Longtime racetrack worker and paraplegic Rodney Burnett will begin a planned 2,500-mile cross-country trip from Williston, Fla., to the West Coast in a specially-built covered wagon April 28. Pulled by a team of Morgan horses, Burnett, paralyzed from the chest down since a 1992 motorcycle accident, estimates the trip will require six months. He plans to stop at racetracks and rehabilitation centers along the way and dreams that he will be met in California by at least 1,000 other paraplegics in wheelchairs.
“When I got hurt, all I heard was doctors telling me what I couldn’t do,” said Burnett, 51. “If this trip can get one person well who the doctors told would never work again, then it will be worth whatever it takes.”
Operating under the nonprofit corporation Ladder H. Farms, Burnett wants to raise awareness and funds for backstretch workers through the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, stem cell research through the Paralysis Project of America, and fund a therapeutic riding center in Ocala, Fla.
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 member Jack Van Berg, Quarter Horse trainer Johnny Goodman, and the late Grover “Bud” Delp, He holds an owner’s and trainer’s license in Florida and assists Ocala-based trainer Kenneth Steven Petch.
Burnett said he hopes the media will do more to recognize the contribution to a horse’s success made by grooms. “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.”
Ron Turcotte, rider of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat and a paraplegic since a racing accident at Belmont Park in 1978, call Burnett to compare notes and wish him well. Canadian Turcotte drove a team of Morgan horses when he logged as a youth.
“He’s got some terrific chores ahead of him,” said Turcotte. “I wish him luck and pray God blesses him. After talking to him, I believe he can do it.”
Burnett has been preparing for the trip for years and said his doctor has encouraged him. Burnett’s specially-built wagon includes turn signals, break lights, caution light on top, emergency break, outlets for a cell phone charger, running water, a solar-powered electrical system, and a super-cushioned NASCAR auto seat. Hanging in the wagon’s back will be a genuine elk skin. The wagon will be pulled by horses King Regent and Jonas. Rodney’s dog, Lil Bear, will be at his side. “I got the neatest wheelchair in the world,” Burnett said. “It’s got two horsepower.”
Burnett plans a southern route to avoid mountains, will try to use local roads that parallel interstate highways when possible, and has vets lined up to help provide the certification needed to cross each state line He has a radio to communicate with truckers and said highway patrols in several states volunteered to help. Most of all, he believes people who have what he calls “America’s Spirit” will turn out to provide whatever other help is needed. Already, several TV stations and publications plan to record his departure. RTCA’s home office, which is a trip sponsor, will assist with media relations and track his trip on its Web site. The organization’s 80 chaplains will pray for Burnett, who said he plans to read his Bible along the way. Ocala chaplain Bob Miller visited him to send him off with a prayer.
“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.”
Rodney will carry a laptop, capable of being online in remote locations, and will write a blog as he travel, 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.”
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