BY JIM WELLS
The story line is familiar. There is one more hurdle to clear, one more detail and the job is done.
I have one last thing to do. Just an hour to go. I can do this standing on my head.
Then something intervenes and none of it makes a lick of sense any longer.
Hugo Sanchez knows all too well. Belmont Day, 2016. One race to go. “I was thinking then I’m done and I’ll go home and enjoy the rest of the day,” he recalled.
There was only that 5/8ths mile race on the turf, a quick shower and then the rest of Saturday to enjoy as he saw fit.
The best laid plans….
Just a few steps from the gate, the horse on one side of him hit Sanchez’s horse. Then the horse on the opposite side did the same. The sandwich effect knocked him off balance and Sanchez tumbled from his mount, hitting the ground with a thud.
The details are still clear to him:
The momentary darkness that accompanies a punch to the jaw or a hard impact of any kind, followed by excruciating pain that invaded his body. Then, finally, after what seems an eternity, the blessed relief. “I think they gave me morphine,” he said. And then the ambulance ride.
The diagnosis was a broken fibula and tibia in the left leg.
In the days that followed there were numerous hospital visits from his colleagues, the other jockeys at Canterbury. Alex Canchari brought a much anticipated and enjoyed Peruvian dish he had made _ Lomo Saltado, a reminder to Hugo of home cooking that eased his troubled spirit and put to rest, if only temporarily, those awful unanswered questions that plagued his mind.
Would I ride again? How long would it be? Will I be the same rider I was before this happened?
“I felt better after I talked to people who had gotten the same surgery,” he recalled. “And the doctor said I would be able to ride again, that I would be the same.” Still…
An eight-month recovery takes a toll of its own. Yet, he was at home with family in Miami, getting the therapy necessary to strengthen leg muscle, then on the Equisizer and, finally, on the real thing again, galloping for several weeks and then, at long last, the races. “I knew it was going to take a while, to be a slow process,” he said.
The smile on his face since opening day at Canterbury has rendered the complete story. He is not only back in the saddle, performing the job he loves, but doing it with a relish.
You could see the confidence, the past put to rest, in his stride as he approached his mount in Saturday’s third race, Kato Miss, trained by Tony Rengstorf. Sanchez strode deliberately along the edges of the grass that abuts the paddock walking ring toward his mount, not cocky, not brash but with the demeanor of a man who has overcome the “worst” and emerged on the other side. He wouldn’t hit the board in this one but the trainer had trust in his rider as he talked about him before the race.
“He’s a good kid. He’ll be right there,” Rengstorf said. “It’s probably going to finish up much like it looks right now.”
By that Rengstorf meant that the riders at the top and in the second flight of the standings on Saturday would likely end up in similar straits by the time the meet closes in September.
Saturday started with Dean Butler leading the standings with 12 wins, followed by Alex Canchari with 11. Jareth Loveberry and Denny Velazquez had nine apiece. Orlando Mojica and Sanchez had eight each.
The jockey race is sorting itself out after a clamorous start, and Sanchez, despite his worst fears a year ago at this time, is part of the picture.
He was 11 years old when his father, Marcos, moved the family from Peru to Miami to provide them with opportunities that didn’t exist at home. That was 14 years ago. Hugo was 11 years old and destined to follow his father into riding horses for a living.
He recalls the day at Delaware Park when he struck up a conversation with Alex Canchari. “Your name sounds familiar to me,” he said. “Yours sounds familiar to me, too,” Canchari responded.
All it took was a phone call.
“My dad told me that he and Alex’s father, Luis, had ridden together in Peru,” Sanchez said. A bond was formed. That was 2013. Two years later, Sanchez arrived at Canterbury.
And for all appearances, in these opening days of the 2017 meet, Hugo Sanchez is back.