By Karen M. Johnson (@WriterHorses) for JockeyTalk360.com
It reads like a script for a Disney movie. Veteran jockey, who suffered severe injuries in riding accident, prepares to return to the saddle after months of rehabilitation. Meanwhile, his teenage son is set to launch his own career as a jockey.
But it’s not a tale that is coming to the big screen; it’s the real-life story of Mike Luzzi, and his 18-year-old son, Lane, who will soon join his father in the New York jockey colony.
Luzzi, 45, is close to returning to race riding after nearly 10 months on the sidelines to heal from multiple injuries, which he suffered in a paddock incident at Aqueduct on Nov. 1, 2014.
Two surgeries — the first failed to work — were required to stabilize Luzzi’s shattered pelvis, and 19 permanent screws were inserted to fuse the fracture. Additionally, he broke his left leg in two places.
Luzzi, who has been regaining his fitness by exercising horses in the morning in anticipation of his return in the afternoon, said the tangle of broken bones was the least of his worries in the aftermath of the accident.
“For a couple of weeks the doctors didn’t know if I was going to live because I was bleeding [internally], and they couldn’t find the cause,” Luzzi said on a recent morning on the backstretch of Saratoga Race Course. “I was losing blood every day; I had 14 blood transfusions. They finally found the artery, which was causing the bleeding.”
Despite the severity of his injuries — the worst he has sustained during his 26-year career — and the fact he was bed-ridden for three months, Luzzi said he never considered retirement.
“I know it sounds silly to people, but I feel fine; like nothing ever happened,” said Luzzi, whose injuries were a result of a fractious 2-year-old flipping over and falling on him after he was given a leg up. “It was a freak accident.
“I’ve been able to ride by blocking things out my whole career,” he continued. “That isn’t new to me. You have to ride with the thought that most likely nothing is going to happen. You’re always playing against the odds. That [mindset] is why I’ve been able to ride for so long.”
Luzzi, the grandson of trainer Buddy Raines, was the Eclipse Award winning apprentice of 1989. Since riding his first winner, Tis A Sir, at Laurel Park, in 1988, he has won more than 3,400 races, and his mounts have earned in excess of $108 million.
He has been a constant presence in New York since the 1990s. Luzzi’s stakes wins at New York Racing Association tracks are plentiful, and include some of the most important events on the circuit, including the Cigar Mile, Coaching Club American Oaks, and Sword Dancer.
Around the track, the personable Luzzi is well-liked by his fellow competitors in the jockeys’ room, and is viewed as a hard worker among horsemen, who find him to be most accommodating when it comes to getting on their horses in the morning. Earlier this year, Luzzi was the recipient of the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Award. The honor, named for the legendary rider who lost his life in a racing accident, is bestowed upon a jockey “who demonstrates high standards of personal and professional conduct, on and off the racetrack.” The winner is determined by vote of his peers.
But it is Luzzi’s son, Lane; daughter, Larue; and wife, Tania; who are his biggest fans.
Lane, who bears a striking resemblance to his father, said witnessing his father’s success while growing up was the catalyst for his career choice.
“Since as long as I can remember, I wanted to ride racehorses,” said Lane, who is currently exercising horses for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “You know being a little kid and seeing my dad out there on the biggest stage . . . it was always what I wanted to do.”
While there is no firm date in place for the launch of his career, a fall start is probable.
“Timing is really everything, and I am not going to start before my dad says. He’s my main teacher and when he tells me it’s time, I will be out there,” remarked Luzzi, who said his first major goal is to win the 2016 Eclipse Award as leading apprentice.
Not surprisingly, his father said he and his wife wished their son picked a path that was free and clear of the occupational hazards associated with being a jockey. Equally, Luzzi said it would have been difficult to dismiss his son’s wishes out of hand.
“One day when Lane was in 10th grade, he said, ‘Dad, I want to be a jockey,’” Luzzi recalled. “I asked him how serious and committed he was, and he indicated to me he was very. The deal was he had to finish high school first. This year, his classes started at 10. He was up at 4:30 and at the track getting on his horses before school began.”
Upon his graduation in June, Luzzi’s world has been non-stop horses — working in the mornings with them, and watching them race in the afternoon. The one thing he said he doesn’t spend much time on is worrying about the dangers of race riding.
“[Getting hurt] is part of the sport. It doesn’t worry me too much,” he said. “I know the consequences, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be out here. I’ve fallen and gotten hurt before. I’ve seen my dad go through those injuries, and I’ve seen him return and win . . . that keeps me going, and has been a great motivator for me.”