ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — In Sunday's Budweiser-Arlington Million, Sandy Hawley is riding Spellbound, a horse who doesn't figure.
About a year ago, Hawley's career as a jockey didn't figure, either. It could have been over, 18 years and more than 5,000 wins after it began, because the 38-year-old jockey had cancer. Life could have been over, too.
Now, after two operations and a series of shots, Hawley is back. He rode his 64th winner--a 5-year-old who hadn't gotten home first since 1985--at Arlington Park the other day, and ranks third in the local standings, behind Pat Day and Earlie Fires. Hawley trails Day by 63 winners and Fires by 27, but his victory rate is 26%, almost as good as Day's and much better than Fires'.
His two rivals have each ridden about twice as many horses here, because Hawley underwent surgery for the second time at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena this summer and missed six weeks.
Hawley has also returned to California five times since the surgery for injections with a serum that isn't available anywhere else. Starting Tuesday, Hawley must go to California once a month for booster shots.
Asked how long the immune therapy would continue, Hawley said: "It might be 10 years. Maybe they'll have that serum available outside California by then."
That would be fine with Hawley, who after establishing himself in his native Canada at the beginning of his career and then making a successful move to Southern California in the mid-1970s, has become something of a Gypsy the last two years. Since his business soured at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, Hawley has ridden at several Midwestern tracks, including Canterbury Downs near Minneapolis, Arlington, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Keeneland in Kentucky.
"I'm enjoying the traveling," Hawley said. "After staying in one place for long periods of time, it's fun going to these different tracks."
Hawley sold his home in California, now owns a condominium in Pasadena and shares an apartment here with Jerry Gallitano, the former jockey who does a television program for Arlington Park.
It has been fun for Hawley lately because he is feeling good again, riding winners and in demand by some of Arlington's top trainers--Harvey Vanier, Neil Boyce and the Wayne Lukas outfit. After his agent, John DeSantis, returned to California, Hawley's book was picked up here by Jim Daigrepont, who handled California jockey Ray Sibille's mounts when he was one of the leading riders in Chicago.
From November of 1986 to just recently, however, Hawley didn't know what to expect. A mole that was removed from the right side of his back turned out to be malignant. In a subsequent 3 1/2-hour operation, Hawley had 32 lymph nodes removed.
He missed 2 1/2 months of racing, then a week after returning to the saddle there was a spill at Oaklawn, resulting in groin and back injuries.
Hawley finished the Oaklawn season, went to Keeneland where he led the rider standings and at Churchill Downs in May picked up the mount on Candi's Gold, who finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby.
But shortly after the Arlington season started, Hawley noticed another lump, this one on the left shoulder. He had more surgery, on the shoulder and neck.
"It's been scary," Hawley said. "You hear the word cancer and the first thing you think about is that it's all over.
"I'm much more optimistic now. The doctors tell me my chances are a lot better. I've come a long way. The shots are expensive, and flying back and forth to get them isn't easy, but if something is going to save your life, there's no such thing as too expensive."
Hawley has never had a weight problem. He's ridden at 106 pounds for several years and the most he gained during either of his recuperation periods was five pounds.
"The hardest part was getting fit each time I had to come back," Hawley said. "I was fortunate that in both of the operations, it wasn't necessary to cut into the muscles or tendons. This was the first time in my career that I've ever been impaired, so doing the exercises and calisthenics that came with getting ready was all new to me."
Hawley's Million mount, Spellbound, will be one of the longshots in the nine-horse field headed by Manila, last year's American turf champion. Spellbound, at 87-1, won a division of the Hollywood Derby last November but has done little in stakes competition since then.
In his last start, Spellbound led for three-quarters of a mile in the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga and finished last.
Jack Van Berg, who took over the training of the horse this year, said at Saratoga that there were too many good horses for Spellbound, who was a $14,000 yearling, to run in the Million. But here he is, and Tuesday, with Hawley in the saddle for the first time, he ran a 1:48 workout mile that was better than it looked because Arlington's saturated grass course was a spongy mess.
It may be soft again Sunday, with Chicago, after a record August rainfall, due to get more moisture this weekend.
"He handled the course well in that workout," Hawley said. "The thing I'll have to do Sunday is get him to relax in the first part of the race. Going this far (1 miles) could be a problem for him, though."
Hawley estimates that his win total--which ranks him seventh on the career list--is now about 5,350. And even without a win from Spellbound in the Million, the gentlemanly jockey from Canada has scored one more victory--a victory a lot more important than just hustling a horse to the finish line.