The seventh race at Santa Anita last Wednesday was 6 1/2 furlongs on the turf, which means the horses came down a hill, went over a dip, took a right-hand turn before going left and ran over dirt for a few yards before they picked up the grass again.
Bill Shoemaker says that riding the 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill at Santa Anita draws more on a jockey's skills than any race in the country.
Terry Lipham has ridden horses down the hill countless times, but last Wednesday's seventh race was different. It was Lipham's first ride in more than five months, the 41-year-old jockey's first competitive turn around the track since that horrible, early August day at Del Mar, where a 3-year-old colt broke down on the far turn. Lipham, whose horse was right behind, was thrown and trampled by three trailing horses, suffering injuries so severe that doctors said he would never ride again.
Admittedly, Lipham was only about three or four years from retirement as a jockey and the probable start of new career as a trainer, but rather than hasten that plan, he was determined to prove that he could return to the saddle.
"It was constantly hearing that I'd never ride again that brought me back," Lipham said. "My answer to that was, 'Well, that's your opinion.' My hope was to eventually get back."
This is the year of the comeback for more jockeys than just Lipham at Santa Anita. Del Mar resembled a combat zone instead of a race track last summer. Someone counted about a dozen riders who went down, and two of the casualties besides Lipham--Darrel McHargue, who had a back injury, and Eric Saint-Martin, who suffered a broken collarbone--are back in action, McHargue after suffering additional injuries at Santa Anita in November.
The most surprising returns at Santa Anita, however, are Lipham and Gary Stevens, because their injuries were the most serious. Stevens survived the Del Mar epidemic, but on Oct. 10, while he was working a 2-year-old filly out of the gate at Santa Anita, the horse ducked to the inside and threw him into the rail.
The 22-year-old jockey, who ranked fifth nationally in purses at the time, suffered a dislocated right shoulder and a torn ligament in his right knee.
After surgery--the knee was repaired and a screw was inserted in the shoulder that Stevens had originally injured in a high school wrestling match--it was estimated that he wouldn't be able to ride for at least four months.
On Dec. 24, the last day of the Hollywood Park season, Stevens returned to the races, 10 weeks after he had met the fence and six weeks sooner than the most conservative prediction.
On Dec. 27, at Santa Anita, Stevens was back in the winner's circle, putting the final touches on a year that still had 218 winners and $6.6 million in purses. Stevens, who had won important stakes with Tank's Prospect, Hilco Scamper and Tsunami Slew, slipped only to seventh place in the Daily Racing Form's final 1985 money standings.
While painful and frightening, Stevens' injuries were more typical of those suffered by a jockey in a nasty spill. Some of Lipham's were not. He came out of a La Jolla hospital needing a hearing aid and a cane, and with a left eye that didn't know what the right was doing. Lipham's other injuries were practically incidentals compared to his sight, hearing and equilibrium problems.
"I was as low as a person could be," Lipham said. "I've had a lot of broken bones on the track--I even broke my back once--but this was like something I had never dealt with before. They were telling me that I might be blind, that I might be paralyzed and that I probably should have been dead."
His was a spill that might have been avoided.
"I was directly behind the horse that broke down," Lipham said. "Usually, when a horse breaks down, the rider will take him to the outside, but there was a young bug boy (apprentice E.S. Garcia) on this horse and--who knows why?--he took him to the inside. At first there was about 10 feet of room between the other horse and the rail, but when I tried to go for that opening, it closed up. My horse hit the other horse solid."
Dr. Joseph P. Van Der Meulen at USC was about the only medical man who told Lipham that he might ride again, but only, he said, after 6 to 12 months of therapy. When Lipham came down Santa Anita's hill last week, it was a month before the short end of that estimate.
He did eye and balance exercises and eventually returned to the golf course, where his scores approached the high 70s again.
But hitting an inert golf ball is not the same as controlling a 1,000-pound horse at speeds of 35-40 m.p.h. In mid-October, Lipham went to Santa Anita one morning to exercise a horse for trainer Jerry Fanning. The half-mile workout might have helped the horse, but it shattered Lipham.