Anybody that watches a horse race knows what can happen in a split second. A hole can open and close, a race can be won and lost, a career can be ended or saved. A split second is all it takes for a jockey to come off a horse. Sometimes, the ramifications of that split second can take an eternity to recover from. It took just a split second for jockey David Lopez’s year to come to a crashing halt.
Lopez was aboard Tiz Fitting on Sept. 16th when the horse bobbled out of the gate and Lopez lost his balance and hit the track. Fortunately, he avoided a serious injury, getting right to his feet, able to walk off the track.
Unfortunately, it was the beginning of months or recuperation and doubt.
“I hit so hard my helmet flew off. I don’t know how it did,” Lopez said. “I was dizzy at the beginning when I walked to the (track) doctor and when I got home I started to get headaches.”
For the next three months, Lopez would be deep in the world of medical attention. He suffered a concussion and bruising to the brain. The question of when he would return to the track was not when, but if.
In a day and age that concussions are watched very carefully in the sports world, Lopez, continued to have headaches for 1 ½ months, the whole time weighing the only career he knew, against a growing family he wants to be with for a long time.
“I’ve had a broken hand, a couple broken collarbones and a few concussions before, but this time it felt worse,” Lopez said. “I had more headaches this time.”
The 31-year-old Lopez, who has been riding for the last 12 years, saw a neurologist but remained under the careful watch of track doctor David Seftel.
“There has been a tremendous amount of news recently about the effect of head injuries in all sports,” Seftel said. “The head injury is the number one jockey injury, nationwide. It always has been, and given the nature of the sport, always will be.”
As the last three months ran its course, the decision whether or not to ride again weighed heavily on the jockeys mind. When and if he would be allowed to return would not only by his call, but that of Seftel’s as well.
“One has to put everything into the mix when clearing a jockey to ride”, Seftel said. “ You have to understand the past injuries, the past medical history and look at the work schedule of that jockey. I also monitor them when they come back. Sometimes it’s difficult to measure what the long term consequences can be.”
Suddenly a family man, Lopez started to think about what this future held.
“It was real difficult this time,” Lopez said. “You do something for so long, and then you’re sitting at home wondering why am I here. I was a regular guy with nothing to do on Sundays.”
“But the time away made the fire come back,” he said. “I missed horses so much, I missed winning so much. When you’re a jockey, its part of your life.”
So Lopez waited for clearance and finally, a few weeks ago, he got it. On Wednesday, when Golden Gate Fields opens its spring meet, Lopez has a call on three horses.
“The doctors have explained to me the dangers of head injuries and they want me to take my time,” Lopez said. “But I believe in god and I have the confidence that nothing will happen to me. I just want to ride again.”