By Bill Finley for The Thoroughbred Daily News

Coady Photography

Even though he is a top-class rider, Rajiv Maragh didn’t seem to have any hope to land a mount in this year’s GI Kentucky Derby, and he knew it. He was only a few months removed from being in the midst of a comeback from a terrible spill and then making headlines not for how well he had rebounded, but for the struggles he was having to get on winners again.

“I knew I was starting over from scratch and I knew I had to prove myself again,” said Maragh, who won the GII Wood Memorial aboard Irish War Cry (Curlin) and will ride him back in the Derby.

Maragh, 31, moved to New York in 2008 and quickly established himself as one of the top riders in what many consider the toughest jockey colony in America. He won races like the GI Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, the GI Mother Goose S., the GI Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, the GI Metropolitan H. and the GI King’s Bishop and was perennially in the top 20 in the nation in terms of money earned.

But his status as a top echelon rider was seriously threatened on a summer day at Belmont in 2015, when he went down in a July 10 spill and suffered a litany of injuries, including compressed and fractured vertebrae, a collapsed lung and broken ribs. The injuries were neither life-threatening nor career-threatening. But they did mean a torturous 16-month absence and being put in a position where he had to reboot his career.

“At one point, it was not about my job,” Maragh said. “It was about my health and my well-being. It is pretty hard when you are an athlete and you are used to bouncing around and then you are in the position I was in. I was immobile and in excruciating pain every day. I couldn’t do anything, really. I couldn’t bend, lift, twist. It took me about four months to be able to put my own socks on. I was in bad shape for a long time. I was walking with a cane. I couldn’t drive myself anywhere. It wasn’t about riding at that point. I knew one day I’d be able to ride again. I wasn’t thinking about time lines for racing. I was more interested in taking it step by step, climbing the ladder. I was far away from racing. I was just trying to get to a state of well-being and that took a long, long time.”

Maragh never did have surgery. His doctors suggested the best route would be to simply rest and rehabilitate and let a natural healing process take place. Maragh knew he would ride again, but did not know it would take so long for him to feel healthy again.

“It took a very long time, but I wanted to make a full recovery before I forced the issue,” the Jamaican-born rider said. “It took longer than most people anticipated it would take. Doctors, at certain points, thought I should be feeling better than I was. But I don’t know. I was just banged up pretty bad.”

Finally, he returned on Nov. 4 at Aqueduct, and it didn’t go well. Maragh started his comeback by going two for 62.

“I wasn’t discouraged at all. I was very happy with way things were going,” he said. “Every day felt like progress to me. Obviously, I didn’t know what to expect. I had to give people a reason to have confidence in me again. There were a handful of people who would go out on limb and give me good opportunities to win, but at the same time I felt like it was a case of very gradual progression. I won two races from 62 mounts, but that’s a lot better than the year prior when I was in a body brace. To me, it represented a lot of progress. I didn’t let a stat–two for 62–get me down. That stat was nothing in my mind. It was irrelevant to me.”

Maragh normally rides at Gulfstream in the winter, but made a wise choice to stay in New York. Once the big-name riders like John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Joel Rosario and Luis Saez headed south, there were a lot more opportunities for Maragh. He won 39 races at the Aqueduct winter meet, good for fourth in the standings.

He was moving in the right direction, but was nowhere near getting a top Derby mount, even though his agent Tony Micallef had a premonition that one was right around the corner.

“I was home after riding at Aqueduct watching the (GII) Holy Bull,” Maragh said. “When it was over I told my dad that Graham Motion has the best 3-year-old in the country. The phone rings and it is my agent and he said, ‘You see that Graham Motion horse?’ He said, ‘Call Graham and tell him you want to ride that horse in the Derby.’ I said ‘Are you crazy? There is no way this horse is going to become open.’ Tony said, ‘You never know. Things happen. I’m telling you, you are going to ride that horse in the Derby.’”

Maragh never did call Motion. He didn’t have to. With Regular rider Rosario aboard, Irish War Cry threw in an inexplicable clunker in the GII Fountain of Youth, finishing a distant seventh. Rosario got off him to ride Practical Joke (Into Mischief) in the GII Toyota Blue Grass S. Needing a rider for the Wood Memorial, Motion called on Maragh.

“We were so excited to get on the horse and obviously had high hopes,” Maragh said. “Graham has been a big supporter of mine and is very familiar with me and is comfortable with me. I’m lucky to be on small list of jockeys he reaches out to.”

For Irish War Cry and Maragh, the Wood could not have gone better. The New Jersey-bred colt relaxed just off the pace and then moved by the leaders to win by 3 ½ lengths.

“His race was very impressive and it checked all the boxes from what you’d want to see from a horse’s performance,” Maragh said. “As soon as he broke from the gate, he got me into good position and got into a good rhythm and a good flow and he was doing it relatively comfortably. He was not overdoing things early, which is something we were hoping for. It felt like all the way like he was traveling like the winner. As the race progressed he just kept getting stronger and stronger and approaching the finish line, I felt like I was full of horse and his gallop-out was equally impressive. I didn’t feel like I was at the bottom of him.”

Irish War Cry could be the third choice in the Derby behind Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile) and Always Dreaming (Bodemeister).

Maragh’s best finish in the Derby came in 2011 when he finished third aboard Mucho Macho Man (Macho Uno). He believes he can win this year, but even if he doesn’t he won’t take for granted that he is not only riding in the race, but riding a top contender. From a body brace, to what could have been a career-crippling slump to the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby? He has a good horse. Add a little luck to the equation and it might just happen.