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Rafael Bejarano has success even without any victories

Jockey enjoys a safe start to the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita, a much different outcome for him than opening day at Del Mar in July.

October 01, 2009|BILL DWYRE

As opening days of race track meetings go, Wednesday's Oak Tree at Santa Anita was a huge success for star jockey Rafael Bejarano.

No, he didn't win the feature, the $100,000 Grade III Morvich. That went to California Flag, the 5-year-old of Keith and Barbara Card, a front-running gelding who did the same thing last year and won another spot in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.

And no, Bejarano, the 27-year-old from Peru, who was so good last year that he placed first in the jockey standings of all five Southern California thoroughbred meets, didn't even win a race. He had a second, third and fourth.

Compared to July 22, opening day at Del Mar, that was like winning the Kentucky Derby.

That day, aboard an 8-year-old named Mi Rey, in a $10,000 claiming race, Bejarano's career -- and life -- came within inches of ending. Mi Rey broke his right front leg on the home-stretch run, pitched Bejarano off into the nearby scrum of horses and sent the jockey rolling down the track. A grandstand packed with the largest crowd in track history, 44,907, watched in horror. While Bejarano rolled, Mi Rey kept running in shock and pain, leg flapping.

"I remember hitting and rolling," Bejarano said Wednesday. "I remember all the other horses were outside of us and they pulled around to the right and away from me.

"I was thinking, when I rolled, that I was all right, that I would be able to get back up and ride the rest of the day."

But then he saw Senor Afortunado and jockey Garrett Gomez. Unlike the other horses, they were in tight to the rail. Bejarano was still rolling, his head toward the rail and maybe five feet from it.

"He tried to go inside," Bejarano said. "I thought he might miss me."

But Senor Afortunado's back hoof caught Bejarano on the left side of his face with a crushing blow. Gomez, who had done his best, turned to look back at his fallen comrade.

"I was knocked out," said Bejarano. "I woke up again in the ambulance, then in the hospital. I heard a lot of voices, the doctor talking to me, telling me to wake up."

He said he remembered a couple of friends being there with him, including his agent, Joe Ferrer, and Denise Mitchell, wife of trainer Mike Mitchell.

"She was great," Bejarano said. "She was there a lot with me."

He recalled that, through kind of a haze, the doctor told him the X-rays showed he needed lots of surgery.

"That took about 5 1/2 hours," he said.

He remembered waking up from that, looking in the mirror at a face half again as large as the one he had started the day with -- his left eye was entirely shut -- and thinking that, not only would he never ride again, but he might never see out of that eye again.

His cheekbone had been fractured, as well as his nose and bones around his eye and jaw. Had the blow been a little higher, closer to his brain . . . well, nobody wants to think about that.

"Looking at myself in the mirror, that was scary," Bejarano said.

Bejarano's doctor told him he'd have to wait at least five to six weeks to get back on a horse. He was back sooner, working horses and eventually riding part of the last week at Del Mar.

"I had a mask on," he said, "but I was OK."

Was he nervous in the gate for that first race back? A little scared?

"Nope," Bejarano said. "I think I got second. And the next day, I won twice."

A few days later, after finishing third, his horse dumped him while galloping out. He broke his fall with his hands and wrist and sprained his right thumb.

"I was protecting my face," said Bejarano, who still has a little bruising under his left eye but is otherwise unmarked.

Columnist Tim Sullivan of the San Diego Union-Tribune had perhaps the best characterization of the events of July 22, and of the toughness of the small people who are the sport's human stars

Sullivan wrote that spills such as Bejarano's are seen in racing as an occupational hazard. More accurately, Sullivan wrote, it is a hazardous occupation.

Fortunately, no such event marred the Oak Tree opening.

The Card family watched with pride as Joe Talamo immediately took California Flag to his comfort zone, the front, on Santa Anita's legendary turf course that heads down hill, takes a right turn, then a left, and then necessitates a dart over the dirt (synthetics) before heading for home.

Get Funky was a length behind and highly regarded Desert Code, who had won last year's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint when California Flag got hooked up in an ill-advised speed duel early, trailed badly in seventh.

"This is fabulous," Barbara Card said. "We are so ready for the Breeders' Cup this time."

Trainer Brian Koriner agreed.

"He is fresher now, only two races coming in," he said. "Last year, we had to campaign him all the way here."

The tough economy kept both the on-track and total handles well down from last year. The on-track total last year was $2,215,994; this year, $1,884, 513. All betting last year was $7,663,934; this year, $6,729,164.

But the good moments were in there too.

* No horses broke down.

* Attendance was 17,239; last year's was 17,191.

* The sixth race had a $132,409 superfecta (pick the first four horses in order); a $10,597 trifecta (first three horses) and a $13,000 superfecta payoff with only a 10-cent bet.

* A horse named Scat Thief rallied on the outside for third place in the second race. Its owner was tennis star Jack Kramer, who died recently and who loved his horses almost as much as his big forehand.


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