Cup of Coffee: Head Game

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Dear Ramon,

I wanted to write to you several months ago, after you fell and while you were waiting, wrestling, wondering about your career, your life. I know it’s been agonizing.

How are you?

I wanted to tell you to be careful with your head, wait for it, don’t make any decisions while it heals. Don’t think, don’t stress, don’t drive, don’t read, take naps, eat well, speak softly. The tricky part when it comes to your head is you won’t know how bad you felt until you feel better. Months later when you’re better, you’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, I felt terrible then.’ While you’re feeling terrible, it’s hard to recognize, it’s not like a bum knee, when you walk, it hurts, so you don’t walk. With a head injury, you think you’re thinking clearly, but you’re not thinking the way you can think. But it takes a clear head to realize it. Ah, I don’t think I explained that well.

Just be careful, that’s all I’m saying. Take your time because the quicker you try to come back, the worse it’s going to be, just wait for it. It’ll come around.

I know the feeling, lying in the cat scan, feels like a coffin, the tap, tap, tapping right above your nose. You lie there and play games, pretending to not hear it, pretending to not wonder what it’s seeing, what it’s finding in your brain. Does it look gray? Does it look damaged? Dead? Then you wait for the doctor to read the results, wait for him to call you into his office, then you try to read his eyes, read his demeanor.

For me, the moment I knew my days were numbered was when I asked Dr. Alan Fink, after he had given me the clinical definition from the battery of tests, “Doc, if you and I fall down the stairs, am I in more danger than you?” He looked at me, puzzled, perplexed, “Of course.” I asked how much, he said, “Enough.” I rode some more races but knew it was exacting a precious cost. I’d fall and slide along the ground thinking, ‘I haven’t hit my head, I haven’t hit my head, I haven’t hit my head.’ It was never free again.

I wanted to write to you and talk to you about retiring, about what it’s going to feel like, if you do retire. I wish I wrote it then. Now, you’ve retired. I know it’s tough. For me, I was ready (money and danger don’t balance for long when you’re a jump jockey) but it was still tough, your identity stripped. I was ready, content with my decision, won my last race, looked up in the sky and said thank you. I never yearned to ride another race. I miss it like college, ‘great time in my life, glad I did it, not going back, nor do I want to go back.’

You’ll never replace the rush, impossible, that moment when you win a race, that moment of clarity, that moment of release. No, you’ll never have that again. Don’t look for it. Put it away, accept it, change what you need, what you expect. That’s not to say, life after riding can’t be rewarding, challenging, exhilarating, but whatever you do after riding races will suffer if you compare it to riding races.

There are jockeys who I worry about when they retire. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about you. I know you have your family and your money, that’s huge, there are no bigger shock absorbers. I know you’ll find your interests and your goals, also huge. 

As for your fans, we’ll miss the rides. Those moments when you put a race into slow motion, when everything shut down, and we could see the horse respond, like the Arlington Million on Little Mike, when he turned down the back and took a deep breath and my brother and I looked at each other and said this is over, ah to have Betfair and bet in running, we would have bet everything after a quarter-mile.

Yeah, we’ll miss those rides, those butter-sliding gems, which were always original, that long hold, the perch, hovering over the horse’s withers, ahead of the center of balance, you could get run from a stone.

Beyond the rides, we’ll miss your professionalism, grace, humility, tranquility and subtle brilliance. We hope you find another calling in racing, the game needs you as a man, even as it loses you as a jockey.

All the best,