In his recurring dream, Jose Villegas still gets up in the predawn darkness at his Carroll County farmhouse, loads his riding helmet and boots into the trunk of his Toyota Corolla and drives 75 minutes to Laurel Park.
His favorite part of the dream comes next. As the sun rises over the track, the former jockey and longtime exercise rider is in the saddle, feeling the rush of wind on his face. He grew up around horses in Mexico, and riding made him feel he was home.
But when he awakens in the morning, Villegas, 43, faces his stark new reality. A horse he was working out stumbled last September at Laurel, leaving him paralyzed below the belly with a severe spinal cord injury. He said workers' compensation paid for his six-figure medical bills and now supplies $434 a week, but that is a fraction of what he once earned with riding and yard work.
"I don't have [as] much money in my pocket that I used to have," said Villegas, who is married with three children ages 9 to 22.
To many jockeys, there is a disturbing sameness to Villegas' story. Most riders accept the risk of injury in a business that could hardly be more hazardous.
"I think we're categorized in terms of risk at slightly behind test-fighter pilots," former jockey Jerry Bailey says. Harder for them to grasp are the apparent holes in the safety net for those sustaining catastrophic, long-term injuries.
Too often, jockeys say, the industry is left to scramble to raise money when a rider such as Villegas — or Gary Birzer, who was paralyzed from the chest down after the filly he was riding in West Virginia fell in July 2004 — is permanently injured.
While tracks provide jockeys with insurance coverage, there is no long-term care. After a few years "you're basically on your own," said jockey John Velazquez, a leader of the Kentucky-based Jockeys' Guild.
The Jockeys' Guild says one in five jockeys gets injured and misses work in a given year. A year ago, Villegas missed 10 weeks with a dislocated elbow suffered in an earlier accident.
Last year, one of the nation's top jockeys, Ramon Dominguez, was forced to retire after he suffered a brain injury in a fall at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack. "He had so much going for him — he made it look so easy," said Velazquez, a friend of Dominguez's.
"There is no room for cowards in that sport," said Ignacio Correas IV, lead trainer at Maryland's Sagamore Racing, which has four horses racing as part of this weekend's Preakness Stakes undercard. "You've got two little pieces of leather (the stirrups). You're 110 pounds trying to control 1,100 pounds."
Villegas said he doesn't know if the horse fell on him in September or if the injury was caused by his fall. The horse was not badly hurt. "A couple of riders heard a snap and thought that the horse had broken his leg," said Bobby Lillis, executive director of the Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund, which helped organize an October fundraiser for Villegas.
"In the case of Jose, his trainer's workmen's compensation paid for medical bills, but [Villegas] became paralyzed," Lillis said. "So, there is the matter of 'how do you get food on the table?' His wife is working (as a house cleaner). Some of us are kicking around the idea that he might want to train horses from his wheelchair."
Besides Maryland, only a few other states cover jockeys' accidents under workers' compensation.
Villegas' fellow riders, including well-known jockeys Rosie Napravnik and Edgar Prado, have tried to fill the financial gaps. Napravnik, who will ride Bayern in Saturday's Preakness, befriended Villegas when both worked with the late Maryland trainer Dickie Small.
Napravnik donated signed goggles and jockey pants to the karaoke-themed benefit in Columbia in October that netted $40,000 for Villegas. On Wednesday, she confimed Villegas' account that she plans to buy him an all-terrain wheelchair — he said it costs about $15,000 — with heavy treads that will enable him to navigate uneven surfaces.
"We did the fundraiser for him and I just kind of felt like I wanted to do a little more," Napravnik said. "I was asking him about his condition on the phone and he mentioned the wheelchair, and I wanted to get that for him."
The 5-foot-5 Villegas, who speaks softly in broken English, sat recently at the dining room table of his 19th century Hampstead farmhouse repeatedly watching a video of the wheelchair with the tank-like treads. "I'd be able to go everywhere, not just on pavement," he said.
He said he is grateful to Napravnik for the gift, but wishes riders with serious injuries didn't need to rely so heavily on their friends for financial help.
In 2006, race tracks, jockeys and others in the industry established a charitable organization called the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, primarily to aid those with paralysis or brain injuries.
"We have 62 recipients who get $1,000 a month," Velazquez said. But he said the fund is "far behind" building an endowment. "Right now we have about 10 months of funding," he said.
Velazquez — who broke a rib and his right wrist during a fall at Aqueduct Racetrack last year — is among an elite group of jockeys who can afford more than $10,000 a year in premiums for his own disability insurance.
Racetracks provide jockeys insurance policies of their own, with coverage often amounting to a maximum of $500,000 to $1.5 million per accident.
The Stronach Group — which oversees Pimlico, Laurel and other tracks — entitles jockeys to as much as $1.2 million in coverage, according to Mike Rogers, the racing division’s president. “I am not really the one who can comment on whether this is adequate or not,” said Rogers, who has publicly encouraged the industry to support the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and is on the fund's board. "We just gave them a donation today of $50,000."
The parent companies of some track operators — including Stronach — contribute to a guild fund that pays limited benefits to jockeys. The guild also provides life and accidental death insurance.
The track-provided insurance is for licensed jockeys only. Villegas did not qualify.
Villegas once had a jockeys' license, but said he gave up being a jockey years ago because it was too difficult to stay under the maximum weight.
After working for trainers for 20 years, he said he wondered how much the industry cares about exercise riders.
"We don't really work for the racetracks, but it benefits them," he said. "There should be more help."
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