The familiar-looking jockey with the long, light pony tail protruding from her helmet was finally back in action after a winter of riding taken away by a broken ankle.
Diane Nelson, behind Julie Krone as the most successful female jockey ever to call New York home, completed the long road back when she accepted her first mount of the year earlier in in April at Aqueduct.
"I was in a spill at the end of October on the turf (at Belmont)," Nelson said. "She broke down and then I'm not sure. I think a horse fell over her, and somehow I got stepped on on my left ankle."
The diagnosis was a cracked tibia and fibula, and within days, Nelson was in surgery to have a plate and three screws inserted into the ankle. With Aqueduct set to open, Nelson faced a winter away from the game she has made a career since she began as New England's top bug rider in the mid-1980s.
With a minimum recovery time of eight weeks, Nelson knew her year was over, and she entered her rehabilitation. Cold weather is no friend to a recently broken bone, and the first week of January produced some of the coldest temperatures ever to hit the Northeast. So Nelson decided to head south to gallop horses at Palm Meadows until she felt ready to resume riding.
"I spent part of February and all of March galloping horses at Palm Meadows," Nelson said. "I was in no hurry to get back riding because I didn't really want to ride at Gulfstream and I didn't want to come back here (New York) when it was cold.
"I probably could have been back a month earlier, but I wanted to be really fit and ready when I came back. I didn't want to come back and not be sure."
While in Florida, Nelson found herself on horses trained by Todd Pletcher and Jimmy Jerkens, and within two weeks of her return to riding in New York, had ridden horses for both.
Nearing 40, Nelson said she feels as fit as ever, and that time away from the jocks' room has left her as eager as ever to continue riding for the foreseeable future.
"Originally, I was just coming back to say that I could," Nelson said. "I didn't want to stop riding on an injury. Now I feel great. I'm more anxious to ride than I think I was five months ago."
When Nelson looks around the jocks' room, she sees a group of faces that has changed drastically since she first began riding in New York in the 1980s, and from when she made New York her permanent base at the turn of the 1990s. She may have never competed for a riding title, or been mentioned for open mounts in grade I stakes, but she began her career riding with the likes of Angel Cordero Jr. and Jorge Velasquez.
"I remember a year ago walking down the tunnel thinking, 'Wow, 18 years I've been walking down this tunnel.' " she said. "It makes me feel like, 'Gosh, I've been here forever.' "