By Bill Heller
What do you do when life knocks you down and you can't get back up? Do you give in? Or do you fight?
Andrew Lakeman, seven years removed from the catastrophic accident that left him paralyzed at the age of 32, has made the difficult transition from rider to trainer. He has done well enough with his own horses of limited ability—winning with five different runners in New York—to open a public stable. He is now soliciting clients in New York.
"He's a good horseman, that's for sure," said his former employer, Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens. "With the few horses he's had, he's really done well. Naturally, I'm rooting for him with all my heart."
The native of Sunderland, England, was an exercise rider and occasional jockey for Jerkens after working for Michael Dickinson, Nick Zito, D. Wayne Lukas, Barclay Tagg and Tom Skiffington.
Lakeman not only had to deal with his tragic accident, but also a substance abuse problem he once thought he had conquered. He was nine months into his recovery from alcohol and drug abuse when, on May 25, 2007, he went down in a gruesome spill at Belmont Park
. His mount, Our Montana Dream, clipped heels with the horse in front of her, hurling Lakeman face-first to the ground. Then he was struck by a trailing horse.
He fractured three vertebrae in his neck, broke his sternum in two places, and suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
Lakeman's long hospitalization and rehabilitation were complicated when he slipped back into his self-destructive habits. But he overcame them and says he's been clean for five years.
Initially, his parents wanted Lakeman to return to England. "My parents wanted to take me home," Lakeman said. "They said, `You don't have to prove yourself to anybody. You should relax.' I said, `No. I never gave myself a chance to become a rider because of the alcohol and the drugs'."
Inspired by a book about third-generation Hall of Fame trainer Elliott Burch, Lakeman decided to become a trainer. "He said how he got started was by buying his own horse, and I said, `That's what I'm going to do'," Lakeman said. "I'll make my own decisions. I won't have to answer to anybody."
Lakeman purchased Thisskysabeauty
privately for $40,000, a year after the Sky Mesa
son fetched $73,000 at the 2009 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale, and went to work. After he lost his first six starts in maiden special weights, Lakeman dropped the bay runner into a maiden $25,000 claimer on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 2011. He won by 3 1/4 lengths under Ramon Dominguez.
The fledgling trainer also won with All Zipped Up
, a horse he purchased from Hall of Fame trainer Frank "Pancho" Martin for $1 shortly before Martin's death. The 5-year-old City Zip
gelding was 0-for-32, but 29 of those defeats were on dirt, and when Lakeman returned All Zipped Up to the grass, he won a New York-bred maiden special weights by two lengths under Rosie Napravnik July 14, 2012.
Lakeman took races with Shes Loca
, Flying Master
, and La Billos
. Recently, Gentle Jim
, a half brother to the undefeated filly Cluster of Stars
, had two seconds, three thirds and three fourths.
Overall, from 57 starters, the trainer has a 5-7-3 record, along with five fourth-place efforts. Since he has documented success with cheap horses, how could he not do well with better stock?
Regardless of what the future holds, Lakeman is at a point in his life he never thought he'd find after he went down.
"I've come a long way," he said. "I am happy, really happy. I think I've done a really good job. Every horse I've had has been a challenge, and I won with all of them. I get up every morning at 4:30, get to the track by 7:30... I forget about any pain or being in a wheelchair. It's like the horses know I'm in a wheelchair. They would never hurt me.
"I proved to myself that I could do it. I want to do this for the rest of my life."