Rolling his wheelchair up to the Meydan Racecourse, Rene Douglas wasn’t sure how he’d respond.
This week marked the first time he’d been to a track in the nearly four years since the Panamanian jockey was paralyzed when his horse fell on top of him at Arlington Park.
The winner of more than 3,600 races said he thought about his 27-year career — including winning the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Dreaming of Anna and 1996 Belmont Stakes on Editor’s Note. He also considered his new role as co-owner of Private Zone, a horse that finished ninth at Meydan on Saturday in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen.
”Happiness and sadness at the same time,” Douglas said of first trip to Meydan. ”My heart started pumping a little bit.”
The 46-year-old Douglas was part of the richest day in horse racing, a nine-race card that culminates with the $10 million Dubai World Cup. The day attracts some of the biggest names in the sport.
Douglas, who grew up in a racing family, was sent by his father to the United States to begin his career at 15. That career ended in May 2009, when Douglas was aboard Born to Be during the Arlington Matron Handicap. His horse went down at the top of the stretch, tossed Douglas over her head and landed on him. He was under the horse for five minutes.
”They couldn’t get me out. They didn’t have the machines,” he said. ”The horse saved my life. When the horse went down, it was paralyzed and couldn’t move. If it would have moved, it would have crushed me to death. I’m here for a reason.”
Douglas spent six months in the hospital recovering from broken ribs and a punctured lung. He fell into a deep depression, cutting himself off from the racing community. Douglas was scheduled to race at Royal Ascot soon after his fall.
”I was getting better at the time that I was supposed to go to Ascot to ride for (trainer) Wesley Ward,” he said. ”Riding in Ascot would have been huge for me.”
For much of the time in the hospital, a group of five friends from Chicago — including a doctor, a judge and Hall of Fame hockey player Denis Savard — were with Douglas and his wife Natalia.
”For him and for me and for my family, they were like life-savers,” Natalia Douglas said of the group. ”At the beginning, it was so hard. They were there every day for us, to sit with us, to keep his spirits up. One of the reasons he is doing better now is because of them.”
Douglas formed Good Friends Stable in an effort repay his five friends.
”One of the biggest healers was getting the first horse for my friends,” said Douglas at the Meydan Hotel, which overlooks the track. ”They were there for me. Inside of me, I felt like I have to give back to them.”
Douglas helped arrange the purchase of Golden Moka for $60,000 in 2010, and the horse went on to win the $500,000 Prince of Wales in Canada before getting injured and euthanized.
The loss of Golden Moka sent Douglas in search of another horse, and he bought Private Zone last year from his brother Rogelio in Panama for $80,000. The horse at first seemed like a bad bet, with trainer Rogelio calling the horse ”crazy” and ”nuts” because of a tendency to abruptly stop and ignore instructions from jockeys.
But Douglas, who lives in Aventura, Fla., enlisted his network of racing friends to help turn the 4-year-old into a winner.
He hired Doug O’Neill — who had just won the Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another — as the trainer and an old roommate and good friend Martin Pedroza to ride him. Over the second part of last year, Private Zone finished second four times and third once in his past five races. That led to the Dubai invitation and dreams of the biggest payday yet for Good Friends Stable.
”If I win, I honestly don’t know if I’ll pass out,” Douglas said before race day. ”Maybe that is the day I’ll stand up and walk. I told one of the owners I want to go into the winner’s circle on your shoulders. I’ll be on somebody’s shoulders for sure. I want to lift the trophy.”
However, a trip to the winner’s circle didn’t happen. Private Zone had the early lead in the Dubai Golden Shaheen but faded to ninth.
The race was only one of the highlights for Douglas during his Dubai trip. It allowed Douglas to reconnect with many of the horsemen he once rode for, including Sheik Mohammad, whom he met Thursday night. He also met with trainers, including Ward and Dale Romans.
”My favorite jockey of all time,” said Romans. ”Everybody is so glad to see him back around the track where he belongs. He is the best horseman jockey that every rode for me. He could tell me more about a horse on the ground or on his back of any rider I had.”
Ward acknowledged seeing Douglas for the first time since the accident this week ”was emotional.” He was comforted to know his former jockey was finally finding a new role for himself.
”The last time I saw him he was up on my horses and talking very vibrantly,” he said. ”You see him in different eyes now. You feel really bad for him, but at the same point it’s good to see him come out of his shell and moving forward.”
Douglas said Romans and others have encouraged him to start scouting horses for them. It’s a good feeling, he said, to be recognized as ”having an eye for horses.”
”Now, I’m back,” he said. ”I feel like, you know, I want to be in these races. Of course, I have to find other horses. But I will.”