There were owners and trainers who expected Melancon to fall flat on his face. "I heard the voices," Melancon said. "They were second-guessing me. After all, I had been such a bad kid. All I could do was live right, keep showing up, and work hard. I knew that if I went back out on the streets that I would die."
Melancon did not die. He did not have to flip burgers. Today, he has 12 and a half years of sobriety.
Success came in small increments. Melancon scored just 54 victories in 1991, 95 the following year, 86 in 1993, and 83 in 1994.
It became obvious, however, that Melancon's recovery was authentic, and he became a backstretch beacon for anybody who was troubled with drugs or alcohol. Example. On a cold morning last December, a trainer rushed into the Fair Grounds track kitchen. He is looking for Gerard. The trainer's daughter has a boyfriend who has just overdosed on heroin. The family is panic-stricken. Melancon listens closely to the details, then gets on his cell phone. Within minutes, Melancon has made arrangements to get the kid a bed in a rehab unit.
"Helping others is the biggest part of long-term recovery," Melancon explained. "Sharing your experience, strength, and hope. That's how it works."
Jerry Harrison is Melancon's agent. Over the years, the two men have stuck together like gravy on rice. "When I first met Gerard, you had better bring a butterfly net to catch him," the agent said of the turbulent days.
"People on the racetrack know where Gerard has been," Harrison points out, "and they know where he is now. Most people want to be somebody else and that makes them unhappy, but not Gerard. He is comfortable with who he is."
Melancon's best friend is his valet, Garret Broussard. Both men came through the fog of drug addiction together. "For a long time I didn't think I could stop using drugs. But when Gerard did it, it gave me hope. He was a lot worse off than I was. I knew then that I had a chance," Broussard said, choking back tears.
Melancon broke through in 1995, winning 138 races. He got up to 198 in 1996, and 171 and 156 the following two years.
Melancon matured in his recovery, discovering that addiction to drugs and alcohol is a family disease. Emotions become frozen. He was determined to break the cycle. This time around, the loneliness he experienced as a child was not going to happen to his sons Jansen and Jonas. He got support and healing from an extraordinary woman--his wife, Annette.
The shy, church-going daughter of a trainer, Annette was a piece of iron wrapped in silk. She gave her husband unconditional love but was uncompromising in placing her values first. Annette went into her own self-help group and found the courage to change. "I knew Gerard had a lot of good in him," Annette said. "He was caring and giving. My mistake was that I enabled him a lot. That was the toughest part to stop."
Gerard could not have had a stronger person in his corner. "She stuck with me through hell and back. When I hit the end of my rope she was there for me. She never gave up."
Keeping a marriage and family together through tough times is not a romantic fairy tale. The distance between home and racetrack makes it more difficult. "It can be hectic," Annette said. "Everything's not peaches and cream, but we talk every day and work things out. I want my children to see us happy and talking to one another. We're together now as a family and that's the main thing."
In April of 2001, Melancon was ready for a big move. He could have been top dog at Evangeline, where he had won four (1984, 1996, 1997, and 2000) riding titles, but he broke out of the cocoon. Melancon went to Lone Star Park in Dallas, where he rode 46 winners. More importantly, Annette closed her popular and successful business in Scott, La., so the family could spend the summer together.
After leaving Texas, Melancon ended the summer at Louisiana Downs. With 55 wins, 58 seconds, and 48 thirds from 314 mounts, he was fourth in the jockey standings. Warming up for Fair Grounds, Melancon rode five winners on a Louisiana Downs card on the last week of the meet.
He's back. On opening day at Fair Grounds, Melancon rode four winners, including the $75,000 Thanksgiving Handicap on multiple stakes winner Bonapaw. A few weeks later, in December, Melancon broke through the 2,000 career win plateau.
Melancon is now getting calls from some top stables. Trainers such as Tom Amoss, Steve Asmussen, Bobby Barnett, and yes, Roussel, are putting Melancon on live mounts. "I'm not out to be a savior," Amoss explained. "What I look for in a jockey is the hunger to succeed and Gerard has shown me that quality and dependability. Secondly, Gerard is a student of the game. He comes to the paddock prepared. He knows the competition. When I leg Gerard up on a horse, I know that he has done his homework."
"The hard part of this game is staying in the now," Melancon said. "You can't dwell in the past or worry about the future. I watch myself. I don't like to get overexcited. Used to be if somebody looked at me funny I would get angry. Today things are different. As long as I'm working my program not much is going to bother me."
After the first six weeks of racing at Fair Grounds, the restructured Melancon is keeping the heat on jockeys Eddie Martin and Robby Albarado for the top slot. Would he like to be leading rider? "Sure, it would be nice if it happened but that's not my goal," he said. "My goal is to be happy with what I get. If I win five races or if I don't win any races, I'm going to come back the next day with the same attitude."