Cup of Coffee: On the Mend

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Mike Luzzi stood outside George Weaver’s barn Monday morning. Wearing a helmet, flak jacket, stirrup-leather-worn jeans, Luzzi looked fit, healthy and ready. Nine months and a day from when it all nearly ended.

Luzzi broke his pelvis and his left leg when Tricky Zippy flipped over before the ninth race at Aqueduct in November. The filly has come back to win three times. Luzzi is working on his comeback.

In this game, things happen fast. Luzzi got a leg up and in a matter of seconds, his career, his life was hanging in the balance. Riders up, leg up, touch saddle, on the ground – pelvis broken in five places. Then the aftershock, Tricky Zippy fell over backward, landed on top of Luzzi – broken left tibia in two places.

X-rays showed the breaks, like darts through a poster. The internal bleeding wasn’t as easy to find. Luzzi had surgery on his pelvis and leg, that was routine – for a jockey. Fourteen blood transfusions wasn’t routine. A priest came to Luzzi’s hospital bed.

Finally, doctors found the bleeding and Super-Glued it shut.

Luzzi went home. Rest? Try three months in bed.

Luzzi went from breezing horses in the morning and riding races in the afternoon to being bedridden, being cared for by his wife Tania and watching TV. A lot of TV.

You name it, Luzzi watched it.

“All that crap. I got hooked on…American Pickers, Pawn Stars, I watched every episode. I did get to watch the hockey,” Luzzi said. “My wife was great, she was my nurse. We had a routine, we would watch the morning shows, I actually got into Kelly and Michael, it was terrible now I think about it. I tried to read, it was hard. I didn’t watch any racing.”

Jockeys thinking their careers are over don’t watch racing. Too hard. Too left undone. Too raw. Luzzi thought his career was over.

“For the first three months I’m thinking I’m never riding again, then I got out of bed and went straight to the PT and I felt it, I said, ‘I can go ahead and ride again.’ Then my leg was slow to heal, we took the screws out and that helped it heal up,” Luzzi said. “I was on the Equicizer of course, then I started getting on horses. Dr. (Richard) Alfred said you can go ahead and get on the Equicizer, I said I’ve been on it for three months.”

Alfred laughed. After operating on Luzzi’s right leg in 2004 and his left shoulder in 2013, Alfred knows the drill and didn’t ask any questions.

And that is the question, why get back on an Equicizer, why want to come back and ride races? A rod in each leg, a reattached shoulder, a broken pelvis, Luzzi turns 46 in October. He’s won 3,420 races and his horses have earned over $108 million. His 18-year-old son, Lane, is galloping and breezing horses, readying to embark on his own career as a jockey. And, still, Luzzi yearns to come back.

“I feel like I never missed a beat, I feel fine. I’m going to make a run at it, I want to prove I can still do it,” Luzzi said. “I wasn’t finished yet, there are things I haven’t done, I feel good. I see a lot of young kids riding and I feel like I can still compete with them.”

One of those kids might be Lane, who’s galloping horses for Kiaran McLaughlin at Saratoga this summer. Luzzi, going back to a trainer who put him on the likes of Daaher to win the Cigar Mile in 2007, has been getting on horses for McLaughlin as well.

“I started getting on some horses over there and I was taking some of his rides, he’s leading me to the track. I remember that. I remember being in the winner’s circle with a horse I galloped and Mario Pino got to ride it,” Luzzi said. “Artie (Magnuson, McLaughlin’s assistant) said, ‘Luz, gallop this filly. She’s nice.’ I back up on the main track, I turn around and I’m galloping the toughest horse I’ve ever galloped. The whole time I’m saying, ‘I can’t believe my son can gallop this horse.’ He wants to ride with me. Can you imagine?”

As for father, Luzzi hasn’t hired an agent, plans to ride at Saratoga if he gets the right opportunity and will aim at a proper fall return at Belmont Park.

While he was in the hospital, Luzzi learned he was nominated for the George Woolf Award. While he was in bed, he learned he won it. Voted by his peers, Luzzi appreciated the honor, given to jockeys “whose careers and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing.” Luzzi and his family flew to Santa Anita to accept the award in April.

“It came at the right time, I needed it,” Luzzi said. “It was a great day, a great experience, we went for a week, it was the first time we went on a family vacation. It was my day.”

Luzzi is hoping there will be a few more.