Riding On A Dream

Irv Naylor, a steeplechase jockey paralyzed after a fall in the 1999 Maryland Grand National race, hopes to walk and ride again

April 21, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Whirring quietly, the wheelchair glides over the stable straw and stops at a familiar stall. There, a bay stallion lifts his head, sniffs and nickers approvingly. His jockey has come home, to the family farm near Glyndon.

"Come here, big guy," Irvin Naylor says, parking beside the racehorse, a jumper named Uncle Uno. Naylor strokes the animal with his left hand, now permanently clenched. Nuzzling him back, Uncle Uno inadvertently flips a switch on the wheelchair, sending Naylor lurching forward.

Naylor stops, puts the chair in reverse, and laughs at the equine antics. "You're a character," he says, patting the horse. "No wonder I love you so much."

The stallion is such a favorite that, at night, when Naylor dreams of riding, he's able-bodied and astride Uncle Uno, galloping through a grassy field.

When he wakes, he is a paraplegic, using a wheelchair since the accident two years ago at the Grand National Steeplechase in Butler.

On April 17, 1999, his mount in that race, Emerald Action, struck the 16th fence and fell. Naylor crashed to the turf, critically injured. He landed on the right side of his face, breaking a vertebra in his neck and pushing his spine out of alignment. Immobile for several days, he gradually regained use of his arms but not his fingers, and he remains paralyzed from the waist down.

The 99th Grand National will be run today, over the same course in northern Baltimore County. For the first time, Naylor is going back, returning to the site of the race that ended his lifetime of riding.

"I'll watch as much of it as I can, with no regrets or remorse," says Naylor, 65. "Steeplechasing is a marvelous avocation; I've encouraged my 16-year-old grandson to do it. There is no substitute for being `as one' with the horse, in nature.

"I'm just glad to have done everything I did before I got hurt. I've had the most marvelous life. The last two years have been hell, but I'm praying for a cure."

He pounds his fist on the armrest.

"I don't intend to die in this damn chair."

Injuries have not crushed his spirit: Naylor owns 20 thoroughbreds, two of whom are entered today (Make Me A Champ and Corona Effect). And Emerald Action, his Irish jumper who walked away from the accident, is slated to run in the Maryland Hunt Cup next Saturday.

The one that got away

The Hunt Cup is the one big race that has eluded Naylor, the one that kept him in riding silks for five decades. The oldest jockey licensed by the National Steeplechase Association, he has long been part of its fabric. Four years ago, Naylor organized the World Timber Championship, an America's Cup of steeplechasing between the United States and England.

Last year, he received the coveted Bryce Wing Award for "exemplary contributions" to steeplechase racing in Maryland. At the ceremony, a scroll listing Naylor's credentials was flung out from the podium, like a red carpet.

"Irv's dedication is unsurpassed," says Margaret Worrall, chairperson for the Hunt Cup. The accident wrenched Naylor from the saddle, not the sport, "and in that, we've been lucky," she says. . "There's no void because he's still here in an intellectual sense, and as an active owner."

Naylor's latest notion: to establish a riding program for the handicapped on his 150-acre farm in Glyndon. Don't think he has given up on ever sitting on a horse, either. There are mechanical lifts to help one do just that.

"I would love to do it again," he says. "It just hasn't been a priority, because my goal is to walk again."

Physical therapy is tortuous, boring, crucial. Routinely, at his home in York, Pa., he is placed in a "standing frame" that holds his body upright to improve circulation. Three times a week, Naylor undergoes aqua therapy at a local pool, where he manages to walk short distances by placing his feet atop those of another.

He and his wife, Diane, keep up with medical research seeking cures for paralysis, and help bankroll promising work.

"I'm convinced the answer lies in stem cell research," he says of the controversial work. "Anyone who objects to that work has never spent one day in a wheelchair."

Naylor remains active in business: He owns four ski resorts in New York and Pennsylvania - including Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop. But when not in therapy, or at his workplace in York, his heart is still in timber country. It has been that way since Naylor's youth.

Both his uncle and grandfather were blacksmiths. At 5, Naylor received his first pony; at McDonogh School, where he boarded, he served as captain of the cavalry.

From the outset of his steeplechase career, Naylor realized the dangers involved. At 17, he competed in his first race, the My Lady's Manor, in 1953. His mount, Village Gossip, fell at the 11th fence while vying for the lead. Naylor remounted and completed the race, finishing fourth. Less fortunate was another rider, Hugh O'Donovan, whose horse fell at No. 7, knocking the jockey unconscious.

Earlier injury

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