Yvonne Azeff, with Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos.

Yvonne Azeff, with Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos.

AP/Gail Burton

Yvonne Azeff in Saratoga: ' I Just Need to be Around the Horses and the People'

Like people have done for centuries, Yvonne Azeff made a visit to Saratoga Springs over the Aug. 17-18 weekend. Though the trip was intended to be therapeutic, Azeff didn't go for the water.

"I just need to be around the horses and the people," she said.

Eight months after she suffered a serious head injury in a training accident in Florida, Azeff was able to spend a couple of mornings on the backstretch and afternoons watching the races at Saratoga Race Course. She intends to return to her job as trainer John Ward's assistant, possibly on a part-time basis as early as September.

With a tan Saratoga baseball cap covering her black hair, Azeff sat on a bench outside Ward's barn smiling and chatting with her friends, co-workers and anyone who happened to wander by.

Azeff, 42, was in a coma for a month after a pony she was riding Jan. 27 became skittish. The pony bounced off a barn wall and a chain link fence before falling and pinning Azeff underneath. It wasn't until the last week of April that she was able to leave the medical center in South Florida and
return to her home in Middletown, Ky.

The trip to Saratoga had been planned for weeks and was another step toward her goal of getting back to work.

"For the normal people to go home from the hospital is one thing," Azeff said. "This, for me, is like coming home. It's comfortable. It's what I've done all my life. It's the
only thing I like."

A former assistant to Randy Bradshaw and D. Wayne Lukas, Azeff was a key player in Ward's team that developed Monarchos into the 2001 Kentucky Derby winner. The first trip she made after returning to Kentucky from Florida was to see Monarchos at Claiborne Farm.

Until the Ward stable shipped to Saratoga in July, she spent weekend mornings at Keeneland watching the horses train.

Azeff still has work to do on her recovery. She speaks slowly, but clearly, and uses a cane for support when she walks. Though she can't remember the accident or much of what happened during the winter in Florida before she was hurt, Azeff does not have any trouble answering questions and she clearly hasn't lost her sense of humor.

Despite the accident, the former jockey intends to ride horses again.

"Why wouldn't I? How do you have fear of something you have no memory of?" she said, smiling. "The brain is an amazing thing. It takes care of what it's supposed to."

Actually, Azeff will be around horses again on Monday in Kentucky when she begins a hippotherapy segment of her physical rehabilitation program.

"They were teasing me that they were going to make me sign an extra release, no whips, no spurs allowed," she said. "And I'm not allowed to run over anybody, the first day anyway."

Azeff may be the only person not satisfied with the dramatic progress she's made since regaining consciousness.

"Well, I'm a typical horse trainer. It's not happening fast enough for me, especially the physical end
of it because it's such a physically demanding sport," she said. "It's hard for me to get used to not being in the middle of everything."

Every weekday morning, Azeff's roommate drives her to the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute in Louisville, Ky. In mid-afternoon she takes a bus home.

"They do mostly cognitive stuff with you," she said. "I do some physical therapy. Then I go home and have all the exercises and stuff they want you to do, plus my own therapy routine. By the time I'm done all that the day is done."

A nurse spends the afternoons with Azeff to help her so she doesn't lose her balance and hit her head.

"She's just doing her job, but when you've been independent your whole life you get real tired of being the sick one," Azeff said. "People always treat the sick one a little bit different, even though they don't mean to. It's a very hard role to take."

As a result, being able to visit Saratoga for a few days was a very big deal for Azeff. It gave her a taste of the freedom she has missed since the accident.

"They were all worried because it was going to be the first trip and I have to change planes in Pittsburgh," she said. "I just set things up. Being a racetracker, you grow up traveling. It's kind of like old hat to me. Actually, it feels good. It feels very comfortable."