Thanks in winner's circle

Horse racing: Critically injured as a youth, Brandon Whitacre gets his first win, giving him, his guilt-ridden mother and his once- exiled grandfather all a reason to be grateful.

Horse Racing

November 27, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Brandon Whitacre's first victory as a jockey was something to be thankful for. A conflicting mix of emotions collided that afternoon eight days ago at Laurel Park, but the overriding sensation was joy - pure, sweet, sparkling joy.

For Whitacre, 20, the win aboard the filly Pyrite Gun at Laurel Park was more than just the first milestone in a budding jockey's career. It served to distance the determined rider even farther from an accident 11 1/2 years ago that nearly claimed his life.

When he was 8, his mother accidentally struck him with her car. One tire ran over his head.

"I try to leave it in the past," Whitacre says. "What's done is done. God had his chance to take me. He didn't. He has plans for me."

For Brigitte Whitacre, 42, her son's victory at Laurel served to distance her even farther from the guilt she has harbored since the accident. His becoming a jockey not only confirmed his recovery, but also stirred deep feelings within her. She had always wanted to be a jockey, too.

"I couldn't wait for him to start," his mother says. "He's like living my dream."

The young rider's grandfather is Jesse Davidson, a retired jockey who led the nation in wins in 1965 but then, 10 years later, was convicted with other jockeys of fixing a race on Valentine's Day at Bowie Race Course. After retiring from riding in 1988 because of an injury that eventually cost him both kidneys and hips, Davidson chose to vanish from the track.

His grandson's emergence as a jockey coaxed him back. Davidson walks with a smile and pronounced limp through the jockeys' room, and riders and their attendants shout their welcomes and best wishes. For Davidson, 63, his grandson's victory served to distance the former rider even farther from the one event in his life he longs to forget.

"I just felt better when I wasn't here," Davidson says of his extended absence. "Now, I've got somebody I can stand and root for. I'll tell you what: I was happier when he won his first race than I ever was when I won a race myself. It just really made me proud of him."

Brandon Whitacre won on just his second mount. In the first race Nov. 19, he debuted as a jockey and finished last aboard Hampden, a 32-1 long shot. Three races later, he rode the 2-year-old filly Pyrite Gun, the bettors' 5-2 second choice, to a 2 1/2 -length victory.

"That was a day I will never forget," Whitacre says. "I've watched the videotape of that race probably 20 times."

The next morning, Whitacre showed up at the barn of Lisa Jimenez, trainer of Pyrite Gun, with two bags, one filled with carrots, the other filled with apples and peppermints.

"He stood there most of the morning and fed her," Jimenez says. "He'd pet her and hug her. He'd say, `I'll never forget you as long as I live; I'll never forget you.' It was like a romance."

That display from Whitacre wasn't surprising, considering he says that he likes horses better than most people, that he can talk to them and even if they don't talk back, they seem to understand.

"Every time I get on a horse, my heart just burns with love," says Whitacre, who stands 5 feet, 3/4 inch and weighs 100 pounds. "There's nothing in the world like racing a horse. I don't care if I finish first or last, I love every second of it. No roller- coaster ride can give you an adrenaline rush like that."

Tragic beginning

Many jockeys, Davidson included, have fought back from horrific injuries to return to racing in pursuit of that rush. But few, if any, have overcome the physical and emotional damage just to become a jockey that Whitacre has.

On May 2, 1992, opening day of baseball season for the Savage Boys and Girls Club, Brigitte Whitacre dropped off her two sons, Brandon, 8, and Grant, 6, at Guilford Park in Howard County. Brandon hopped out of the car. Brigitte helped Grant out of the back seat. As she began to pull away to look for a parking spot, she saw Grant but not Brandon. She assumed he had already run off. That would have been typical; the boy was a blast of high-test energy.

Brigitte's car ran over something that felt like a curb. In her rearview mirror she saw it had been Brandon. He had apparently been tying his shoe next to the car. It's still a mystery how the car, moving forward, struck him, how he ended up underneath it and how a rear tire ran over his head.

Brigitte stopped the car and raced back. People ran over to help. Paramedics arrived, and a MedEvac helicopter landed on the field and flew Brandon to Children's Hospital in Washington.

Brandon's mother says that paramedics expected the boy to die before the helicopter got there, that Brandon's heart stopped three times before he arrived at the hospital and that doctors said even if he did survive, he'd suffered massive brain damage.

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