An unexpected fairy tale can unfold at any moment on the proving ground of a racetrack.
Then there are moments like the fourth race April 18 at Aqueduct Racetrack.
About 20 minutes before the maiden special weight turf sprint for New York State-breds, 56-year-old jockey Robbie Davis was fully dressed in royal blue and white silks as he bounced up and down like a boxer before a title match, anxiously awaiting the 24,267th mount of his career—but his first since June 8, 2013.
He was wearing a smile as wide as the stretch at the Big A when it was pointed out to him that Dublin Green, the horse he owns, trains, and was set to ride in his return to the racetrack, was sitting at 6-1 on the tote board after being listed at 30-1 in the morning line.
"Must be the jockey," said a gleeful Davis, the proud father of three active jockeys: Dylan, Jacqueline, and Katie.
He then left the jockey's room, stopping to give his infant grandson, Mike, a kiss for luck, and headed out to the paddock, where he was immediately greeted by a stream of well-wishers.
The potential for a storybook tale was surely in place, but it was not to be—by a longshot.
Dublin Green, racing for the first time since April 8 of last year, ducked in at the start, and Davis lost his irons for about a sixteenth of a mile. The veteran rider got back in the saddle, but the damage was done. Dublin Green trailed in 10th by 12 1/2 lengths after the opening quarter-mile in the six-furlong race—and after making a mild run on the turn, wound up last by 20 1/2 lengths behind the victorious Forward Motion in a race that disappointed Davis, but did not lessen his desire to continue riding.
"He ducked in and I wasn't expecting that. I had my foot on the gas ready to go, and when he did that, I lost my balance and I came out of the iron, and I said to myself, 'Oh no, I can't fall off in front of the whole world.' It took me a sixteenth to get back in, and he made a run to get up there and then tired. He'll need a few races and so will I, so it's a good combination," said Davis, who joked that he needed oxygen as he walked through the paddock after his first race in nearly five years. "It was déjà vu. I didn't have one anxious moment at all. The turf smelled so good, all the silks and the other horses and the jockeys and all the competition, it was like, 'Yes, this is where I belong.' I just felt comfortable. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes."
Though the race did not turn out as expected for Davis or Dublin Green, who went off at 30-1 in his first start since finishing 10th in his career debut a year ago, the horseman did not have the slightest regret about adding to his duties as the owner/trainer of a four-horse stable and returning to a career that started in 1981 and saw him win 3,382 races with earnings of $115,738,855.
"I would have taken it to my grave if I didn't do this, and now is the time," he said. "I got tired of sitting on the couch watching all of my kids ride."
For his children, the race served as a time for role reversal. Usually it's Robbie, the protective dad, whose nerves are tied in knots when he watches his children ride. This time, the offspring experienced that burst of panic when they watched a family member in a potentially dangerous situation on the racetrack.
"When he came out of the irons, I said, 'Just hang on and stay on the horse.' I got nervous," said 23-year-old Dylan, who was the second-leading rider at Aqueduct's winter meet. "The way he gets nervous for me, I get nervous for him."
Katie Davis said her heart fluttered when her father came out of the irons. But as a rider herself, she understood what happened.
"When you're off for so long, it's like riding your first race all over again," she said. "The nerves kick in. My heart was pumping. I just hoped he'd get them back. With all his experience, I knew he would, and I'm sure he'll ride again."
Davis, who was among the top 10 jockeys in national earnings from 1984-87, first retired in 2002. He then rode one race in 2011, finishing sixth on his own horse, then had five mounts in 2013, none of whom finished better than fifth. He became a trainer in 2011 and has won nine races since then.
He began toying with the idea of a comeback in the winter as he watched Dublin Green take some big steps forward in morning workouts. While Dylan was an obvious choice to ride the New York State-bred, Robbie did not want to put his son in the awkward position of not riding for an important trainer or owner in order to ride Dublin Green.
"My son is a good rider, but I can't get him every time I want. I'm not going to keep him from winning a race or losing a client, and if he has to turn me down … I'm not just going to put anyone on this horse. We have about five super trainers who have 100 horses each, and they get all the good riders. So when you have a three- or four-horse stable, the guys who want to ride for you are the ones you don't want on your horse," Robbie Davis said. "I ride the horse in the morning and know him better than anyone, so I figured I'd give myself a go on him and if he turns out to be a runner, I'm going to be riding the biggest wave on Long Island."
Robbie began working in earnest toward a comeback and dropped about 40 pounds in order to make weight as a rider. At the same time, his body defied Father Time. His balky knee that curtailed his previous comebacks found a Fountain of Youth, and he was once again riding pain-free and loving every minute of it.
"I found out how much I really miss riding," said Davis, who had to persevere after a tragic Oct.1988 accident when his horse unavoidably struck jockey Mike Venezia after a spill and killed him. "I felt horrible the last three or four years I rode. Now I feel great. Better than I have in 20 years. I've stopped drinking (alcohol), and it's much easier to concentrate on riding without having to deal with the pain. You can't concentrate when you're in pain. All you can think about is getting off the horse."
The final hurdle for Davis came April 15 when he met with the Aqueduct stewards, who rubber-stamped his return.
"It was really comical, but it was exciting as well. I got a haircut and put on a jacket and tie from 1983. They wanted to see the whites of my eyes to see if I was serious. I told them I've been licensed for everything on the racetrack from a groom, to a hot walker, exercise rider, an owner, a trainer and an agent, and the only one that was any good to me was my jockey's license," said Davis, who joked during the meeting that he wanted a three-pound weight allowance because he has an AARP card. "I told them about how well (55-year-old) Gary Stevens and (52-year-old) Mike Smith are riding and said it could really be fruitful for me to ride again."
Davis knows if he is serious about riding on a regular basis, he will have to find horsemen willing to take a chance on a rider 16 years removed from his last graded stakes win. With Belmont Park opening next week and all of the circuit's top riders heading back to New York, that will be a formidable task. Yet the veteran rider is not about to let anyone pull in the reins on his desire to rekindle his passion for being a jockey and make riding in New York even more of a family affair for the Davis family.
"I would absolutely love to ride more, and I hope it pans out because my next goal is to ride with all my kids. I'd like to get a race with all four of us and see if we can beat the Ortiz brothers. My only stipulation is that my horse has to be 4-5 because I'm the one with the AARP card," Robbie Davis said. "For me, this is why I get up early in the morning. It's a dream. I'm living the dream."