarado said with a laugh. "It's tough to go through metal detectors."
Tougher, still, can be coming back from a major injury and urging a horse into a tight spot. Whispers quickly make their way around the track about jockeys who, at least temporarily, lose their nerve.
"I don't think there's a rider who can say that hasn't happened," Cooksey said. "I had three spills in a row once. I had to ride through it. You can be on a horse and feel that bobble, but you take hold of those reins, grit your teeth and whack him again."
Once you've mastered that fear, you must ignore the routine churning in your empty gut and light-headedness that come from vomiting your breakfast on a daily basis. You're dehydrated, and the muscles you use to control that charging animal are weak. Hunger is your constant companion. Deal with it.
Your nerves must be calm and your senses sharp, even though you might be trying to work through a hangover. If stimulants are your thing, you might be trying to get up off the deck after a night of smoking meth or snorting coke.
Addiction is part of every walk of life but it's a near-constant in the jockey colony. Everyone in it knows the cautionary tale of Antley, the two-time Derby winner whose inability to kick drugs helped lead to his accidental death in 2001, but there are lower-profile struggles every day.
"I've seen a lot of jockeys struggle," said Pam Gomez, wife of the nation's leading rider, Garrett Gomez, and herself a former exercise rider. "The ones that make it back are few and far between. A lot more of them disappear."
Even the ones who do get sober have a hard time staying there. Relapses are routine, in part because of the stresses involved. The combination of daredevil personalities, fast money, weird work hours, distorted eating habits and scant education levels can be dangerous.
"I wake up at 6 o'clock in the morning with an adrenaline rush when I get on a horse," said Garrett Gomez, who missed 21 months for personal reasons in 2003-04 -- including substance abuse problems. "I have some kind of adrenaline rush all day long.
"Growing up in this industry, you're not taught to live like an actual, normal person. But when you ride your last race, you're supposed to go home and be normal."
The referendums on your ability come as often as nine times on a race day. You're a hero one race and a bum 25 minutes later -- and hell hath no fury like a busted bettor looking for a scapegoat for his losing wager.
There are no long-term contracts to serve as a cushion if you underperform or get hurt. If your horse doesn't finish in the money, neither do you: 17 of the 20 Derby jockeys will earn $105 for their rides Saturday, about double a losing jock's payout for an average race.
"It's just like shooting the dice," said jockey Mark Guidry, who won the 2005 Santa Anita Derby. "You never know what's going to unfold. I like riding, but it's a job."
The highs and lows are jarring in any sport, but might be most dramatic in racing.
"That's the hardest part of the whole career -- the roller-coaster ride," said Cooksey. "I've seen it many, many times: They hit a high, they're the leading rider, and the old ego sets in and they can't fit the helmet on their head.
"Next meet it's not happening for you, you're not winning races, you're wondering what's wrong. Now you start fighting your head. Some riders can't handle it and they drop out."
Few sports, if any, have a pedestal as slippery as racing's. Mike Smith won the 2005 Kentucky Derby aboard 50-to-1 miracle shot Giacomo. The toast of Louisville last May, Smith was without a Derby mount this year until last week, when he finally landed the ride aboard no-hoper Flashy Bull. Elliott, who won the 2005 Derby on Smarty Jones, 2004 Derby winner Santos (Funny Cide), and 2001 winner Jorge Chavez (Monarchos) are nowhere to be found under the Twin Spires this year. All fame is fleeting, but rarely more so than at the track.
"You have two bad weeks, get a little stink on you?" Baffert said. "Everyone gets away from you."
Good weeks or bad, the physical demands of the sport are perverse.
When one of the six bathroom stalls at Churchill Downs contains not a standard toilet but a wide, rectangular "heaving bowl," designed to aid in routine regurgitation, the dictates of the job are unnatural -- and almost all other tracks have the same setup. If the heaving bowl isn't enough, it can be accompanied by starvation, laxative use, stimulant abuse and/or hours in the sauna. All are part of the daily equation for as many as half the elite riders.
The average size of the jockeys listed in Churchill's 2006 media guide is 5-foot-3 and 109 pounds. According to the American Medical Association, a healthy, small-framed man standing 5-3 should weigh 133 pounds.
Guidry said he "flipped," or vomited, routinely for 20 years to reduce weight. He told me four years ago, "If [the outside world] would come in and see half of us without our shirts on, they'd call the Humane Society if we were horses. They really would."
Weight reduction has been just one of Guidry's great struggles as a jockey. He's one of the three recovering addicts in this race.
In the late 1980s, with a wife and young child, Guidry endured an addictive period so dark that he took all of the family's money and disappeared for five days in Chicago, bingeing on drugs.
"I hate even reliving those days," Guidry said quietly, looking first at his black riding boots, then at the wall. "I was bad on cocaine, heroin. I wanted to die. I couldn't see myself facing anybody, I really didn't."
When Guidry resurfaced, he went straight into a detox center for eight days, then to a 30-day treatment center in Louisiana. Today he ranks among the top 30 jockeys nationally in earnings and will be aboard Sharp Humor in the Derby.
Valenzuela has been the Steve Howe of horse racing -- suspended so many times for failed sobriety that it's hard to keep track anymore. The last one, in 2004, which is believed to put him in double figures, came with a tragicomic twist: P-Val showed up completely shaved, head to toe, for drug-testing of his hair follicles.
Now the 43-year-old is third nationally in earnings and will ride Keyed Entry in search of his second Derby victory, the previous one coming on Sunday Silence in 1989 -- when the world appeared to be Valenzuela's for the taking.
"I haven't seen Patrick this happy in a long, long time," said Bob Fletcher, executive director of the Winner's Foundation, a non-profit agency created in California specifically to assist substance abusers involved in thoroughbred racing. "How can you look at him and not think he's one of the great talents ever on a horse? How do you come back from all that, at his age, and still get on a horse and win?
"I know Patrick takes a lot of heat, but when do you give up on a human being?"
Gomez once gave up on himself. The once-promising young jockey hop-scotched in and out of rehab, then finally quit riding for two years. Finally, he left his pregnant wife and all other responsibilities behind to run off with twin mistresses, crack cocaine and alcohol.
He bottomed out with a 40-day stay in jail for possession of coke.
"He was arrogant, self-centered and selfish," said Fletcher, who said he once physically pulled Gomez out of a crack house in Claremont, Calif. "Now he's humble, he's a delight to be around, he has consideration of others. It's not all about Garrett these days.
"Garrett changes diapers these days. As simple as that sounds, that would never have happened before."
Today Gomez says he's been sober for nearly three years and is, by all accounts, a good husband and doting father to two children. Not coincidentally, Gomez is the nation's leading jockey in purse money for 2006.
"It's amazing what happens," Pam Gomez said, "when you get your mind straight."
After winning the Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass Stakes on successive weekends in April, Garrett became the star rider of this Derby campaign. He had his pick of two Kentucky Derby rides for super trainer Baffert and chose Bob and John, considered one of the prime contenders to wear the roses, over Sinister Minister.
"Best three years of my life," he said of his current sobriety.
"He's in a good place in his life right now," Baffert said.
All of the 20 riders who will pose for the Kentucky Derby picture this Saturday are in the place they dream of. The hard part is staying there, in sound mind and body.
But when the men and women in the white pants fall off a horse, they tend to get right back on. That's what jockeys do.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
Kentucky Derby television coverage begins Saturday, May 6 at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Super Bowl XLIX tickets most expensive ever
- Sources: Peyton may decide to return soon
- Sources: NFL probes Falcons' fake crowd noise
- Sources: Jets, Bills eye Revis in free agency