The winner was well clear, and this was not unexpected. The Fed Eased, in his only previous start, finished a solid second to budding three year-old star Crossbow. And so it was predicted by many that he’d capture this heat with little difficulty. This he did.
No one particularly wants to see the also-rans, it is assumed. Many of us are raised, after all, to believe in that famous Vince Lombardi credo. “Winning isn’t everything,” the legendary coach said. “It’s the only thing.” And so the eye in the sky that captures the Aqueduct proceedings on film remained fixed upon The Fed Eased, rendering the other horses out of shot, and, consequently, irrelevant.
One observer in the paddock, however, couldn’t possibly have cared any less about the winner. His focus was on a horse that, when last in view, was fifth in the five-horse field. The horse, Thisskysabeauty, was on the rail, and rallying mildly. Once The Fed Eased hit the sixteenth pole, though, Thisskysabeauty’s whereabouts were a mystery to those watching the paddock television monitor.
The observer, ex-jockey Andrew Lakeman, had just made the transition quite commonly made in the sport of kings, from jockey to trainer. Thisskysabeauty was his very first runner as conditioner. The manner in which this typical career progression took place, though, was anything but.
44 months ago, Lakeman was injured in a horrific spill at Belmont. His injuries left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Those interested in the details of Lakeman’s incredibly difficult journey in the time since would do well to read David Grening’s incredibly gripping account in the Daily Racing Form. To briefly summarize, the piece touched on Lakeman’s battles with substance abuse, and quoted a friend of his as saying that she feared Lakeman was in such a state of despondence that he would commit suicide. He lacked purpose, and was struggling to deal with his new reality.
In training, however, he’d found his purpose. He purchased Thisskysabeauty as a two year-old for $40,000, and spent the next six months preparing him for his first start. Finally, the time came for Thisskysabeauty to make his debut at the races, as Lakeman entered him in Saturday’s second race, a six-furlong maiden special weight event.
But as they hit the top of the stretch, purpose was bringing up the rear. To the man that had come so far in the past few years, who’d conquered his personal demons to the point where he’d achieved a year of sobriety this past September, it surely felt empty. He hadn’t gone that long hard road to see his charge finish last of five.
But when Thisskysabeauty reappeared as they neared the wire, he was shown rallying up for third. Well beaten by The Fed Eased, and even second place finisher Infallible, track announcer John Imbriale didn’t see fit to note Thisskysabeauty’s position in the final order, rendering him further irrelevant. But to Lakeman and colleague Glenn DiSanto, who saddled Thisskysabeauty on Lakeman’s behalf, that third place finish was cause for celebration. It may not have been the way Lakeman would’ve scripted it, but it was, at the very least, a small victory.
For a man who has overcome so much, even the small victories are worth cherishing.
He looked on from the paddock as the horses were circling. His exchanges with DiSanto were brief. He appeared, simply, to be taking in the moment.
The jockeys made their way out, and the one that approached Lakeman was Eclipse Award winner Ramon Dominguez. His presence alone lends credibility to a horse’s chances, and Lakeman took great pride in being able to secure the champion jock for his charge’s bow.
“To be able to get Ramon,” Lakeman said after the race. “It’s a dream. They drew the race (Wednesday), and he was available. It was a dream.”
Dominguez, during the inner track meet, has won at a remarkable thirty-four percent clip, approaching Ted Williams territory. To put his dominance in perspective, Dominguez’s seven victories on the Friday and Saturday cards equaled Lakeman’s seven career victories.
Lakeman gave Dominguez some brief instructions, although there really wasn’t much to say. He informed his rider that Thisskysabeauty would look to close, and that he was probably best served saving ground in the early going. Ultimately, though, Lakeman told Dominguez simply:
“Do what you feel.”
Perhaps mirroring the way his handler was feeling, Thisskysabeauty was excited in the post parade, the jockey reported after the race. He broke cleanly, but was last at the outset. Despite the fact that he needed a telescope to see The Fed Eased at the end of the race, Dominguez said the horse “closed beautifully.“ Overall, according to Lakeman, Dominguez was fairly impressed.
“(Dominguez) said he liked what he felt,” reported Lakeman. “(Thisskysabeauty) showed great stamina. Ramon said the pony boy had to pull him up on the gallop out. He was still going very strong. ”
“I’m proud of him, and proud of myself.”
The third place share of the $42,000 purse amounts to $4,200, less the ten percent that Dominguez is owed for his services. So owner/trainer Lakeman has a long way to go before he finds himself in the black on his purchase.
Still, listening to Lakeman talk about his newfound sense of purpose after the race, you get the impression that he’d still consider Thisskysabeauty an incredible buy, even if the horse doesn’t make him another dime.
“It feels great,” went the measured words of Lakeman (though he is able to speak clearly, the words are forced). “I feel like I have a purpose in my life.”
He went on to say: “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life. It feels great. I’m very happy.”
The press corps thanked him for his time. Clearly he was spent. It was a moment that was 44 months in the making.
Watching Lakeman in those moments after the race, it’s hard not to think, with due respect to the legendary coach, that the great Lombardi couldn’t have been more wrong.