MANHASSET, N.Y., June 24 — Andrew Lakeman must have known he was risking his life every time he climbed aboard a horse. There is no job in sports more dangerous than being a jockey, an occupation that kills, on average, 1.5 riders a year, a statistic that does not include the ones who wind up paralyzed. But he kept riding, plugging away at a career that did not seem to be going anywhere.
Now Lakeman cannot walk.
On May 25, during the fourth race at Belmont Park, aboard a 78-1 shot named Our Montana Dream, Lakeman was sent crashing to the ground after his mount clipped heels with another horse and fell. Lakeman incurred a severed spinal cord, a broken sternum, a punctured lung and broken ribs.
Lakeman, a 32-year-old British native, had not won a race since 2005. But the Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who has always had a soft spot in his heart for struggling riders, was giving Lakeman a shot, and the jockey had never felt better about his prospects.
“He said to us, ‘Mr. Jerkens has some really good mounts coming up for me,’ ” said Lakeman’s father, Bill, from his son’s bedside at North Shore Hospital in Manhasset. “He was really high about it. He said, ‘Dad, I’m going to make it; these horses are really progressing.’ ”
Lakeman had struggled on and off the racetrack since arriving in the United States in the mid-90s to work as an exercise rider for the trainer Michael Dickinson and his assistant, Joan Wakefield.
“He was a nice kid and a good rider,” Dickinson said. “Joan did a lot of mothering with him and looked after him very well.”
But Dickinson grew concerned about Lakeman’s drinking habits. Alcohol and drugs became a persistent problem. Late last year, he turned to the Backstretch Employee Service Team, an organization that assists racetrack workers with substance abuse and other issues.
Lakeman lived in a B.E.S.T-supported dormitory on the Belmont backstretch for recovering addicts, worked diligently with his counselors and, on the day of his accident, had been sober for more than six months. “He took up residence in our recovery dormitory, and I think it was the support of other backstretch workers on a 24-hour basis that provided him with the kind of extra help and support that made it possible for him to stay in the program and stay on his way,” said B.E.S.T.’s president, Cate Dolan. “He was working particularly hard as an exercise rider and had begun to get some jockey assignments. Those two things combined gave him a real purpose to work toward. That’s a part of the extra sadness, the extra tragedy of this accident. He had really turned things around.”
After a two-year stint with Dickinson, Lakeman returned to Europe and rode briefly in England and Belgium. But he showed up at Belmont in 2000. He earned a modest living as an exercise rider, someone who works or gallops horses during morning training hours. Occasionally, he would get a mount in the afternoons. His best year came in 2005, when he won six races, including a small stakes race for Jerkens aboard a horse named Saint Daimon. He was 0 for 15 in 2006 and was winless in 35 starts this year.
He was almost surely never going to ride in a Kentucky Derby or a Breeders’ Cup race, and his racetrack earnings were always minimal He had to scuffle, willing to accept any mount that would come his way. “We all know what can happen, but a jockey doesn’t go out there worrying about getting hurt,” jockey Channing Hill said. “You can’t. If you did, if you rode scared, that’s when something would be most likely to happen.”
Our Montana Dream was typical of the type of horse Lakeman usually got to ride. She had never finished closer than fifth in her eight previous starts.
She was sitting 10th as the field of 12 negotiated the far turn in a one-mile grass race May 25, but she was full of run. With one horse to his inside and another to his outside, Lakeman had nowhere to go. Our Montana Dream virtually ran over a tiring Irish Senorita, tripped over that horse’s hind legs and fell. The incident happened so quickly that Lakeman apparently never had a chance to warn anyone he was in trouble.
“He was behind a horse, behind this kid Jose Bracetty and me,” jockey Raul Rojas said. “He tried to come through on the rail. He tried to pass between this kid and me. He didn’t say anything, not a word.”
Lakeman was rushed to North Shore Hospital and it was unclear whether he would survive, his father said.
“The chest and lungs were the worst problem,” Bill Lakeman said. “He had a lot of blood in his lungs, and when he came out of surgery, he panicked, thrashed around and damaged his other lung. The surgery on his spine went well. It is breathing that held him back.”
Doctors performed a tracheotomy so he could breathe.
It was several days before he was coherent enough to comprehend what had happened to him. He said he did not remember the spill. When told by doctors that he was paralyzed, “he was horrified,” his mother, Lynn, said.
Lakeman will begin a long rehabilitation process today when he is transferred to Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. It is expected that he will remain there for four to six weeks. Afterward, he will return to England and live with his parents.
His successful fight against cocaine and alcohol abuse might better prepare him for what lies ahead.
“He knows what it’s like to take things one day at a time,” said John Candlin, the trainer of Our Montana Dream. But his family worries.
“He hasn’t always been a positive person,” Bill Lakeman said. “He’s always had a lot of negative thought. He would say, ‘I’m never going to do this, I’m never going to do that.’ He’s always needed someone to push him.”
Will he be O.K.?
Lakeman heard the question and nodded.
He pointed to his heart.