It's been longest ride for Wilson

Jockey: The thought of finding a new career is the hardest part of recovery for Rick Wilson, who was critically injured at Pimlico in May.

Horse Racing

August 24, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

It is one of the most terrifying sights in sports - the instant a thoroughbred racehorse falters and throws his rider to the ground, directly in harm's way.

All types of thoughts race through an onlooker's mind about what might be the result, and many of them are scary. Usually, the worst is expected, and when the jockey arises unhurt, a gratifying sigh of relief follows.

On May 8, a week before this year's Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, veteran Rick Wilson wasn't so fortunate.

His mount, Advance to Go, stumbled and unseated him, then a helpless Wilson was kicked in the head. His condition was listed as critical for almost a week at Maryland Shock Trauma Center before he began improving and was transferred to Kernan Hospital, where he remained until Father's Day, when he finally went home.

Today, more than three months later, his recovery continues with visits to Sinai Hospital.

The injuries he suffered will almost surely end the riding career of a tough-minded man who began as an underage teenager astride quarter horses in his native Oklahoma.

"It's very frustrating," Wilson said at his home outside Sykesville. "I wanted to retire on my own terms."

Wilson, who turned 51 this month, has been told by doctors to avoid "contact sports for a year because of my head" but with his typical tenacity, Wilson won't completely dismiss a return to the saddle. It has been his entire life and he has been very successful, riding nearly 5,000 winners overall and in the Kentucky Derby twice and Preakness five times.

Wilson considers his most exciting victory to have been with Barbizon Streak at old Liberty Bell Park outside Philadelphia, where they upset Mr. Prospector, who went on to become one of the most fabled sires of all time.

Recently, Wilson's most visible efforts have come aboard the amazing filly Xtra Heat, who scored 13 victories and two runner-up finishes with Wilson aboard. The total includes five graded wins. "She was all heart," Wilson said. "One in a million."

"I told him I'd support whatever decision he makes," said his wife, Jean, a nurse by profession whose knowledge of the medical treatment has been a blessing during the long road to near-normalcy. "But I'm really not too keen on him coming back."

"Thank God I have a few options," said Wilson, whose ability to handle horses would seem to make him a viable candidate for training. "I want to be in the racing end of it. When the time comes, I'll decide."

He is leaning toward applying to become a steward, citing the headaches involved with being a trainer or a jockey's agent.

"Owners now just run horses until they can't run anymore," he said. "It used to be if a horse was sore, you'd turn him out until he recovered. Now, they don't care about the animal. Owners tell trainers where to run and when. It's too much of a business. And there's a problem with getting help. There are a lot of headaches and pressure in training."

Wilson visits a psychiatrist to "work through the depression and anger" and faces several more possible surgeries. He has undergone a tracheotomy, passed a swallow test and is gaining weight back after "looking like skin and bones", according to Jean.

The cornea in his right eye suffered damage, along with nerves on the right side of his face, and his equilibrium also has been affected by the accident.

"It's a wait-and-see game to see how much I do get back," he said.

He feeds himself and takes medication via a tube embedded in his abdomen. He can bathe himself and conduct daily activities almost normally.

The distortion in his right eye, which requires frequent application of eye drops to keep it moist, is the only outward sign that he had such a horrific spill.

It wasn't the first time. In October 2001, his right femur was broken when his horse fell and the one behind him ran over him. The recuperation lasted more than a year.

"It's a rush being a rider," he said. "If you ride enough, you know you're going to get hurt. But you can get killed crossing a road, too."

He said the support he received after the accident was overwhelming. Telephone calls, letters and cards poured in by the hundreds. "There were too many to count," said Jean. Among his visitors was John Servis, trainer of Smarty Jones.

In the Maryland jockey colony, nobody is a fiercer competitor than Wilson. He has proved that all over again.

"God was looking out for me," he said.

Rick Wilson's career highlights

Wins: 4,939, 20th all time

Triple Crown mounts: 7

Single-day best: Six wins at Philadelphia Park

Winningest mount: Xtra Heat (13 wins, two second-place finishes)

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