Rajiv Maragh speaks of the moment when his mount was on top of him—crushing his lungs and back—with calm precision.
He remembers every detail from July 10, 2015, something the veteran jockey had the presence of mind to realize was a good thing even as it was happening. The pain was searing to say the least, brought on by the four fractured vertebrae, a broken rib, and collapsed lung that would be diagnosed at Long Island's North Shore Hospital when he was transported there the day after his 30th birthday.
But so long as Maragh was awake, he was alive. Given what had transpired in the spill during the fifth race at Belmont Park that day, that fact was of enormous comfort as he felt various parts of his body suffering.
"I was conscious the whole time. I remember everything. I mean, it was good, I guess. I don't ever want to be unconscious," Maragh said. "The horse came in the path of my horse, and we ended up clipping heels and going down. And when I fell, the horse fell on me and that is what caused the extent of my injuries. The impact of the horse falling on me was pretty severe trauma."
The filly Yourcreditisgood was able to get up under her own power after another runner, Mini Muffin, veered into her path nearing the half-mile pole. Despite suffering injuries that kept him nearly immobile for months ahead, Maragh was able to leave the hospital just three days after the incident.
It was soon after that the native of Jamaica became all too aware of what was ahead if he wanted to tie his shoes again, never mind return to the saddle in a competitive setting. For nearly a year and a half, he pushed through rehabilitation that threatened to beat both his mental and physical well-being into the ground.
He did so because he still loved the opportunities the sport of Thoroughbred racing could give to him—chances like the one he will have April 8 in the 10th race at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Barely six months after returning from his latest and most taxing set of injuries, Maragh has regained the muscle memory that allowed him to boot home more than 1,700 winners and earned the confidence of horsemen seeking to leg up a reliable rider in a big spot. What is already a successful comeback by any definition could take a storybook twist when Maragh pilots grade 2 winner Irish War Cry in Saturday's Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2).
It was just a couple months ago that Irish War Cry was the "it" horse on the Triple Crown trail, after the son of Curlin handily dismissed graded stakes winner Gunnevera and reigning juvenile male champion Classic Empire during his triumph in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2).
High confidence amongst his connections gave way to head-scratching, however, when the chestnut colt finished seventh in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) one month later and emerged from that outing with no obvious excuse. In an attempt to get his charge back on form in the Wood Memorial, trainer Graham Motion is turning to an old friend who knows what real adversity looks like.
When Maragh went down in July of 2015, he was just six months into a comeback from a broken arm he sustained after being unseated when Wicked Strong clipped heels in the 2014 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). Only one race earlier, Maragh was literally on top of his game, having guided Motion trainee and eventual dual Eclipse Award champion Main Sequence to victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes (G1T). Maragh also won his only Wood Memorial aboard Wicked Strong in 2014.
Motion was still celebrating the Joe Hirsch triumph when he saw his rider laying prone on the Belmont track that day. He had a firsthand view of the fear that washed over Maragh's wife's face in that moment, and has himself been blown away by the unwavering commitment the jockey has maintained toward picking himself up and getting back to where he left off.
"It was devastating. I was sitting there with his wife in the director's room celebrating the win, and watched him go down on (Wicked Strong)," Motion said. "From that to the next injury ... I just think it's remarkable he has returned, and I have nothing but admiration for him to come back as quickly as he did, to be honest.
"I just admire Rajiv a lot from an emotional point of view."
As Maragh went from doctor to doctor in the aftermath of his 2015 spill, hearing various opinions on when or if he would ever return to riding, it became a neck-and-neck battle as to whether the constant physical pain he was in was worse than the mental torment. For nine months, he wore an upper-body brace to help stabilize his spine. In those times when he struggled to sleep through the shooting pain in his body—when sitting and pushing a rubber therapy ball was a decided sign of progress—Maragh forced himself to keep his eye on the perspective he embedded in his mind.
"The rehab was really frustrating. It's hard—it's hard mentally, it's hard physically. It's very challenging," he said. "But the only thing that really kept me going through the rehab was having no doubt that one day I would be back riding. If I gave myself any doubt that I wouldn't be able to ride again, that would make me give up and not push through it.
"You have to have something to look forward to, to motivate you to get through the rehab. Because it's very challenging on your mind, especially for such a long period of time. The state I was in, where in the beginning I could barely walk, I couldn't bend, I couldn't lift, I couldn't do anything really. I couldn't put my own shoes on for months. It was really tough."
The first part of the end game came Nov. 4. By October Maragh began getting on horses again in the mornings at Belmont. When the sixth race rolled around on opening day of the Aqueduct meet, a scene that used be the norm on the New York circuit occured for the first time in about 16 months when Maragh was hoisted into the saddle aboard the Bobby Ribaudo-trained Questeq.
He finished ninth of 11 in that first race back. It would be 19 more days before he made his first trip to the winner's circle. Remarkably, though, Maragh's old self came back from its hiatus in relatively swift fashion, allowing him to pile up 13 wins over the final weeks of 2016.
"I'd never been in that situation before, to be off so long and to have that extent of injuries that I had. So it was hard to translate to how I was going to feel," he said. "But once I started riding, even my first race, I felt pretty good and pretty confident. I was not 100% perfect, but I didn't feel like I was that washed up or anything."
Through April 7, Maragh continues to go about business as usual. He has 41 wins from 250 mounts with $2,129,851 in earnings—good enough to put him in the top 20 among North American jockeys at this point in the year. Should Irish War Cry and his venerable rider each find their best form Saturday evening, a conversation will have to be held as to whether Maragh gets his fifth chance to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
This scenario could easily be hailed as one of the great recent comebacks in racing. But Maragh doesn't need any additional qualifiers to put his current situation in the win column. He is simply living up to the promise he made to himself when he was laying on the track struggling for air, fighting to remember why he was so determined to put a crushing situation behind him.
"You're off that long, you're not riding any horses—people have doubt in you, I guess. But when I came back, everyone just opened up to me and gave me a lot of great opportunities, and I'm really grateful for that," Maragh said. "It gave me time to reflect on my life when I was out and it put my life into perspective. It made me know a lot more about myself—about what I really want—not only on the track but off the track.
"I think in a way, it might sound crazy, but being injured and being out that long time, it was actually a blessing. There is a lot of good about it, because it made me learn a lot about myself that I didn't know, and I'm a lot happier now than I ever have been. So for me, it was all just a bump in the road."