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After serious injury from fall, jockey Rajiv Maragh returns to Derby aboard Irish War Cry

Just try not to lose consciousness.

That was all Rajiv Maragh could think as he lay on the dirt at Belmont Park the afternoon of July 10, 2015. Seconds earlier, the full half-ton weight of the horse he'd been riding — Yourcreditisgood — had crashed down on him.

Like any top jockey, Maragh had long accepted pain as a daily companion. He'd fractured his pelvis, shattered his collarbone and broken his arm. But this was different. His body throbbed in every direction, and he fought to breathe.

"I felt it was a life-and-death situation," he said.

When he reached a nearby hospital, doctors told him he wasn't in mortal peril. But he had a broken rib, a punctured lung and eight fractured vertebrae.

His thriving career as a New York-based rider who routinely drew mounts in the country's biggest races was suddenly an open question. Some doctors said he'd ride again. Others deemed it a long shot. Certainly, the affable Jamaican could not fathom that 22 months later, he'd take the reins of one of the top contenders in the 2017 Kentucky Derby: Irish War Cry.

A year ago, Maragh was still in an upper-body brace, kept up all night by pain that felt like someone hacking at his legs with an ax. When he flew to Florida to visit his family, he had to board the plane in a wheelchair. He didn't feel any pangs of envy when he watched the Derby on television, because at that moment, he did not think of himself as a jockey.

And yet, even at his lowest moments, he did not give up hope that he'd become one again.

Encouraged by his wife, Angelina, and by friends such as trainer Graham Motion, who would ultimately give him the mount on Irish War Cry, he believed.

After all, he'd always been a lucky man when it came to horses, his driving passion since he was a child, pretending to ride the couch in his family's home in Kingston, Jamaica.

Maragh's father, Collin, was a jockey turned trainer. Four of his aunts married jockeys. So for him and his cousins, there was no greater glory on the horizon. Before they could get on horses themselves, they pretended to be horses, calling their own races as they sped about on foot.

He saw that his relatives often suffered injuries while riding. But they always seemed to bounce right back, so he didn't dwell on that side of the profession.

"My uncle's still riding at 56, and he gets hurt all the time," he said with a hearty laugh.

When Maragh stood just 4 feet, 5 inches as a 13-year-old, he prayed that he'd grow taller so he'd be allowed to ride. But when a sudden spurt took him to 5 feet, 5 inches by the time he was 15, he prayed for it to stop, lest he become too big for his chosen profession.

Fate complied. He hasn't added a centimeter since.

Maragh moved to Florida to finish school in 1998, figuring it would be a better place than Jamaica to build a career as a jockey.

He rode his first winner at Tampa Bay Downs in 2004 and became one of the top-earning jockeys in the country by 2008. He rode in his first Derby, aboard Todd Pletcher-trained Mission Impazible, in 2010, and finished third aboard Mucho Macho Man in 2011.

He had been among the country's top-20-earning jockeys for seven straight years before his accident, which happened when fellow jockey Ruben Silvera allowed his mount, Mini Muffin, to drift into Yourcreditisgood. The horses clipped heels, and Yourcreditisgood somersaulted on to his 115-pound rider.

Motion was among Maragh's most consistent supporters after the crash, traveling to Long Island to visit him at home and encouraging him with regular notes and texts. The first time Maragh ate out after his accident, he and Angelina were accompanied by Motion and his wife.

The 31-year-old Maragh first climbed back on a horse last September, 14 months after his spill at Belmont Park.

He felt no fear.

"But my balance wasn't real good," he recalled. "I was so weak compared to what I needed to be. I felt so washed up."

Given that, he was surprised he felt well enough to resume racing in November. He did not put pressure on himself to regain vintage form immediately. He knew that New York's top trainers would be cautious about putting him on their best horses. And he didn't win much in his first two months back.

"I was realistic," he said. "I just wanted to prepare myself so that when the opportunities did come, I'd be ready."

Come the turn of the year, he stayed in New York to accumulate rides and good results rather than traveling to Florida, where he'd be more likely to hook up with a potential Derby horse. And he did start to win more frequently.

Motion called Maragh about Irish War Cry at an uncertain moment in preparations for the Kentucky Derby. After looking like a potential favorite, the colt had faltered badly in finishing seventh at the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

"He told me he thought the horse was really settled by nature with a quiet demeanor," Maragh recalled. "But he didn't settle as much in the Fountain of Youth. He told me that wasn't the horse he knew."

Motion did not put Maragh on Irish War Cry out of charity. He wouldn't do that with a horse of such great potential. But he knew he would likely lose previous jockey Joel Rosario to another Derby horse. And he thought Maragh might offer the perfect set of fresh eyes to help the colt rediscover his best form.

"I've always admired him. He's a very intelligent rider and just a good guy," Motion said. "You can talk to Rajiv about any race and he'll remember it. He remembers the history of horses. He's just a sharp guy."

Motion pointed to a photo on his office wall of Main Sequence, one of the best horses he's trained. He gives Maragh significant credit for unlocking Main Sequence's potential after a long losing streak.

"We have a comfortable relationship where he can call me and talk about any horse in any light," Maragh said.

As soon as he climbed on Irish War Cry for a workout at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack, Maragh felt the calm, gifted horse that Motion had described. He wasn't surprised when the colt patiently waited for the ideal moment to strike in a redemptive victory at the April 8 Wood Memorial.

After so many months in which he couldn't do much of anything, Maragh was suddenly lined up to ride one of the top contenders in the 2017 Derby.

The jockey's attention to detail was apparent last Sunday, when he traveled to Fair Hill near Elkton to ride Irish War Cry in his last breeze before shipping to Kentucky. In the Wood, Irish War Cry had never been directly behind another horse, and Maragh wanted to see how he would react in that situation. So he asked Motion to put a horse in front of the Derby contender for the workout.

"I wanted to see if he would hesitate or act shy," Maragh said. "But he acted like a real professional."

Maragh did not plan to arrive in Louisville until Friday night, because he was lined up to ride a good horse in New York earlier in the day. But he's not pretending this is just another Derby for him.

"Yeah, I think this one is probably more meaningful because it's more unexpected," he said. "There's no way at this time last year I thought I'd be here."

Anyone could forgive Maragh if he felt a little more uneasy climbing on a horse these days, if the scene from Belmont Park lingered in his mind before each race. But that's not the case at all, he insisted in his upbeat fashion.

"Listen, I know what comes with the territory of being a jockey," he said. "And I embrace it."

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