SAN MATEO — It was the kind of spill that could have killed. There was Jerry Lambert, riding the 1-2 favorite to victory one second, then being trampled by horses the next.
The favorite, a mare named Quita Kid, had made the lead on the far turn, but she was bearing out badly. Lambert did what any jockey would have done, he took an extra hold on the inside rein to try to get Quita Kid to straighten out.
But then the horse's bit broke.
"It reminded me of a tug of war, when the rope breaks and everybody pulling falls over backward," the 47-year-old Lambert said. "I started pulling on the right rein, just to catch my balance, but there was nothing to get hold of."
Lambert lost his balance and went down, and since his mount was in the lead, that meant that the rest of the horses had a shot at running over him.
Two of them did. They left skid marks all over Lambert's body. One of his cheekbones went from convex to concave. One of his lungs was collapsed and his left ankle was broken.
The accident happened at a fair in Pleasanton, Calif., last July, and Gordon Jones, a handicapper, saw it and was talking about it a few days later at Del Mar.
"Too bad," Jones said. "Jerry Lambert was riding as well as I've ever seen him ride, and then for that to happen."
When Jerry Lambert was at the top of his game, he could compete with the best. Twenty years ago, he won 77 races in a 72-day season at Santa Anita. He has won 133 stakes races at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Del Mar. In the 1960s, Lambert rode Native Diver 42 times, and he and the black gelding were a more popular team than Huntley and Brinkley.
But after the spill at Pleasanton, it seemed that Lambert, a man of many comebacks, had run out of resilience. He never lost consciousness when the two horses ran over him.
"I might have suffered worse injuries in a spill," he said during a recent interview here at Bay Meadows. "But this was the worst it ever hurt."
Three months later, though, the doctors gave him permission to get back on horses, and Lambert has returned, if not with a flourish, certainly with a determination. He won 40 races at the Bay Meadows meeting that closed last week, finishing seventh in the jockey standings.
"I always knew I'd come back."
Lambert said that to himself last year, just as he had said it in the fall of 1982, when he arrived at Santa Anita to end a four-year retirement brought on by a nagging back injury and no small amount of wanderlust.
"I had lost interest in riding," Lambert said. "I had burnout. It's true about only going around once in this world. Many people wait so long to retire that then they're too darn tired to enjoy it. I didn't retire, but I took enough time off to enjoy some things I always wanted to do."
A rural Kansas kid who won his first race in Shelby, Mont., in 1958, Lambert took off in 1978 for the open country, rediscovering his roots. He had numerous jobs, but actually he was on the bum. He worked as a hunting guide in Montana, he helped build a ski lift in Idaho. He did odd jobs on a ranch, and his weight got up to a lifetime high of 130 pounds.
Without dieting, Lambert got down to 115 pounds in 1982, but his comeback was short-lived. A few months after his return, he was thrown by a horse in a post parade at Santa Anita, suffering a pinched nerve in his neck and a partially paralyzed left arm.
After a year of therapy, Lambert started working at San Luis Rey Downs, the training center north of Del Mar. His weight was still down, and he kept fit by galloping as many as eight horses a day for trainer Wayne Lukas.
Lambert wanted to make connections with a substantial Southern California stable before he tried riding again, but nothing developed. Then, late in 1986, he went to Phoenix for a reunion of jockeys who had ridden at Turf Paradise and saw Jack Arterburn, an old riding buddy who had taken up training in Northern California.
"Come on up," Arterburn said. "You can ride anything I've got."
Lambert and Arterburn are still together, and Lambert also gets frequent riding calls from Jerry Dutton and Walter Greenman, leading trainers here and at Golden Gate Fields.
Being in Phoenix and seeing Arterburn was at least the second time in his career that Jerry Lambert has been in the right place at the right time.
In 1963, Native Diver was already a star, having won five stakes the year before as a 3-year-old. But his trainer, the late Buster Millerick, was in need of a jockey halfway through his 4-year-old season because Ralph Neves retired.
After a 20-year career, Neves wasn't getting good horses to ride anymore, and he was still hurting because of a metal plate in his head, a memento from a spill a year or two before. The only genuine horse Neves had left was Native Diver, and Millerick had sent the black gelding to the farm for a rest.
Neves walked into the stewards' office at Hollywood Park one day and told them he was quitting. Nobody believed him, but he meant it.