By John DeSantis
-- Recently Pat Day won his 34th Churchill Downs riding title--absolutely amazing! Jerry Bailey eclipsed Mike Smith's record for most stakes wins in a single year. And Julie Krone won three graded stakes races at Hollywood Park's Turf Festival, raising the bar for comeback riders of either sex.
Days after these triumphs played out on racing's center stage, a less publicized but equally courageous event took place at Laurel Park. On Dec. 3, Ashton Fitzpatrick, a 17-year-old female apprentice rider, returned to the saddle to finish sixth in her first race since suffering extensive injuries in the heat of battle six months ago.
Ashton, a longtime member of Kids to the Cup, an organization for young racing fans, chronicled her initiation into race-riding, her injury, and her rehabilitation for fellow KTTC members--many of whom are aspiring jockeys. Her full story is on the group's Web site--kidstothecup.com.
"I rode jumpers for many years, and in 1999 I watched the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with my dad because I was bored," she wrote. "As soon as they broke from the starting gate, I pointed to Chris Antley and Charismatic and said, 'That's what I want to do.' "
Like any 14-year-old, Fitzpatrick took her search to cyberspace, found a farm online, and called to ask if they needed help. Of course they did--they had stalls to muck, horses to walk. Fitzpatrick put herself in a position to meet the right people and, since 'luck is the residue of design,' she fortunately met a succession of them: trainer Nancy Heil and the Gaudet family. On her 16th birthday she got her license to gallop and soon after rode in an amateur race. The trainer was so pleased with the way she performed he asked her to ride that horse and another one in real races. She won her first race with her ninth mount at $73.20.
April 2, opening day of the Pimlico meet: Fitzpatrick won her fifth race, and her "bug" clock started ticking. She was ready. She won two races in one day and began to roll. With the Colonial Downs meeting on the horizon, things looked cherry.
June 8, closing day of the Pimlico meet: One of Fitzpatrick's mounts clipped heels in tight quarters and fell. "I went down in front of my horse. He ran over my left side--hip, elbow, and shoulder. I did a complete backward somersault. Most of the guys behind me got out of the way except one trailing horse and he hit my head, thank God for helmets, knocking my helmet off."
Diagnosis: A broken elbow and fractured collarbone with a complete tendon tear between the collarbone and shoulder blade. Two pins and figure-eight wire were inserted into her elbow; a screw and some tendon stitching held the collarbone.
She was lucky, and she knows it.
Rehabilitation seemed to drag. She couldn't wait to get back.
"I recently turned 17 and I feel like I'm getting old without riding."
Initial plans called for her to start galloping in January, but bones and tendons heal quickly in the young when the spirit is in full bloom. It's only December and she's back riding races.
In the last few seasons, racing has said farewell to several Hall of Famers in the saddle: Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, and Laffit Pincay Jr. come to mind immediately. Another Hall of Famer, Gary Stevens, now rides only when his aching knees and budding acting career permit. While memories of these immensely talented athletes let us gladly relive the past, exploits of riders like Fitzpatrick beckon us to look forward.
Fitzpatrick's tale reminds us there are young people out there who dream of riding horses, of competing, of winning the Kentucky Derby, someday, maybe. In the mix of trifecta boxes, speed figures, and past performances, sometimes we lose perspective on a great sport filled with talented, persistent, and fearless people. There's the sport and then there's the gamble--at the windows and on the track.
Will these fingers type enough years more to report Ashton Fitzpatrick in the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May? Who knows? Odds are against it, or at least too long to fit comfortably on the tote board. But, really, who's to say? Besides, that's not the point. Ashton Fitzpatrick is already living a dream every day of her life. Don't we all wish we were, too? John DeSantis is executive director of Kids to the Cup, a free-lance writer, and an editor.