The last chapter is the hardest one to write.
Five-time champion jockey Paddy Young wanted to ride another season, he had been saying that for several years, “Just one more, maybe another, OK but this is it.” Every time the engine stalled, he somehow found a way to turn it over, jump start it and go out the driveway. The motives varied – money, necessity, thrill, history – but the result was always the same.
For Young, this season was about reaching a milestone. The 41-year-old Irishman began the season with 195 career wins, the long, slow train chugging toward 200. A journey started late, arriving in the United States as an amateur looking for something, anything, back in 2003. From there, it ebbed with a 2-for-48 season in 2005 and flowed with a 27-for-112 season in 2011. Ebbs and flows form rivers and Young was about to join a very short list – Aitcheson, Smithwick, Adams, Fishback, Walsh, Teter, Miller (C), McCarron, Miller (B) as the only jockeys to win 200 American jump races.
“He would always look at the jockeys’ list and say, ‘I want to get to 200 winners,’ ” his wife Leslie said. “That’s just Paddy. That’s what he likes to do.”
Young hadn’t told anyone else that. At least, if he had, they weren’t saying. Not his style, quiet, understated and as determined as a stray dog on the last bone, he wouldn’t let you know he was keeping score. Oh, but he kept score. You don’t win five championships and creep ever closer to an impossible number by not keeping score.
And now, nobody’s worried about the score. Only about Young, who was injured in a fall with Kings Apollo in the Radnor Hunt Cup timber stakes at the Radnor Races in Malvern, Pa. Saturday. Young emerged with a fractured skull and a broken neck. He’s stable, but still in the intensive-care ward at Paoli Medical Center. Doctors tell Leslie her husband can make a full recovery, but that doesn’t make any of it easier.
This season had started slowly as Young tutored some of Leslie’s horses at the point-to-points, hit the crossbar a few times at early stops and finally got one on the board winning the David Semmes Stakes aboard Schoodic, in yet another Paddy Young masterpiece of humoring and cajoling, at the Virginia Gold Cup.
“It’s been quiet this year,” Young said, after winning on Schoodic May 6. “As the season has gone along, you’re thinking, ‘I’m not going to ride a winner…’ Horses running well but not winning.”
Then they started winning.
Young picked up another at Winterthur the following day and went to Radnor loaded. Khafayya, Mercoeur, Kings Apollo, Jamarjo, Invocation, Bishop’s Castle and Union Et Force made up a battalion – a John Velazquez Saturday. With three at High Hope Sunday, Young was about to make up for this season’s quiet start. In a parity-filled jocks’ room (the top 10 are separated by five wins) Young was lurking. The embers of his fire had begun to smolder.
Khafayya, coming off a fall at Tryon, failed to threaten, finishing seventh in the opener. No worries. In the second, Young placed Mercoeur close and wide early, slid into a stalking spot behind the pacesetter, loped for two circuits and won easily, whip never turned over. Nobody has won more races with an un-cocked whip than Young.
“He always says you don’t need to give a horse that hard a race,” Leslie said. “There’s always another race.”
That made 198, and yes, there were other races. With rides lined up like shots on a bar, the 200 Club was in sight – palpable to the one man keeping score.
And then it wasn’t.
A race after winning on Mercoeur, Young placed Kings Apollo in a stalking spot in the Radnor Hunt Cup before sliding next to pacesetter Lemony Bay. At the 16th fence, as the tempo quickened, Kings Apollo met it tight on Young’s cue, hit an unmovable rail and couldn’t stick the landing, tipping and crashing to the turf listed as good after rain earlier in the week. Wearing a brand-new A.P. McCoy helmet, Young landed in front of Kings Apollo, rolled into a ball but was struck by Wildcatter as he leapt over Kings Apollo. Wildcatter jumped Kings Apollo, he would have jumped Young, he just couldn’t jump both of them. In one stride – one decision – winning 200 races, battling for a sixth riding title, nurturing the organic desire for another season turned to prayers for another breath.
Yeah, it was that bad.
Kings Apollo’s trainer Sanna Neilson ran from the owner/trainer tent to the fence. Owner/friend Walter Puddifer was there in a flash. Leslie’s college friends, with a tailgate spot next to the fence, watched it all. They’ll never be the same.
Leslie, watching from the hill near the barn, ran down to the scene. She took a long, deep breath as she was greeted by the enormity. There have been many falls, many injuries over 1,126 sanctioned jump rides strewn over 15 seasons, but this one was different. You never know how you’ll react when life as you know it might not be the same. Paramedics applied oxygen, cleared Young’s throat every time he vomited and prepared to rush him to the emergency room at Paoli Medical Center.
Neilson and Puddifer implored Leslie to get in the ambulance. The wife in her couldn’t deal with that. The trainer in her couldn’t deal with that. Paddy silent on the ground, but very loud in her head.
“I’m not being unfeeling but I need to absorb this for a minute,” Leslie said to her friends on the track. “You don’t need me in there. Paddy would be so mad at me, he was so looking forward to these horses, I need to sort this out before I go.”
Leslie conferred with Graham Watters, who had ridden Meteoroid for the Youngs in the first, and explained the change of events. As always in steeplechasing, one’s man misfortune is another man’s fortune as Watters picked up the rides on Jamarjo, Invocation and Union Et Force. Leslie helped saddle Jamarjo before rushing to the hospital.
“I was trying to hold it together. Paddy would want you to get the job done, so that’s what I tried to do,” Leslie said. “The hospital was only eight minutes away, I’m flustered, I’m getting lost, I’m trying to call Paddy’s brother who lives in Pittsburgh, because I need to tell the family but I don’t want to get into it because I don’t know what’s going on.”
Doctors settled Young into a room right next to Kieran Norris who had gone down in the first race. Last year’s champion had fractured his occipital bone, the mechanism that allows a head to tilt and swivel. Norris was disgusted about missing the season. And then he wasn’t.
“Oh my God, that puts things into perspective,” Norris told his fiancé, Madison.
Norris was out of the hospital by 7:30 that night.
Young is still there.
Young fractured his skull and broke his C7 vertebrae. Doctors removed part of his skull to relieve pressure and clean as much blood and fluid from his brain. As of Wednesday, he remained in intensive care, sedated, with a breathing tube, allowing his brain time to rest and heal. He can move his arms and legs. He pulls his knees to his chest when asked, he fights when doctors lessen the sedation.
Bright lights in a dark world.
“When you walk in, it’s a shock, it’s like he’s on life support but it’s just because of the sedation, they’ll turn it down, do some stimulation tests, say ‘OK great,’ and then put him back on it. The doctors are hopeful for a full recovery but it’s going to take some time. The doctors said boring is good,” Leslie said. “They said it could be four to six days before they take him off the breathing tube. With the skull, it will be three or four months of wearing headgear before they put it back on. When people have this kind of injury, they don’t remember. People like Paddy come out fighting.”
We wouldn’t expect anything less.
The last chapter wasn’t supposed to go like this.
It’s a cruel game, the one jump jockeys play. When a jump jockey gets so good, so polished, so needed, it’s time to go. An old jump jockey once explained why he was retiring, “I just don’t want to get hurt again and have to come back again.” It only made sense to a jump jockey, knowing he would have to come back just to get out, always trying to get that last chapter right.
That’s all Young was doing, wanting to write that last chapter. Just get that last chapter right. Doctors told Leslie that Paddy will make a full recovery, will be able to ride again, but surely, the last chapter of his riding career has been written. Hopefully, he’ll recover and train his horses, play with his three kids (Tom, 18, is in college, Rory is 9 and Saoirse is 8).
“He always says he just wants to do his barn and be with his children. He’s happy to come back and kick the ball with Rory or get the ponies out. Every time there’s a party, he says, ‘I’ll stay with the kids, you go.’ He always says, ‘I am who I am. I’m Paddy,’ that’s all he says,” Leslie said. “To see a vibrant person not be able to talk…it’s a hard pill to swallow, but this is what he loves doing. He always said, ‘The day I go out there fearing something is the day I stop.’ ”
Nah, it wasn’t meant to end like this.
An hour after Kings Apollo fell and lives were changed, Leslie received a text from assistant Brianne Slater – Jamarjo had upset the National Hunt Cup. At that point, Leslie didn’t know if Paddy knew who she was, didn’t know if he was there.
“Your boy Jamarjo won,” Leslie told him, leaning closer. “Your boy Jamarjo won.”
Tears rolled down Paddy’s cheeks.
They had nothing to do with reaching his goal of 200 wins. No, that would have come a half-hour later when Invocation won the ratings handicap.
Paddy Young – 198 career wins.
It’s a hell of a number when you think about it.
• Read Sean's profile on Paddy after winning his fifth title here.
• A Go Fund Me fundraiser has been established for Young and his family. Please donate here.