Burnett, 51, is currently en route to the West Coast in a covered wagon on a 2,500-mile cross country trip that began in Williston, Fla. Operating under the nonprofit corporation Ladder H. Farms, Burnett has a goal of raising awareness and funds for backstretch workers through the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, and stem cell research through the Paralysis Project of America. He also hopes to fund a therapeutic riding center in Ocala, Fla.
Pulled by a team of two Morgan Horses, Burnett, who has been paralyzed from the chest down since a 1992 motorcycle accident, estimates the trip will take around six months. He plans to stop at racetracks and rehabilitation centers along the way, and hopes he will be met by at least 1,000 other paraplegics in wheelchairs when he reaches California.
Called “Mountain Man,” because of his long hair and beard, Burnett has worked on at least a dozen tracks for such Thoroughbred trainers as Hall of Fame members Jack Van Berg and the late Grover “Bud” Delp. Burnett holds owner’s and trainer’s licenses in Florida and assists Ocala-based trainer Kenneth Steven Petch.
One of Burnett’s long-term goals is to create more recognition of grooms, who he believes greatly contribute to a horse’s success. “It takes a team to make a good racehorse,” he said. “But in the end, that groom will spend more time with the horse than the rest combined.”
Ronnie Turcotte, rider of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat and a paraplegic since a racing accident at Belmont Park in 1978, called Burnett to compare notes and wish him well before his journey. A native of Canada, Turcotte drove a team of Morgan Horses when he logged as a youth.
“He’s got some terrific chores ahead of him,” said Turcotte of Burnett. “I wish him luck and pray God blesses him. After talking to him, I believe he can do it.”
Burnett, who has been preparing for the trip for years, said his doctor encouraged him to make the wagon journey. Burnett’s wagon includes turn signals, brake lights, a caution light on top, emergency brake, outlets for a cell phone charger, running water, a solar-powered electrical system, a super-cushioned NASCAR auto seat, and a genuine elk skin hanging in the back.
“I got the neatest wheelchair in the world,” said Burnett, whose dog, Lil Bear, is making the trek alongside him. “It’s got two horsepower.”
Burnett planned a southern route to avoid mountains and will try to use local roads that parallel interstate highways when possible. With veterinarians lined up to help provide the certifications needed to cross each state line, Burnett also has a radio to communicate with truckers and said highway patrols in several states have volunteered to help him along his way.
The RTCA’s home office, which is a trip sponsor, will assist Burnett with media relations and track his trip on its Web site.
“We’re honored to be a part of a dream held for years by one who has every right to be discouraged, but refused to give up,” said RTCA executive director Dr. Enrique Torres. “Clearly he has a strength of heart that encourages us all. We hope the nation joins us in our prayers for Rodney.”
Burnett is carrying a laptop that is capable of being online in remote locations, is blogging as he travels, and posting his entries on his Web site, www.ladderhfarms.com.
“From here it’s in the hands of the Lord,” he said. “I just want to show people that life doesn’t end with a wheelchair.”