Jockey Gerard Melancon.

Jockey Gerard Melancon.

Alexander Barkoff photos

Crackdown: Rider Gerard Melancon Wins Race Against Addiction

Published in the Jan. 19 issue of The Blood-Horse
Addiction to crack cocaine can cost you your job, your family, and sometimes your life. Just ask jockey Gerard Melancon, who came close to losing the whole package. Melancon, currently vying for the top spot among riders at Fair Grounds, tumbled as far as a man can fall since his heady days of early stardom nearly 20 years ago.

In the summer of 1984, Gerard Melancon had the world by the tail. The 17-year-old was Evangeline Downs' top jockey. Riding like he was possessed, Melancon was seen as the next Cajun phenomenon. One night he rode six winners on the card. Clean and quick from the gate, he seemed to have all the tools. Horses responded to his patience, so rare in an apprentice rider.

Melancon was ill-equipped for the early fractions of success. Fast horses fuel fast money, and the excitement kept him on the prowl. He began drinking, popping pills, and smoking marijuana. A new set of slippery friends came into the picture and they had something to offer besides recreational drugs. "The first time that I did cocaine I thought it was the greatest thing in the world," Melancon said. "But once I got addicted to it, I hated it. By then it was too late."

Melancon's cocaine habit accelerated but he was still showing up for work. Coming home was the problem. He stayed gone for days until his wife, Annette, tracked him down. "She always knew where to find me," Melancon said, "but that didn't slow me down. It was just temporary interference. At that time, I had no desire to quit."

Inhaled from a palm-sized glass pipe, the first hit of crack cocaine can trigger instant addiction. You want more. The world of responsibility gets checked at the door. With each hit, there is a meltdown of personal values and obligations. The rent goes unpaid. Jail, mental institutions, and death are typical final destinations.

Cocaine is not cheap. There are no refills. A weekend binge can cost more than $1,000. When the purse money at Evangeline Downs couldn't keep up with the pace, Melancon was desperate for cash. He turned into a one-man riot. Breaking into his father's house, he stole a collection of antique shotguns and sold them at a pawnshop. "I was selfish," Melancon admitted. "It didn't matter who I hurt."

After winning 145 races in 1984 and 148 a year later, Melancon's numbers slipped to 85 victories in 1986 and just 58 in 1987.

At Fair Grounds, during the winter of 1987, trainer Louis Roussel III saw Melancon's life was at low tide. Roussel put the cards on the table, confronting Melancon with an undercover video of the jockey going into a dope dealer's house. "I hated to see such an abundance of talent wasted by chemical abuse," Roussel said of the intervention.

Roussel, who was owner of Fair Grounds, went one step further. He offered to pay for Melancon to get professional help. At a cost of $18,000, the treatment facility required 28 days of confinement and intensive therapy. Melancon went along. "I was just going through the motions," Melancon admitted. "The real reason I went in was that I thought I could get my business back."

Self-will is a big problem for addicts. "I had an ego as big as a house," Melancon said. "I wasn't ready to quit." Within days of leaving the facility, Melancon was drinking and smoking weed. Soon and sure enough, he was back on his drug of choice--cocaine.

Gerard Melancon would be the first to tell you: There is no statute of limitations on stupidity. Things got worse. Drugs and alcohol became a daily excuse not to face life on life's terms. It took a pint of cheap vodka to stop the morning shakes. Coming to work in the morning was out of the question. Paranoia and anxiety attacks came in waves. It got to the point where he was afraid to bring horses back to the winner's circle. He was convinced there was somebody waiting there to attack him. "I thought everybody had something against me," Melancon recalled. "I was crazy as a road lizard."

Following a suggestion from the track chaplain, Melancon began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. "I went to those meetings drunk," he remembered. "All I did was warm a chair. To me, everybody in those rooms was a bunch of idiots. They would say their name and how many years of sobriety they had. Hell, I felt sorry for them."

A second attempt to clean up his act lasted four days. He went into treatment on a Thursday. "Sunday was Father's Day," Melancon said, "and I conned my wife into picking me up on a visitor's pass. As soon as I got in the car I drove to a daiquiri shop."

Despite winning only 26 races in 1988, Melancon didn't think he had a problem. Everybody else did. After an incident of rage one night at Evangeline Downs, where he repeatedly hammered another jockey with his whip, state steward Claude Williams had seen enough. He called Melancon in for an impromptu urine sample. "We knew something was wrong," Williams said. "There were personality changes. Gerard was getting out of control."

Busted. Lab results showed Melancon had seven different types of illegal substances in his system, including marijuana, amphetamines, and cocaine. In May of 1989, Williams laid down the law, informing Melancon that he was not welcome on the racetrack until he had done something about his problem.

Melancon's free fall to the bottom was beginning to sound like the flushing of a toilet. No longer the center of attention, Melancon was sliding off the edge. He was living out of a trailer and owed everybody on the street. Several overdoses had put him on the brink of death. He was scared, suicidal. "I didn't have no money to pay the rent and nowhere to go," he remembered. "Nobody wanted to mess with me anymore. I was poison."

With alarming speed, Melancon's past had caught him in deep stretch. Time was frozen. It was always five minutes to midnight. Next to his bed, on top of an ice chest filled with Budweiser and cans of Vienna sausage, Melancon kept a .44 magnum pistol. The pistol was fully loaded. All he had to do was click off the safety and pull the trigger. Someone would find him, call the coroner, and make the arrangements.

Sometimes the miracle is only five minutes away. Melancon woke up one morning and found a pamphlet neatly folded into his screen door. The brochure advertised a drug rehabilitation center in Arkansas. Something clicked. Melancon went to a pay phone and dialed the number collect. "I was sick and tired of being sick and tired," he said. "I had finally surrendered. I was going into treatment even if I had to walk across Louisiana."

On July 5, 1989, Gerard Melancon signed himself in to a halfway house in Little Rock.

Melancon approached the work of recovery with white-knuckle determination. "I was finally ready to listen to what those people had to offer," Melancon said. "I was a real pest, going into the counselor's office every day, asking questions."

Recovery from drug addiction is a slow process, requiring humility and total honesty. Melancon started working the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. When he got to the 4th Step (an inventory of his harmful actions) he hit a brick wall. "It was the first time I ever looked at myself on paper," he said. "I came to realize how dumb and sick I had been."

His counselor advised Melancon that he could never stay sober on the racetrack. "I didn't care if I had to work at McDonald's," Melancon said. "I was going to stay clean."

Melancon returned to the racetrack with a new set of habits. "I was excited. I wanted everybody to feel like I felt--happy and free. Every night I tried to drag other riders with me to a meeting. After awhile I realized that recovery is for people who want it, not for people who need it."