BACK ON TRACK For jockey Frank Douglas, once he survived the fall from his horse last summer, there was never any doubt that he would ride again. And he does. Today at Pimlico.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Horses thundered into the turn in a tangled blur. Then it happened.

A horse stumbled, hurling its rider forward like a tumbling toy. The horse continued running. But a jockey lay motionless in the dirt.

From where Pamela Douglas sat, she couldn't see who was down. But as horses rounded the turn and charged into view, she focused on the one wearing saddlecloth No. 4.

"The horse was running without its rider," she said later. "I knew that it was Frank."

Her husband, Frank Douglas, was severely injured in that spill Aug. 31 at Timonium. After crashing to the ground he bounced like a basketball into the path of another horse. Its back hoofs smashed into Douglas' helmet.

A jockey in Maryland since 1983, Douglas, 37, was transported by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. There, Pamela Douglas was told that her husband probably would not live through the night.

But today, eight months later, Frank Douglas reclaims the thrilling and potentially lucrative, though highly dangerous, life of a jockey. He is to ride two horses on opening day of the spring meet at Pimlico. The first is a 3-year-old maiden named Special Appointment.

"I know it was a bad accident, and I almost lost my life," Douglas said. "But it's something I want to do again. It's something I've always wanted to do."

Douglas survived an injury that caused his brain to bleed and swell and begin shutting down his body's life-sustaining functions. He persevered through months of therapy -- speech, physical and psychological -- as well as countless hours of conditioning.

But never once did he doubt his return to his cherished profession, which he chose over his parents' objections two decades ago in his native Panama. From nearly the moment he awoke from his coma at Shock Trauma, he set his mind with unshakable determination on the goal of getting back to the track.

Douglas remembers nothing about the spill. He has watched replays, but his memory of the accident, his suffering and the ensuing days is blank.

But for his wife, the memories are intense. She nearly lost her husband of 12 years and the father of their two children, Frankie 11, and Monica, 5. She understands that another blow to the same part of his brain could be disastrous.

"I look at it differently from Frank," Pamela said. "This time he came back this far. Next time he might not be so lucky."

Dangerous sport

Douglas returned to a sport so hazardous that an ambulance follows the participants around the track. About 2,700 jockeys are licensed in the United States. Every year about 2,500 injuries occur.

"They range from bruises and contusions to death and paralysis," said John Giovanni, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild. "It's not a question of 'Am I going to get hurt?' It's a question of 'When am I going to get hurt, and how bad is it going to be?' "

Since 1960, he said, an average of two jockeys per year have died from riding injuries.

"But these men and women love what they do," Giovanni said.

Few love it more than Douglas, who three times has rejected the urging of family members to redirect his career.

In Panama, his parents wanted him to become an officer in the army. But after one year in officers' school he quit. He enrolled in Panama's school for jockeys, something he had wanted to do since visiting the barn of his grandfather, a trainer, as a boy.

"My father took me to the racetrack ever since I was little," Douglas said. "But he didn't want me to be a jockey. He wanted me to be more than a jockey."

Douglas became a jockey anyway, graduating from jockey school in 1980 shortly after turning 20. He rode two months in Panama, and then joined a friend at Charles Town in West Virginia. He later rode at tracks in Pennsylvania before settling in Maryland in 1983.

He has ridden here ever since -- except for 1 1/2 years when he gave in to further pressure to change careers. His father worked in the Panamanian consulate, then in Baltimore, and he persuaded his son to work there, too. That's when Douglas met his future wife.

"When I met Frank he wasn't a jockey," said Pamela, who grew up in Glen Burnie. "I just assumed he'd continue working in the diplomatic corps.

"But the whole time he did it, he hated it. All he talked about was getting back to the track. He felt fat and lazy. He kept saying, 'I want to ride.'

"I saw how agitated he was not doing it. I had to support him."

A striking couple, they got married in February 1986. Pamela is 5-feet-10 and blond. Frank is 5-feet-2 and dark.

Two months after the wedding, Douglas returned to the track.

"I guess it's just the thrill," he said. "It's dangerous, yes. You can't avoid the danger all the time. But it gives you a good rush. It gets into your blood."

He shattered his right forearm three years later when his horse fell at Laurel Park. Doctors held the bones together with a plate and seven screws. Although they told him he'd be out eight months, he was back riding in four.

"He's come home with a cut ankle, bruises, cracked ribs -- and that's just from spills on a daily basis," Pamela said. "You tend to push that part of it aside -- the same thing they do when they ride. You have to think: 'It's just a job. They just went to work.' "

On Aug. 31, Douglas went to work. It nearly cost him his life.

The accident

Nine fillies -- all 2-year-old maidens, six racing for the first time -- drove into the far turn in the fifth race at Timonium, the quaint track where horses race for 10 days during the Maryland State Fair. Douglas was aboard River Show, a first-time starter. He placed her safely along the rail.

But a horse on the outside, another first-time starter named Layed Back, veered suddenly toward the rail. Layed Back bumped Patriotic Dancer, and Patriotic Dancer bumped Douglas' River Show.

The collision caused River Show to clip heels with the horse in front of her. She stumbled and nearly fell, dropping her head trying to regain her footing. That sent Douglas catapulting head over heels.

A filly named Karaberto tried to avoid the sprawling rider. But as she strode past, her back hoofs slammed into his helmet. The horses ran on, including River Show, but Douglas did not get up.

His wife, sitting in the grandstand with their two children and two neighbors' children -- they were going to the fair -- ran to the first-aid station. Like all jockeys' spouses, she knew the drill.

"You wait at the first-aid station, because that's where they bring the jockeys for evaluation," Pamela said. "But it seemed like it was taking him forever to get up."

She asked the nurse: "Are they going to bring him here, or take him directly to the hospital?"

The nurse replied: "No honey, they've called for the helicopter."

Pamela caught a ride with a security worker to the first turn.

"Everybody was on top of Frank in the ambulance," Pamela said. "He was sitting up screaming, 'No, no.' His was gritting his teeth. His eyes were open, but he really wasn't there.

"There was blood everywhere. He had a big cut on the back of his head. And he was bleeding from his mouth, nose and from his ear."

Mike Huber, an emergency-medical technician working at Timonium, said that as soon as he reached Douglas, he decided to call for a MedEvac helicopter.

"Anytime you have a head injury, it's serious," Huber said. "But in this case, things were not looking good."

Asked whether he feared Douglas might not make it, Huber hesitated, and then said: "Possibly, yes."

But he said with jockeys you never know.

Hardheaded jockeys

"Jockeys are the most hard-headed individuals I've ever seen," Huber said. "They'll break their leg and still insist on trying to walk back to the jockeys' room."

By the time the helicopter landed in the track's infield, Pamela was already driving to Shock Trauma, the four children in tow. She had called her brother, who was picking up their mother and heading to the hospital.

Pamela's brother took the children, and Pamela and her mother entered Shock Trauma. Pamela was told someone could speak to her in 15 minutes.

"But nobody came back for 2 1/2 hours," Pamela said. "They told me that Frank was fighting so hard it took that long to sedate him. Apparently they'd never seen anybody his size fight the way he did."

When Pamela was finally allowed into his cubicle, it seemed as if every tube known to medical science ran into him. She bombarded nurses with questions. Kevin Castle, a registered nurse on the trauma-resuscitation unit, realized she had no idea how seriously her husband had been injured.

"You don't want to not give them any hope," Castle said later. "But you want them to understand the situation."

Said Pamela: "I kept asking questions, and finally he said, 'Your husband's had a very traumatic injury. He probably isn't going to survive.' "

Castle told her they likely would have to operate to relieve the life-threatening swelling of the brain. Pamela said his parents weren't even in this country. Castle said, "If I were in your position, I'd call them."

Of her conversations with Castle and others, Pamela said: "They told me if he lived, there'd be damage to part of his brain. He'd probably have no memory. He wouldn't be able to talk. He wouldn't be able to walk. He'd probably be on a ventilator. He'd pretty much be a vegetable."

Pamela called her husband's family in Panama. His father and brother-in-law flew in the next night. Friends and relatives stayed with her at Shock Trauma until, finally, at 4: 30 in the morning -- 13 1/2 hours after the accident -- nurses persuaded her to go home.

"I left at 4: 30 thinking he'd never wake up," Pamela said. "I was thinking about how I would deal with the kids, about the arrangements I was going to have to make."

Doctors did not perform surgery because Douglas' brain stopped swelling. And then about 7: 30 a.m., he shocked everyone and woke up.

"I've seen people die who I thought were going to live," said Castle, the nurse. "But I've also seen people live who I thought were going to die. That's why I always believe in miracles."

The road back

From that waking moment on, Douglas defied every negative prognosis and overcame every perceived obstacle. Slowly at first, he began talking and remembering things.

"He had no comprehension at all of what had happened," Pamela said. "I told him, 'You fell off a horse and got hurt.' All he wanted to do was get up. His thing was he was going back to ride."

Although Pamela was told he'd probably remain at Shock Trauma for at least six months, he left after five days. He spent the next eight days at Kernan Hospital undergoing rehabilitation, and then he attended the Centers for Neuro-Rehabilitation in Annapolis as an outpatient.

All his medical expenses have been paid by a jockeys' insurance fund.

"He made such excellent progress in all areas of rehabilitation," said Mary Ellen Barnes, his case manager at the Annapolis center. "He's always been so incredibly motivated. He's an inspiration to our other clients."

Douglas even brought the staff and clients to Laurel Park on a field trip.

"We can't wait to go see him ride," Barnes said. "We've gotten very close to him. We really want to see him succeed in his profession."

After receiving final clearance from doctors, Douglas climbed back onto a horse about a month ago. He was going to walk a calm pony around the shedrow at Pimlico, but before he knew it he was galloping the pony around the racetrack.

Three days later he began exercising thoroughbreds in the morning in preparation for his comeback in the afternoon. Trainers and jockeys say he looks like the same Frank Douglas out on the track.

Mark Rosenthal, the jockey aboard the horse that began the near-fatal chain reaction at Timonium, is especially glad to see Douglas back. Although the stewards suspended Rosenthal five days for the incident, Douglas insists it was nobody's fault.

"Everybody likes Frank," Rosenthal said. "He's a real classy guy. We can't wait to see him win some races and get right back to where he was before."

Rosenthal, who wears a jacket that reads "No Guts No Glory," said jockeys are like race-car drivers when it comes to accidents.

"I'll ride a racehorse running 35 miles an hour, but I won't drive a car around a racetrack at 200 miles an hour. That's too dangerous," Rosenthal said. "But if one of those drivers crashes, and you ask them, 'Are you going to stop driving?' They'll say, 'Nah, it's part of the game.' "

For Douglas, the game is back. For his wife, the memories linger, the fears persist.

Still, she said, she will support him because this is so passionately what he wants to do. But she will continue to view his career from the same perspective she brought to the game when she married him.

Said Pamela: "It never was about Frank winning. It was about him finishing the race."

Pub Date: 4/01/98

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