Rajiv Maragh walked out of the Saratoga jocks’ room to ride the second race on Opening Day. Jose Ortiz, last year’s leading jockey, led the way to the paddock for the New York-bred 2-year-old fillies turf maiden.
Maragh, black and white silks tucked neatly into clean britches, walked just behind Ortiz’s left shoulder. The veteran jockey folded his whip along the back of his right arm, flipped up, like a pool cue in the stand. He walked, smiled, nodded, smiled, walked.
A fan in shorts and a T-shirt leaned on the outside rail of the chute and bellowed out, “Rajiv, good to see you back.” Maragh waved his left hand, like seeing an old friend.
A fan with a cooler bag and a Racing Form stood along the inside rail and pumped his fist, “Welcome back, Rajiv.” Maragh flipped his left hand, delivering a long, slow thumb’s up.
Fireworks, balloons and confetti wouldn’t have been too much.
It was the first time Maragh had made that walk since 2014. The winner of 1,754 races missed the 2015 and 2016 Saratoga seasons while recovering from four broken vertebrae, a broken rib and a collapsed lung from a fall in July 2015.
It had been a long road back to Saratoga.
“The first Saratoga meet I missed, I didn’t have time to think about missing Saratoga,” Maragh said. “Riding, career, all that was secondary on my mind, it was just my health then. It wasn’t a consideration of coming back to riding, I was so far from that, I was in constant pain and sick all the time, I was in a bad state. The second year I missed, I was in the midst of my rehab, so I was thinking about it more.”
First-time starter Misty Forest failed to deliver a perfect ending (or beginning) to the road, winding up sixth in the 5 ½-furlong turf sprint. Maragh walked back to the jocks’ room with the same smile he wore on the way out.
“Great. Good to be back, I wish we had a better finish but, hey, I’m in the fight, they gave me a fighting chance this year, I’m not watching this from my freaking couch or in freaking therapy. It’s so good for me, mentally, to be doing what I love to do,” Maragh said, signing a purple plastic hat to a fan named Brian. “Sometimes you don’t appreciate these things until they’re taken away from you. Now, after that, now, I enjoy every moment, don’t take it for granted.”
Those are some of the lessons you learn while lying on a couch in a back brace, leaving the house twice (for doctor’s visits) in three months, needing your wife to pick you up off the floor, push you in a wheelchair through the airport, walking once around the block and feeling exhausted, missing two straight summers at Saratoga.
Yeah, the good lessons are the hard lessons.
“It was very frustrating. I’ve dedicated my whole life to riding, I felt like finally all the seeds I had planted, the trees have grown, I was picking all the fruits…and they chopped my tree down,” Maragh said. “It’s hard to keep a positive outlook, one of things that kept me on the right track was I just kept telling myself, ‘I’m going to ride again. I’m going to ride again.’ Sixteen months, I said that.”
Maragh, 32, listened, returning in November, winning 13 races before the year was out, picking up the ride on Irish War Cry in the Triple Crown and winning 68 races already this year including graded stakes with Irish War Cry, By The Moon and Spartiatis. He’s not where he wants to be – well, Saratoga, yes – but in the big picture, he’s still making the climb, that same climb he made the first day to get to New York and all the other times after injuries knocked him off the journey.
“I pushed through, elevated my game and I got to be in New York, this was always my dream to be one of the top riders in New York. I keep plugging, what’s a few injuries going to do, every time I have to start over from scratch, ‘let me do it again.’ That keeps me motivated,” Maragh said. “I have visions of being the number one rider in the world, I’m far away from it right now, but that’s what I dreamt about at night when I was injured. I would cry myself to sleep, just from the pain, the frustration, thinking about all the things that happened. The only thing that kept me positive, I just kept thinking, ‘You know what, I’m going to be the best. I’m going to be the best.’ I’ll fight my way from the bottom to the top again.”
Maragh went 0-for-2 at Saratoga Friday. It felt like anything but the bottom.