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Wednesday, August 7, 2002
Roping up fellow road warriors

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Miles, 15 (Bull-o-rama forces last-minute itinerary change and second night in Missoula); total miles, 498; hours of sleep, 7; Diet Pepsis, 4 units; Philly cheesesteak at the Pickle Barrel, 1 unit; state fair corn on the cob, 2 units; Springsteen, side A "Born in the U.S.A.; miles to go 2,700 (still) ...

MISSOULA, Mont. -- I was feeling pretty good about my first day of driving -- 483 miles, three states, two time zones and one long stop at Seahawks training camp -- until I met jockey John Dillon.

Dillon raced late Sunday night at the Grande Prairie track in northwestern Alberta, which is so far north that it's near the start of the Alaska Highway. He collected his earnings, hauled his aching 39-year-old body into his camper, drove roughly 1,000 miles in 20 hours while burning $300 worth of gas, arrived in Missoula at 4 in the morning Tuesday, went to bed at 5, slept until 7, "opened my eyes at nine,'' went to the track at the Missoula County fairgrounds and won a race by 3:30.

I can only assume Dillon slept after that, but I'm not sure. When I last saw him around 6, he was walking off to hustle more mounts for the remainder of the week's racing.

"I love it. I love the excitement of racing,'' he said. "It's life in the fast lane. It's like being a rock 'n' roll star. You love the limelight."

Of course, the only limelight at the Western Montana fair was the glare from Dillon's belt buckle, which was so large and conspicuous it looked like it should have been presented to Serena Williams at Wimbledon. Far more than approximately 2,500 miles of Interstate 90 separate this horse track from Saratoga Springs, the other track on my cross-country tour.

I love it. I love the excitement of racing. It's life in the fast lane. It's like being a rock 'n' roll star. You love the limelight.
John Dillon, jockey

You know you're in horse racing's low minors when the track houses other species of animals. Saratoga, after all, does not feature a monkey riding a dog during a Bull-o-rama as the Missoula track did Tuesday night (more on that later).

The important thing, though, is that this is a track and that Dillon is able to race on it at all. He turns 40 later this month, duct tape covers his riding boots, he needs glasses to read the racing program and two recently broken fingers are bent at disturbing angles, but Dillon is having the time of his life. He is racing for the first time since an accident 14 years ago at the Great Falls, Mont., track nearly killed him and left him so injured he couldn't walk a straight line until midway through the first Clinton administration.

Dillon was riding down the stretch that 1988 day, when his horse clipped hooves with the nearest horse, sending horse and jockey to the ground. Dillon's head snapped back horribly -- "We have a tape of it, and he looks like a little white rag doll being tossed around,'' said his wife, Sherry -- and when he hit the ground, the horse tumbled onto him twice.

Sherry was watching from the grandstand with her parents. She started to run to Dillon's side but the track attendants stopped her from crossing the infield. "They told me he was dead."

Fortunately, that prognosis was premature. He wasn't quite dead. The spill shattered his collar bone, punctured his lung and stopped his heart but it didn't kill him. It only took his way of life.

Dillon and Sherry weren't married at the time, but they exchanged vows the next year. "Somebody had to stick by him.'' Sherry told him that if he ever raced horses again, she would divorce him. It wasn't really an issue the first six years, because Dillon was so injured that he had frequent memory losses and his equilibrium was so damaged that he could barely walk a straight line. "Those are six years I hardly remember because they kept me so doped-up on painkilling drugs," he said.

Dillon worked a variety of jobs outside horse racing until this spring, when his sister, Janis Shoepf, asked whether he would help with her promising horse, a 2-year-old named HesAllRock. As soon as he rode the horse once, he knew he had to start racing again. So did Sherry.

"Once he started galloping, it was just a matter of time,'' Sherry said. "So when he called me and said, 'Sherry, I have something to tell you, how do you feel about this ...', I told him, 'You don't even have to say it. I know.' "

Despite her earlier divorce warning, Sherry said she is OK with Dillon's return because she can tell that he is truly happy again. Still, his first races were agonizing. Sherry watched from the stands, praying for her husband's safety.

"My worst scare was a race in Grande Prairie, when a horse flipped his rider in the gate," she said. "They called an ambulance. I didn't know if it was John. It was either him or the rider next to him. It wasn't John, but that sort of thing takes your breath away."

This is the fifth track Dillon has raced at this season, and he'll race at a sixth after the fair ends this weekend. The couple lives and travels in a gas-guzzling camper that struggles to get eight miles to the gallon, parking at KOA campgrounds where the hookup costs $31 a night. "But I paid $10 for a KOA card and that gives us a 15 percent discount, so that helps," Sherry said.

My worst scare was a race in Grande Prairie, when a horse flipped his rider in the gate. They called an ambulance. I didn't know if it was John. It was either him or the rider next to him. It wasn't John, but that sort of thing takes your breath away.
Sherry Dillon, wife of jockey John Dillon

Sherry estimated Dillon's take for winning one race and placing second in another Tuesday was about $300-$400, which barely covers the cost of gas from Grande Prairie.

The Dillons aren't alone. From the jockeys to the bull-riders to the rodeo clowns, everyone at the track Tuesday could tell stories of a lifetime spent sleeping in cheap motels on those few occasions they aren't driving all night between events. "You get to meet some nice people and if they're jerks, well, it's no big deal because you're leaving in a few days anyway," Dale McCracken said.

McCracken is better known as Gizmo and his job is to balance on top of a barrel in clown makeup and suspenders during competitions, telling broad jokes to the crowd and occasionally distracting enormous, angry animals. He's worked rodeos for 25 of his 40 years, most of it "in the barrel'' as a clown. "I can't get disability insurance," he said while applying his makeup for Tuesday's Bull-o-rama. "I tell them what I do and they say, 'Do you get in the ring with the bull?' and I say yes, and they say, 'Sorry, we just ran out of policies.' They run from me like I have the plague."

Thirty cowboys competed in Bull-o-rama, including Montana's Dan Edno who helped his high school team to its second straight Class A state basketball championship last winter despite missing six games with a bull-riding injury (top that, Kobe). Edno had the top score in the first round Tuesday, and I would say he took home $576, but these guys never go home.

Tyler Dellen won the Bull-o-rama, one of five bull-riding competitions in three states for him this week (he'll make three trips between Montana and central Washington). He and his good friend, Troy Wilcox, share the considerable driving duties between events where they fight to last eight seconds on bulls named Unforgiven, Shish Ka-Bob, Broken Bones, Electric Slide and A28 the Extra-Terrestial. The bull Dellen rode successfully Tuesday is named Rotten Johnny. He was the only one of the 30 riders to stay on his bull during both rounds.

"I've been knocked out a couple times,'' Wilcox said. "I've broken both elbows, both ankles. I've sprained my neck and had a hairline fracture. I've broken my nose."

He's 19.

"It gets in your blood and just stays there," he said. "You get addicted to the adrenaline."

"I'd die for this," jockey Shaunda Larsen said after winning the only two races she rode Tuesday.

Sometimes the only thing harder than staying on these animals is staying off them. I'm many miles from so-called major-league sports on this I-90 tour -- the local paper carries the calf-roping standings more prominently than the American League box scores -- but Dillon had the look of a man delighted to be exactly where he is.

"It's not a lot of money but you have to get started again somewhere,'' Dillon said. "That's why I'm riding on the B tracks, to get my balance again, to get better, to get ready. And I think we're doing pretty well.''

With that, Dillon headed to the fair's beer garden, where he planned to hit up the trainers for additional mounts the rest of the week. Later, he would review tapes of the day's races to critique his performances. And then, maybe, just maybe, he would sleep in a bed.

As he walked away, his smile was as big and bright as his belt buckle.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.