Cup of Coffee: Freeze Frame

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Damascus was rooting. Hard. Like a jackhammer. Manuel Ycaza let the reins slide through his hands as Damascus threw his head down, then he’d gather them as Damascus lifted his head. The champion horse kept taking and the champion jockey kept giving. Until he couldn’t. Ycaza heard the crack first, felt it second.

“Take me back to the paddock,” Ycaza told the pony boy, as the 1968 Jockey Club Gold Cup slipped away.

Ycaza slipped off the back of Damascus, fell down in a heap, like a banana peal thrown out a car window. His back was gone.

In the jocks’ room, Angel Cordero and Eddie Belmonte convinced Ycaza to go to the hospital.

Ycaza was already thinking about his next ride, Fort Marcy, the defending champion for the Washington, D.C., International, a race that ranked up there with the Triple Crown. Before the Breeders’ Cup, the D.C. International at a mile and a half around Laurel’s turf course was the race.

“When I was riding, of course the Triple Crown but the International was a key event,” said Ycaza, 76, after participating in the Jockey Legends Day at Saratoga last week. “When I won the International it meant a tremendous amount to me, it was an open market, riding against worldwide horses and jockeys.”

Ycaza won the International on Bald Eagle in 1959 and ’60, then again in ’67 with Fort Marcy. He yearned to win it again.

“I was in traction for two weeks, in the hospital,” Ycaza said. “I told my agent, don’t take me off that horse, I got out of the hospital, rode the horse, went back into traction. The doctor said, ‘Manny, this is not a hotel, this is a hospital.’ “

Trainer Elliott Burch stood by Ycaza but lined up Braulio Baeza as a backup in case Ycaza couldn’t make it.

As the controversy of whether Ycaza was going to be fit enough to ride Fort Marcy brewed, the day before the race, the United Press International quoted Ycaza.

“The doctors have not told me that I cannot ride,” Ycaza said. “They can talk some about the injury, but I am the doctor when it comes to whether I ride. I make the decision.”

Driving with Jorge Velasquez to Laurel Park, Ycaza re-stocked the ammunition for the battle. He bought two cans of ethyl chloride, a freezing agent with more warnings than a bottle of Viagra. Ycaza instructed his brother on what to do.

“When I’m walking to the paddock,” Ycaza instructed. “Lift my colors and spray my spine, spray it, both cans.”

On the way from the jocks’ room, Ycaza pulled Rokeby Stable’s gray and yellow silks from his breeches. Long before flack jackets, the ethyl chloride hit his Panamanian skin like a lightning storm.

“I got on the horse and all the pain goes away, I was riding in such a mental capacity, I put Lester Piggott on the favorite (Sir Ivor) in the box, all the way, I got him. Passing the eighth pole, Jorge Velasquez was in front, I had Piggott, finally he snatched out of there and went around and beat us both. Three heads. Piggott, me and Velasquez,” Ycaza said. “I wasn’t at my best physically, but my mental attitude was monster. If I was at my best, physically, I think I would have beat him, but I was so proud of it because of the mental attitude. That was the power of the mind.”

And perhaps the ethyl chloride.

Ycaza emigrated to the United States in 1955. Four years later, he won his first Travers and first of five riding titles at Saratoga. He racked up wins and suspensions with alacrity.

Asked to describe himself as a jockey, Ycaza didn’t hesitate.

“I would have hated to ride against me.”

I laughed.

He didn’t.

“My reputation was a problem, the stewards, the public and the riders…” Ycaza said. “I was good copy, people wrote about me, it was damaging to me, because the stewards read it and the jockeys took shots and claimed foul against me. It was a snowball.”

Controversial but prolific, Ycaza won 2,367 races.

He ended Northern Dancer’s bid for a Triple Crown aboard Quadrangle in 1964, he swept the Filly Triple Crown aboard Dark Mirage in 1968 and rode some of the best to look through a bridle – Damascus, Fort Marcy, Never Bend, Dr. Fager, Intentionally and Bald Eagle. Ycaza won the George Woolf Award in 1964 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

Ycaza has mellowed, but a flame as hot as his never goes out.

“The very first ride I finished second in a photo finish, I couldn’t sleep for a week. In my mind I was riding that race. That was my eternal attitude,” Ycaza said. “When I get on top of a horse, I concentrate on winning. That’s it. That’s my personality since I was a kid and I did all kinds of sports, that was me, that’s the way I am. I miss the competition.

Nothing replaces it. I tried training, it’s not the same. Harness racing, not the same. It’s competitive, but Thoroughbreds, when you’re on top of the horse and guide him and command him, when you’re on top, you own him.”

Ycaza still has the power of the mind.

“I have some aches and pains,” Ycaza said, moving his shoulders like a prize fighter, “but I never let those things get the best of me.”