Nearly 20 years after fall, steeplechase thoroughbred owner Irv Naylor lifted by passion for horses

The chilly spring day finds Irv Naylor whirring around his 150-acre horse farm near Glyndon in his motorized wheelchair, greeting the thoroughbreds and even snuggling at times.

“I love it when one of them rests his head on my shoulder,” says Naylor, 83. “If you rub the outside of his jaw, you can feel that head getting heavier and heavier, and he goes to sleep right there.

“I used to put a lump of sugar in my hand and let a horse nuzzle my palm and pick it up. But I can’t do that anymore. What used to be beautiful hands are just claws now.”

It has been nearly 20 years since Naylor fell from his horse during a steeplechase race and broke his neck. The accident left him paralyzed below the waist, and unable to unclench his hands. But after months of tortuous despair, Naylor returned to the sport and began corralling many of the 40 horses that have made him a mainstay on the timber circuit.

For six of the past eight years, he has been the No. 1 money-winner among owners in the National Steeplechase Association, earning a record $997,600 in 2016. Naylor’s career winnings of $6,706,512 rank second all-time to the $9,019,581 accrued by George Strawbridge’s Augustin Stable (Pa.).

And while Naylor won’t have an entry in The My Lady’s Manor, a 3-miler in Butler on Saturday that kicks off the “Triple Crown” of the Maryland timber season, he’ll attend the 108th running of the race that gave him his start in steeplechasing in 1953.

“See that picture?” Naylor says, nodding toward a framed photo hanging in his hallway. It’s a shot of him, at 18, on his mount that day. Glued to the photo is a splinter of a wooden fence that Naylor’s horse broke in the race; below it, the words, Wimps jump; Real men smash through.

On April 17, 1999, near the end of the Grand National in Butler, Naylor’s mount, Emerald Action, struck a fence and fell. Naylor hit the turf, head first. The horse got up; his rider did not. Rushed by medevac helicopter to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Naylor spent three months in the hospital, regaining the use of his arms but little else.

“Once, there, I really thought I had died,” he says. “I felt like I’d had enough. I remember closing my eyes and saying, ‘Take me away.’ ”

His wife, Diane awakened him.

Bitter and depressed, Naylor fell into a hellish spiral.

“I was really angry that it happened to me,” he says. “I thought of suicide; a friend got me three pistols, but my hand was so crippled that I couldn’t use the damn things.

“I asked the doctor, ‘How many pills would I need?’ ‘Forget it,’ he said. ‘You’d have to take too many and you’d probably die trying to get them down your throat.’ ”

Naylor’s tone is laced with gallows humor. He says he has accepted his lot and moved on.

“My legs are mush. I can’t even use crutches, but I am what I am,” he says. Now he spends his time managing his stable, which has produced two Maryland Hunt Cup winners — Make Me A Champ (200) and Askim (2008). Naylor’s current best, Ebanour, a two-time winner of the Virginia Gold Cup, is a favorite to win the 116th Grand National on April 21. The 11-year-old Irish-bred gelding might also run in the Maryland Hunt Cup the following Saturday. A third win there would earn Naylor a permanent trophy from the race, an honor he says he’d cherish.

“I wish I could have won the Hunt Cup as a rider,” he says. “I loved flying over those fences and that feeling of control over a horse that weighed four times more than me and who could go faster than I could run. It made me feel like I could control anything, if I really concentrated on it.”

Twice, after the accident, he tried sitting on a horse. Placed in the saddle, he lolled from side to side as spotters kept him upright.

“I was terrified I’d fall off and roll under the horse,” he said. “So I figured, why punish myself?”

Naylor hails from horsey stock. His uncle and grandfather were blacksmiths. He attended McDonogh where, in the 1950s, he was captain of the school’s cavalry. Even in business, where he built a chain of ski resorts, including Ski Liberty, steeplechasing remained his passion.

“Has racing kept Irv going? Absolutely — that, and living on the farm,” Diane Naylor said. “He loves the fact that he can get around here and watch the horses gallop in the field.”

While racing left him a paraplegic, she says, “his horses have given him a lease on life. They are his love.”

Cyril Murphy, Naylor’s principal trainer, says the owner is “ambitious in what he does while expecting that from those who work for him.”

Irish-born, Murphy joined Naylor’s team in 2013 and says “his reputation as an owner of quality horses preceded him.”

Their training regimen is a simple one.

“You never run a horse into the ground,” Naylor says. “Cyril puts them in the races where they ought to be.”

That Naylor can guide his wheelchair on paved trails around the farm helps ease his frustration, Murphy says.

“There’s nowhere he cannot go, no horse he cannot see,” the trainer says. “Irv comes out and wanders around in his own time. He has the freedom to explore — and he really needs that choice.”

Nor has Naylor abandoned all hope of walking. He has given “a substantial amount” of money for stem cell research, and his own cells are tucked away in a cryobank. A $6 million gift to McDonogh helped fund the school’s science, technology engineering and math (STEM) facility, which opened in 2013.

In 2001, Naylor told The Sun, “I don’t intend to die in this damn chair.”

And now?

“Well, I’m not walking, but I’m not dead, either,” he says. “The last thing I want to do [in life] is to dance with my wife. But I haven’t done that, so I can’t die.”

And when he does, Naylor says, put this on his tombstone:

“He done his damnedest.”

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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