The comeback kid : Rajiv Maragh and his date with destiny
"Oh no, not again!" were the last words Jamaican Jockey Rajiv Maragh remembered muttering as he tumbled and fell hard from his mount in the fifth race at Belmont Park, New York, on July 10, 2015.
Not far removed from a similar spill in October 2014, when another horse clipped the heels of his mount Wicked Strong in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and where he suffered a broken arm and was sidelined for six months, Maragh feared the worst as he lay motionless on the dirt of the famous racetrack.
"They say many trauma victims have no memory of the incident following a near-death experience like mine," Maragh said in a telephone interview from his New York home.
"But I remember it all ... from hitting the ground and where the horse fell on me ... to being wheeled away in the ambulance and asking God just to get me safely to the hospital, where I felt was my best and only chance at survival."
He said that while he didn't yet know the extent of his injuries, he felt like he was fighting to stay alive.
"My lungs had collapsed and I was running out of air and couldn't breathe," Maragh explained. "I felt like I was going to pass out and was just praying for the ambulance to reach the hospital."
It was at the hospital, where he underwent every test imaginable, that Maragh finally learnt the severity of his injuries. X-rays showed that he had nine fractures of the spine, broken ribs and collapsed lungs. And while he miraculously wasn't paralysed, there was not a doctor in the room that could or would guarantee him a full recovery.
"The only thing on my mind was not wanting to die," Maragh recalled. "I wasn't like looking down the road or thinking whether I would ever get back on a horse. It was all about survival and not wanting to go out this way."
Maragh would, indeed, survive! However, what he was about to undergo for the next 16 months would not only break even the best and most strong-willed of men, but was also enough to convince even some of his most ardent supporters that he would never ride again.
"For three months, through the fall of 2015, it had to be the lowest and most painful period of my life ever," he noted. "I literally couldn't do anything except lie on the couch and watch television. Just walking outside was a task and a half, as I couldn't bend, stretch or lift."
Maragh said he is forever grateful to his wife, Angelina, who was there every step of the way through the rehabilitation process and who would not give him the time or space to be down on himself.
"We were very close before, but I think we became even closer throughout that ordeal," he noted. "She was, indeed, my inspiration and the one who had to put up with all my frustration and the pain I was feeling."
Maragh, however, pointed out that through it all, there was one thing he knew for a fact deep in his mind - and that he would get back to riding races again.
RETURN TO TRACK
And in what has to be one of the biggest feel-good and comeback stories in sports for the latter part of the year into the first four months of 2017, Maragh made a remarkable return and one that could see him win one of sports' biggest prizes and on horseracing's biggest stage - the Kentucky Derby to be held today at Churchill Downs (racing's Holy Grail), Louisville, Kentucky.
Maragh, who made his long-awaited comeback in November of last year and finished fourth in the jockey's standing at Aqueduct, New York, with nearly 50 victories and purse money in excess of US$2 million, booked his ticket two weeks ago to ride in the Kentucky Derby by romping the US$750,000 Wood Memorial with a horse by the name of Irish War Cry.
It would be his fifth appearance in the world's most prestigious race, having finished third in 2011 with Mucho Macho Man, and fourth in 2014 with Wicked Strong.
The Wood Memorial was, however, such a convincing victory that many pundits are now giving Irish War Cry more than a fighting chance to give Maragh what no Caribbean or Jamaican rider has ever done - and that is to win what is considered the most famous and exciting two minutes in all of sports - the Kentucky Derby.
For Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports Olivia Grange, the Rajiv Maragh story is truly inspirational and also one that speaks of an indomitable spirit and having an unquenchable desire to succeed.
"His exceptional story, which has seen him become one of the top riders in America, is the stuff of legends," she pointed out. "But it's his comeback - his amazing, courageous and incredible 16-month return from several broken vertebrae, a broken rib, and a punctured lung in a racing accident - that makes him stand out."
The minister added that Maragh embodies the Jamaican spirit: resilient, determined, always trying, and never accepting defeat.
"I can't wait to see him in the Kentucky Derby. He will ride one of the favourites in one of the world's most anticipated races. I wish him the very best and, as a nation, we will cheer him on because he is already our champion. This year, we mark Jamaica 55 by celebrating Jamaicans at home and abroad. He is certainly one of those outstanding Jamaicans who we salute."
A winner of more than 1,700 races since he first got his jockey's licence in 2003, Maragh is the son of former top-flight Jamaican jockey-turned-trainer Colin Maragh.
A former student of Meadowbrook High School in St Andrew, he has also amassed nearly US$90 million in purse earnings, averaging a personal income of US$1 million per year.
Maragh, who has also won four Breeders Cup races and has ridden in faraway places such as Dubai and Japan, is the only rider in the English-speaking Caribbean to have placed twice in the Kentucky Derby. The four Breeders Cup wins are also the most by a Caribbean rider.