A Jump Jockey: The Final Day

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Here’s the second part to “A Jump Jockey: The Final Days.” Written after my last fall at Far Hills in October, 2000 and about my final day as a jockey, the Colonial Cup 2000. 

Read the first excerpt here.  

There was only one thing left to do. Ride at Camden. Jockeys retire at Camden at the Colonial Cup meet in November. Not after falling at Far Hills or quitting in the middle of the season. It’s Camden in the fall. That’s where you retire. That’s how Jeff Teter did it. That’s how Ricky Hendriks did it. Both after winning the Colonial Cup. That’s what I wanted.

I had three weeks to get my head right. I had headaches every day for the first week. Mild, but persistent. I was lethargic. Depressed. Weak. Tired. Absent-minded. I know post-concussion symptoms like I know my social security number.

But they go away. They always go away.

About a week before Camden, I told Chip Miller, my dad, my brother and my closest friends that I was going to ride at Camden and that was it. I was certain it was what I wanted to do, what I had to do.

I told Dad what I was going to do,

“Are you sure you should ride at Camden?” Dad asked, walking that fine line between support and concern only a father can walk.

“I’m riding at Camden, Dad. I’m retiring on my feet at Camden, not on my back at Far Hills.”

“I’ll be there,” Dad said.

In 13 years of riding races, our relationship had grown to this. He used to tell me who to ride, how to ride, when to ride. That was when I was 18. At 30, it had changed. Dad began packing for Camden.

It was an easy decision to make. Unavoidable, like graduating college. You can’t stay, you have to go. No regrets, it was time.

The joy and thrill of riding races no longer won over the fear and pain of riding races.

I revved myself up for the final day. The Colonial Cup. I had no fears of getting hurt. I knew the Gods would allow me one more day. We had made a deal. They knew it. I knew it. Sounds crazy, but I believed it then and believe it now.

Chip and I drove to the races like it was any other day at our job. There was no fuss made. I hadn’t told anybody other than a few of my closest friends and family, that’s the way I wanted it. I was stressed enough and worried enough about my head and fitness, I didn’t need anybody asking me about retirement during the day. I also didn’t want Janet to have reservations about putting me on Campanile. I was afraid if she knew I was retiring because of concussions, she might think twice about putting me on her Colonial Cup horse.

I walked into the jocks’ room, the cement floor greeting us like an ER, stark and cold. I grabbed two chairs, set them by the door, first chair to the right as you walked into the jocks’ room, I felt like I earned that chair. I dropped my tack bag on the floor, hung the blue and khaki silks of Acorn Hill and the green and blue silks of the Dixons on an old nail on the wooden wall, checked with the clerk of scales and then zipped my raincoat to my chin and ducked under the wooden awning of the jocks’ room. Chip and I walked toward the grandstand, one final course walk. We should have done it the day before when it was raining half as hard.

“It all comes down to this,” I said as we looked at the first fence in the Colonial Cup.

“And so it does,” Chip said. “Not a bad way to go, right here in Camden.”

Rain pelted off the nylon roll cover and soaked into the cedar brush.

“I’ll miss a lot of it, but I won’t miss a lot of it too. I’d like to eat a bowl of cereal at night if I want, drink a beer during the week, sleep in Saturday morning…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. Did you ever think you’d get this far?”

“Look, buddy, I didn’t think I’d get past my first pony race in 1983. That’s just how I’m made. And I damn near didn’t. Stirrup fell off, hit the ground, ambulance ride, seven stitches in my wrist…and that was my first ride, my first winner, my first fall. I kind of knew then, it wasn’t going to be pretty.”

We walked down to the second fence and pushed on the cedar brush that stood upright, ready for America’s greatest steeplechase.

“Great fences,” Chip said.

“The best. I just want one last good trip around here.”

The third fence marks the end of the short backstretch. Each fence is exactly like the one before it and the one coming up, they are interchangeable, other than the ground, the angle of the few on turns and how you’re traveling. At the beginning, they’re tugging on you, even with the usual fast pace of the Colonial Cup, sometimes they jump too big because of their exuberance. At the end, the exuberance is gone and it’s about desire, they leave long out of desire. Or at least the best ones do.

“Man this ground and these fences will be torn up by the Hobkirk Hill,” I said, referring to the last race of the day. “I hope Indispensable likes it soft and churned up. I guess he can get away with a bigger mistake this way.”

“He won’t care,” Chip said. “It’s your last ride of your life, what you gonna do, wait for next next year? The fences will look like sticks on the ground by then. Make sure you go long at the last. Seems like you should stand off at the last fence you ever jump, wouldn’t want to go short, pop the last. You want one of those outside-the-wings, like Hokan at the last in the Turf Writers or one of those Woody Boy Would strides, just pick up like they’re jumping the Grand Canyon.”

I pulled my hood tighter as the rain pelted like it was mad at us. Chip started walking backward into the rain, bouncing with each stride. We kicked the foam roll of the fourth fence, splashing water out like breaking a water balloon. The fence sits on the turn, angled slightly left like it’s the apex of the turn and it rides smooth as milk in a glass. Straight or right and it can hit you like a knife. Tonto McSwartz died here in 1996, my fault, my indecision, my fourth concussion and making this day come sooner. I’ve ridden a thousand jump races and it’s eight of them forcing me to retire.

“Remember when we said it doesn’t get soft in Camden because of the sand…it’s soft. Atomistic will love it, I’d like to win one last race on him.”

We walked to the fifth fence, the last one for the Hobkirk Hill but a long way from home in the big one. We walked around the long, white wing that closes the fence in and I thought about how much there is to do between now and when I jump it in the last race of the day, last race of my life. Come on Indispensable, one time, my son. One time.

“How far will Assurance be in front by the time we get here?” I said, referring to Jack Fisher’s front-runner in the Colonial Cup. “We might not be able to see him. Hopefully I’ll have Campanile switched off, somewhere in the middle. Within himself, not pulling or hanging, just galloping.”

“With Assurance in there, he’ll be switched off,” Chip said. “You could settle Kona Gold with Assurance in there.”

We walked up to the six fence, the first fence as you head out into the country and look over at the barns where our horses are waiting for the long, arduous day. I wave to a black man, standing under the shed row at Jonathan Sheppard’s barn.

“At least there won’t be any shadows on these fences,” Chip said. “Couple of years, they were black as night. Remember that? Just ride to the edge of the shadow and ask, hope they come up.”

“There won’t be shadows but it’ll be dark,” I said, thinking about riding in the rain. Chuck Lawrence taught me early, walk out of the jocks’ room on rainy days and make yourself believe you love riding in the rain, ‘I Love Riding in the Rain. I Love Riding in the Rain. I love Riding in the Rain…’

We followed the white rail to the left and size up fence number seven. Usually this is where you see all the people coming to the races, coolers, chairs, sun hats and sun glasses.

They always heckle you, “Get off the course. Get off the course.”

“I’m a jockey.”

“Yeah, me too, dude. I’m a jockey too,” they scoff, beer cans rattling with every step.

There are no tailgaters on this day, just rows of empty parking spaces, cardboard trash cans billowing in the breeze.

“Remember Leando at this fence? Gus flipped off like he was the human cannonball,” Chip said, about an old friend, an old fall.

“We have all been the human cannonball. I won’t miss the falls. I won’t miss the reducing, the falls, the early mornings, the stewards, the bastards. Other than that I’ll miss everything. I’m miss jumping the last on a really good horse, knowing. I’ll miss the days when I felt like I could really ride, the horses who made me feel like I could really ride, you know the ones who take just enough hold, the ones who with a squeeze, nah, a thought of a squeeze, would pick up…”

We turned down the long backside at Springdale. What a view, six fences in a row that stare you down. I’ll never look down this line of fences and not want to be a jump jockey.

The ninth is the first that tests you. Inevitably the race picks up speed as you turn down the back, even though you’re miles from home.

“Damn, look at that,” Chip said. “The greatest view in steeplechasing.”

“Yeah, I’ll miss that. Well, I’ll miss looking at it with a ton of horse. I won’t miss it when I’m already scrubbing, man, I’ve ridden some hopelessly out-classed horses in this race. Rowdy was the closest thing to having horse and I had been scrubbing for a mile already. Some horse, he would have stayed 10 miles.”

“The greatest race we ever rode,” Chip said of the 1997 Colonial Cup. “Lonesome beat you a neck. I’ll never forget turning for home, everybody in the race thought they were on the winner. Kiser, Gus, Blythe, Arch, you, me…hell, I finished sixth.”

We kept walking, one fence after another after another.

“Who was the best?” Chip asked.

“Well, the most accomplished was Victorian Hill. Rowdy was incredible, tried the hardest but I only rode him a few times. Hell, I only rode Vic three times. To Ridley was a machine when he was right. Shamrock Isle had an engine, wow, what an engine. Flat Top. Hokan. Saluter. I swear to this day, Machete Road was as good as any horse I ever sat on, he was any kind.”

“I knew I’d get a simple answer,” Chip said, laughing.

Fence number 12 looks exactly like the 11 before. They rise up like waves; steady and unrelenting, each one different but the same.

“It’s just going to be odd, not having something so huge to do every weekend, so intense, so on edge. I’ve been doing this in one form or another since I was 13 years old, you know, the only thing that mattered in the world, it’s the only thing I’ve thought about, the only thing that mattered. Man, it’s hard to fathom what it’s going to be like to not have the singular focus. But, it’s gone. I know it’s gone.”

Fence 13 sits just slightly downhill, horses will run to the bottom of this fence, just get too close to it, I said to myself, ‘Don’t let them get underneath this, Sean. Get them back on their hocks, especially if you’re getting run off your feet…’

“What?” I asked Chip, realizing he was talking.

“Remember, get them back a little here. This is where Warm Spell died…”

“Yeah, got it. Still a long way to go here. This is the half-mile pole, isn’t it?”

“I guess so. All depends how you’re going, could be a long way or could be nothing. Just hope you’re cruising here.”

The third-to-last sits in the middle of the long, sweeping turn. We looked toward the grandstand, it looks like a shack from here.

“You need this one, miss this and all your momentum in gone and it’s too late to get it back, you’re just starting to feel it right here, you’ll never get going again if you miss it,” Chip said. “If you’re out of horse, won’t matter, pop it and watch the finish.”

“Come on Campanile, one time,” I said, waving my right hand and snapping my wet fingers. “Just get me here with a shot, that’s all I ask.”

We finally reached the stretch. The wind hit us like we’re in the middle of a Jack London novel.

“Ain’t getting any warmer,” Chip said.

“Nope. Colder.”

The second-to-last sits forebodingly wide. Does it look bigger than the rest or is it just the enormity that makes it look bigger?

“Let’s hope we’re still running here,” Chip said. “If I can keep up and don’t have too much to do, I’ll be staying on right here.”

“I hope I don’t see you. I’d like to be running down Assurance right about here, haven’t turned my stick up yet, just cruising, dead aim on him and no one else around. That’s what I’d like.”

The last fence of the Colonial Cup. I thought of Too Few Stripes falling while in contention, I thought of Rowdy eking out the ground on Lonesome Glory in ’97, I thought of Campanile, hoping for one last miracle.

“You’re not going to cry are you?” Chip asked.

“Look, there’s no sense getting worked up about it. If someone told me when I was 16 and couldn’t see a stride that I’d ride for 13 years, be champion jockey once, win the Turf Writers, the Breeders’ Cup and ride 150 winners…I would have taken that buddy. No regrets.”

We walked up the slight incline, which will feel like a mountainside at the end of two and three quarter miles in soft ground. I paused under the wire and exhaled, thinking about what was in front of me and what was behind me.

Three rides ahead, 13 years behind. 

• Next chapter next week.