By Rachel Blount (Star Tribune)
All the details remain clear in Paul Nolan’s mind, 14 months after that terrifying day at Will Rogers Downs. How his horse stepped in a hole and buckled as he galloped past the finish line in the eighth race. How his body “went fuzzy” as he lay in the Oklahoma dirt, unable to move his limbs, after his mount rolled over on him twice.
And how, when the longtime Canterbury Park jockey realized the fate that awaited him, he considered that death might be his best option.
“I was scared,” Nolan said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I couldn’t breathe. At that moment, I thought, ‘If I just stick my face in the dirt real hard, I could finish it.’ I didn’t know if I could live like this.”
To Nolan, that meant relying on a wheelchair, spending days in painful physical therapy, learning how to walk again and regain full use of his arms and hands. That has been his life’s work since April 18, 2017, when his four-decade career in one of sports’ most perilous professions was halted by a deep contusion to his C3 vertebra.
Every jockey knows that every time they step onto the racetrack, their ride could end in death, paralysis, lengthy hospital stays or seven-figure medical bills. According to the Jockeys’ Guild, 157 riders have died on the track since 1940. Another 59 are being supported by the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which raised $259,000 for its mission in a benefit Saturday at Canterbury Park.
Racing’s inherent danger is compounded by a lack of uniform safety standards at U.S. tracks. Jockeys’ Guild national manager Terry Meyocks said American racing is “far behind” other countries in mandating minimum health and safety thresholds for riders, and even tracks accredited by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety & Integrity Alliance do not always follow the requirements.
“We’re in a dangerous industry, and jockeys realize that,” Meyocks said. “But the industry needs to do a better job, and it can.”
Nolan said the ambulance that picked him up at Will Rogers Downs was “a rickety old thing” that did not have oxygen on board, and it was delayed because the driver was getting a hamburger in the grandstand. While the Tulsa-area track did carry $1 million in accident insurance — the industry standard — Nolan said the track “was not set up” to respond to a serious injury. He also fears the insurance money is nearly tapped out, though the cost of his care continues to escalate.
A rider who guided his mounts to 1,662 victories and $19.2 million in purses now relies on payments of $400 per week — $200 each from the Jockeys’ Guild and the track’s insurance — to support him and his wife, Sherry. Doctors do not know how complete Nolan’s recovery might be, or how long it will take.
But the jovial, ginger-haired Englishman has not lost his fighting spirit, his good humor or his hope.
“When something like this happens, you have two choices,” said Nolan, who lives in Bloomington. “You can be miserable, or you can be happy and joyful. My choice is to be happy.
“But I still have a hard time with it. One day, I was in therapy, and I was picking up blocks. I broke down and started crying. I’ve gone from riding racehorses to picking up blocks. And that just breaks my heart.”