SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. VA. — SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- When Larry Dupuy guided the filly Lady Dragonfly to a two-length victory in the first race at Laurel a couple of weeks ago, it was hardly considered an extraordinary feat.
After all, it was just another $6,500 claimer.
The winner paid $21.20, but there have been plenty of longer shots. Well, maybe.
Dupuy, a 36-year-old jockey who has made his reputation at the minor league Charles Town Race Track about 8 miles from here, is in the midst of a monumental career comeback.
Fifteen months ago, he was near death -- "living on borrowed time" his surgeon, Richard Hopkins, later recalled. Since then he has gone through the brutal ordeal of two open heart surgeries, but returned to competition just over two months ago at Charles Town to ride almost a winner a day. He occasionally makes a foray into Maryland with a horse shipped in from West Virginia.
If Dupuy rode at the nation's great race courses, he'd be instant guest material on Oprah or at least Sally Jesse Raphael. But, it takes the same gut-wrenching strength and physical demands to ride a Lady Dragonfly as it does a Secretariat, only the competition is a couple of seconds slower.
"Essentially this is what they do," Dupuy said as he described open heart surgery as dispassionately as if he was cinching up the girth on a saddle. "Your chest is sawed open. You are put on a life support system.
"Your heart is pulled out a little where they can get easier access. It's packed in ice to slow it down. And then, in my case, they go about cutting out an old valve and putting in a new one. The whole procedure takes between four to six hours. It's the life support system that really wears you down. It takes a few days to recover, because your whole system is out of sync. But the human body is pretty resilient."
Dupuy stands up and shows a scar, running vertically down from his chest. It is hardly noticeable.
But then he points to the wire still visible just beneath the skin. It was inserted to hold his chest together.
"It makes it tough going through those metal detectors at airports," he quips.
Dupuy and his wife, Sheila, have two children, Darren, 13, and Serena, 9. Ever since he started riding at Charles Town as a teen-ager, Larry has always been one of the more successful jockeys, and he and Sheila are popular among the large colony of horse folks that live in the communities surrounding the track.
Two years ago, everything was going well for the family. They had just bought a house and were in the process of redecorating, when Larry began to have severe flu-like symptoms.
"I'd wake up in a sweat," he recalled, "but sweats so bad that the whole sheet would be soaked."
A local doctor diagnosed it as the flu and prescribed antibiotics. "I'd feel better until the antibiotics ran out," Dupuy said. "Then I'd get really sick all over again."
Still, he kept riding winners. Then on a Wednesday afternoon in April of 1989, a colt named Brother Load almost became his last mount.
"During the post parade, the lead pony pushed over into me and crushed my foot and broke it," Dupuy said. "I had to go to my bone doctor in nearby Martinsburg. I told him about my other problems as well. He suggested I go to another doctor, who took blood tests."
The blood tests showed that a common strep germ had entered his bloodstream and that he had a bacterial infection. Dupuy was immediately hospitalized in Martinsburg, but the severity of his heart problem still was not discovered.
At 3:30 on a Saturday morning, he started to have severe chest pains. "I was rushed into the emergency room, where they started sticking all sorts of needles and catheters into me. Since I was literally dying, they couldn't give me any pain medication. I was awake through the whole thing. I've never been through such pain."
It wasn't until noon the next day that Dupuy arrived at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington. "When I got there, my blood pressure was 60 over zero," he said.
"We basically took him from the ambulance to the operating table and the fact that he was an athlete and in good shape probably saved him," said Hopkins, his surgeon.
It turned out that Dupuy had a congenital abnormality, known as a bicuspid aortic valve, which, according to the medical textbooks, "predisposes a person to infections."
"Most people have three flaps on their heart valves, but I only have two," Dupuy explained. "What happened is that the bacteria attached itself to the valve and became infected. The valve finally collapsed. My doctor told me it was totally mush when they took it out."
Because of the emergency situation, Dupuy's valve was replaced with one taken from a pig. There had not been time to locate a human valve.
He began a six-month recuperative period that lasted through the summer of 1989. He began jogging, galloping horses at Charles Town and was all set to ride in October when he became sick all over again.