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Amid latest comeback, veteran jockey Steve Hamilton set for busy Maryland Million Day

Jockey Steve Hamilton, pictured, returned to horse racing this year after 10 years away following a major spinal injury.
Jockey Steve Hamilton, pictured, returned to horse racing this year after 10 years away following a major spinal injury. (HANDOUT)

Jockey Steve Hamilton tried to let go of horse racing over and over again. It just wouldn't let go of him.

He walked away from a successful career in Maryland in 2000. Came back four years later and would ride in the 2005 Preakness, only to retire again, return in 2006 and be forced out of the sport at the end of that year after suffering a severe spinal injury in an automobile accident.

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So, what exactly was this 42-year-old guy doing three weeks ago Sunday?

He was sailing home aboard Bo Vuk in the third race at Laurel Park on the way to his first victory in nearly a decade.

And what will he be doing on Maryland Million Day at Laurel on Saturday? Riding eight times during the rich 11-race program and continuing to rebuild a career that lay fallow while he raised his family and worked as a blacksmith back in his home state of Oklahoma.

There are comeback stories and then there are comeback stories. Hamilton has been one so many times that he really has only one explanation for why he resumed his on-again, off-again racing career two months ago.

"I thought about it every day, really," he said Wednesday. "I found myself at home in Oklahoma, shoeing horses for 10 years. I'd get up every morning before I left for work and have my coffee and watch the racing channel. A lot of guys say they never think about it again. I just don't believe that. It's something that's in your blood. You're going to do it. I couldn't get it out of my system."

His two boys — Garrett and Weston — are now young men and Hamilton decided to give his career another reboot. He already has won more than 1,200 races and was a top rider in Maryland when he retired after winning spring meet titles in 2004 and 2005 at Pimlico Race Course.

His booking agent at that time was Benny Feliciano Sr., who said this week that he was "pretty surprised" when he picked up the phone and found out that one of his favorite former clients wanted back into the sport, but not really that surprised.

The big issue would be making weight, or as they call it in the vernacular of horse racing, reducing. Hamilton had bigger reasons for retiring in 2000 and 2006, but concedes that the constant battle jockeys must fight to remain small enough to stay in the saddle was always part of the equation.

"I know him pretty good and I had seen him a month or two before he called me," Feliciano said. "He was pretty big, but far as weight goes with Steve, I knew he could get it off. The first time I had him, he weighed almost 140 and got down to 114 and 115. Steve's a very good reducer. He takes care about himself. He eats healthy and he's smart about reducing. He doesn't cheat."

The other big issue would be getting quality mounts after being away so long. That explains why it took him five weeks to get his first victory this time. He has had a bunch of place horses, but entered this weekend with only that one win.

"The biggest thing, the people who say he only won one race since he's been back, they don't realize this is a very tough colony right now," Feliciano said. "We have some riders here. We've got eight or 10 riders who could go anywhere in the country and ride. They're that good. And believe me, I know who can ride and who can't ride. You've got [Victor] Carrasco, [Jevian] Toledo, Trevor McCarthy, Sheldon Russell. Them boys are in their 20s and they are very, very good. And Steve coming off a layoff, it takes time to get some good mounts from these good riders."

Hamilton doesn't seem too concerned. The important thing, he said, is just to be back in a sport that basically saved him from the rodeo.

"I started riding young bulls when I was 6," he said. "I rode bulls through high school and was actually galloping horses making $3 and $5 a head, and that's how I was paying my entry fees. I figured out I really like the horses and I could make a lot more money and not get as banged up riding horses as you did with bulls, so that's kind of led me this way."

Clearly, Hamilton has few regrets about his original decision to leave Maryland and buy a farm in Oklahoma, though he was making quite a name for himself and was only 26 years old. When the kids came, track life was just too consuming to allow him much family time and he longed for them to grow up as he did, in a more idyllic environment than the urban sprawl of the Baltimore-Washington area.

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"My boys were both born right here in Maryland and my wife is from Maryland as well, and all her folks are from right here around this area," he said, "but we got together and decided to raise our boys out in the country, where things are a little slower and I thought a better place to bring them up than right in the middle of a big city."

He spent 2000 riding at Lone Star Park and had a decent meet. He came back to Maryland for those two seasons in 2004 and 2005 and rode Malibu Moonshine to an eighth-place finish in the 2005 Preakness for legendary trainer King T. Leatherbury. But even before the traffic accident that fractured vertebrae in his neck and broke several ribs, he retired again and returned six months later.

"The main thing was being around my kids and my wife," he said, "because at the racetrack you don't have time to spend with them. All the holidays you're riding. You're either in or you're out. You're not halfway there and halfway here. You've got to be in 120 percent. That's the way I am. I'm a guy who likes to get up and go to work because, let's face it, not a lot of people can say they get paid to ride a horse."

It took a decade for him to come back and his agent thinks he probably needed that long to get completely healthy and motivated again.

"I think it took him a while to really mend up," Feliciano said. "A rider who has a really bad back like that, it takes twice the toll on you because you're always bent over and it's always a strain on your back. I think with the accident, and him trying to reduce and all that stuff, I think it took a toll on him and he just decided to take a rest from it."

He'll get no rest this weekend. He was scheduled to ride four times at Laurel on Friday and then make a quick trip to Charles Town to ride in one of the early races Friday night. Then comes Maryland Million Day and eight chances to get back to the winner's circle.

"Saturday, that's a big blessing to be able to ride eight horses on a day like that," he said. "They've got shots. With a little luck, we'll knock a race out."

This isn't exactly unprecedented. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens was eight years older than Hamilton when he came back after an eight-year layoff in 2012. He struggled to win for a few months and then shocked the world by winning the 2013 Preakness aboard 15-1 long-shot Oxbow.

No doubt, there are some skeptics out there who wonder how soon Hamilton's latest comeback attempt will end. Hamilton acknowledges that he doesn't know how long he's destined to remain in this sport that keeps calling him back, but he knows that he's where he belongs.

"I feel like everybody's here for a reason," he said, "and I really think my reason for being here is riding races, and I love it and I'll do it as long as I can."

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