Inside Track: The Long Road to Recovery

Inside Track: The Long Road to Recovery
Photo: Michael Burns
Julia Brimo was the 2003 Sovereign Award recipient as Canada's outstanding apprentice jockey.

By Terese Karmel

Julia Brimo is grateful for small and large things. She’s thankful that she can now scratch her nose with her left hand and for the constant support—emotional and financial—of Cindy Werner and dozens of others during her rehabilitation from severe injuries she received in an Oct. 30 spill. Her horse, Golden Stride, clipped heels in the first race at Keeneland Race Course.

“She had just worked our horses that morning at Churchill Downs,” said Werner, who works side by side with her husband, trainer Ronny Werner. Brimo had also ridden for Werner in the afternoons; her first winner since coming to this country from Canada was a Werner-trained horse, Water the Infield, at Turfway Park Oct. 4.

So when Cindy Werner heard about the spill, she and her family dropped everything and rushed from their home in Louisville, Ky., to the University of Kentucky hospital in Lexington where they stayed until Brimo had stabilized and the extent of her injuries was known.

The news wasn’t good: Brimo’s extensive injuries included cracked vertebrae in her lower back. Four days after the spill she had a plate and screws inserted to fuse her vertebrae. Her journey back to the saddle was going to be a long one.

Cindy Werner worked tirelessly raising funds to cover Brimo’s expenses until she can start drawing a paycheck again. As a Canadian citizen, Brimo, the 2003 Sovereign Award recipient as her home country’s outstanding apprentice jockey, is entitled to virtually free health care, but she has a mortgage and car payments as well as plenty of other regular bills.

“We called every owner that we’ve ever trained for,” Werner said, as well as tapping dozens of resources in and out of the industry for contributions. She opened a bank account at the Fifth Third Bank in Louisville for donations. The hard work has paid off, according to Werner, with contributions pouring in, and not just from those connected to the industry.

“I open letters every day,” Werner said. “Some people send $500 some $5—some just write notes. It’s amazing … I keep depositing the checks, and then I mail the money to her and her family for daily needs.”
Some of the most important people in her corner are her fellow jockeys from tracks large and small. On Nov. 28 many North American jockeys contributed at least $50 in mount fees to her rehabilitation fund; Canadian jockeys have done this more than once. On Nov. 27 they wore two patches on their boots: one with her name on it, the other promoting the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. A poster signed by all of the Woodbine jockeys hangs in her room at the Lyndhurst Center in Toronto, a leading spinal cord rehabilitation facility.

Brimo is in good spirits. Her two sisters, who live near the facility, are there with her 24/7, keeping her company, stretching her limbs, answering her phone, and generally helping all around.

Physicians have told her that she has come a long way in a short period of time. First she recovered feeling in her legs, then in her lower body. Arms and hands are the last to recover, but just recently she could bend the fingers on her right hand, a huge achievement for someone anxious to scratch her nose. The left side has been slower to come around, but the other night she said she woke up and could move her left arm. 

Brimo has little memory of the accident, which came in the first race of the day. Her last recollection is of returning to her car to retrieve her stick after she had driven from Churchill Downs to Keeneland for that day’s card. She has slowly regained her memory—another milestone passed. “That took a little time,” she said.

In addition to her riding, Brimo, 33, is an accomplished runner. Recently feeling optimistic and cheerful, she texted the Werners’ son, Will, a very close friend, at Murray State University in Murray, Ky. Her “very early in the morning message” to Will, a four-year starter at safety on the football team who is now preparing to apply to veterinary school, was that she had already run two laps. Though she was teasing her friend, she has started a regular routine of walking completely around the circle that houses her unit. She figured out that 16 laps constituted a mile and that became a daily goal. She also encouraged others whose rooms are off the circle to join her and has had success convincing some patients to leave their rooms.

When you ask Julia Brimo whom she wants to thank, the list is endless. But if she has her way, she’ll be able to thank them all in person. Her prognosis is for a full recovery, although that may take some time. And after that?

“I just want to get well and get back to riding,” Brimo said. 

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