After a tragic fall left him paralysed in 2009, former jockey Rene Douglas has returned to the race track and has the same goal in mind for the Golden Shaheen on Saturday.
Dubai World Cup: Rene Douglas granted second chance at life and racing
The familiar advice meted out to those who have fallen off a horse is always to get straight back into the saddle. Rene Douglas, however, never had that chance.
The last time the decorated jockey fell off a horse, in 2009, it left him paralysed.
The former winner at the Breeders' Cup and Belmont Stakes has refused to go near a racecourse since, but as the leading figure in the Chicago-based syndicate that owns Private Zone, he watched morning track work from his wheelchair at the Meydan Racecourse on Wednesday.
Douglas had vowed that if Private Zone were offered an invitation to Saturday's US$2 million (Dh11.1m) Dubai Golden Shaheen, he would accompany them.
"Here I am," the 46-year-old Panamanian said in accented English. "It is going to be tough on Saturday and there is likely to be a lot of crying,"
Wearing the baseball cap of the Private Zone syndicate, he recounted that fateful day at Arlington Park, nearly four years ago, when the filly Born To Be suffered one of the most sickening falls seen on a racecourse.
Having clipped heels with another horse, Born To Be somersaulted forward, lashing Douglas to the dirt in an instant. Born to Be flipped once more and landed rump first, directly on top of Douglas. It resulted in seven hours of spinal surgery, rounds of stem-cell therapy and months of depression, regret and lawsuits.
"I am lucky to be alive," he said, as Private Zone worked in the background. "That horse saved my life. I was under him for five minutes. They could not get him off me and he was paralysed, like me.
"If he had not been paralysed he would have moved around and would have crushed me to death. That horse died for me and saved my life. What a name. Born to Be. I can never forget that horse's name.
"I feel things in my legs, I feel the nerves and if I keep myself healthy, keep happy and hope, there can be nothing like walking again."
Douglas's career in the saddle spanned 27 years, nearly all of it in the United States. He won more than 3,500 races and his career highlight was to coax the notoriously difficult Editor's Note to win the 1996 Belmont Stakes.
Watching replays of that race, it is clear that Douglas never once gave up in the 148 seconds it took to edge his mount around the outside of the field to win the last and oldest of America's famed Triple Crown races.
Douglas appreciates determination.
In 2002, he rode Macho Uno, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner that Douglas describes as being "a small horse with a big heart". Once Macho Uno retired, he went on to stud and in 2009 produced Private Zone.
Private Zone went for $15,000 at the Keeneland Sales the following year and was sent to Panama where he won four from nine, including at the highest level. It was hardly plain sailing, however, and due to comparatively poor food, training methods and facilities, the horse developed bad habits. In one race, he baulked at a false rail, planted his feet and threw his rider. In another, he lost interest completely when in the lead and faded.
It was in May 2012, that Private Zone ran the sort of race which proved conclusively that he belongs in the same line-up this Saturday as Godolphin's Mental and Krypton Factor, last season's Golden Shaheen winner.
He scorched five lengths clear but his jockey, Arias Rivas, lost his irons, which saw the pair drop like a stone through the field. It took Rivas a full furlong to get his toes back into his irons before Private Zone calmly galloped home to finish first over 1,200m in one minute, 12.80 seconds.
Douglas had been looking to buy a horse for a syndicate comprising some of his closest friends. There was the Canadian Denis Savard, a retired Hall of Fame hockey player. And Dr Hilton Gordon, who jumped the rail at Arlington to be beside Douglas as he lay prostrate and crushed. Others include Dave Flanzbaum, a businessman, and Joe Casciato, who has served on the Illinois Racing Board. Private Zone was not going for cheap after his latest run and Douglas had to fend off competition to secure the damaged son of Macho Uno for $80,000.
"I needed to know he was sound and that I could fix him," Douglas said. "They ran him too many times, he didn't get the right food and he was a little skinny. It is like a boxer, we can improve them with a better regimen, better training, better food. Of course there is an element of luck, but I liked him and thought he was worth taking a chance on.
"I thought he would improve for the relaxed atmosphere in California. He has now put on around a hundred pounds of muscle. He was a young horse running against older horses and there is much more to come."
Since transferring to Doug O'Neill's yard, Private Zone has run a series of promising races without getting his head in front. He has shown enough form to receive an invitation to Dubai and, for the first time since his fall, Douglas can see light at the end of the tunnel.
"I'd be lying to you if I said that everything is all right," Douglas said. "A lot of people who are paralysed don't actually think about the position they are in.
"It's not only about being in a wheelchair. I experience pain on a daily basis. Mentally, you really have to focus. Sure, the family helps a lot, but you have good days and bad days. Every day I am trying to change my state of mind. I don't want to think about the many things I achieved in the past, otherwise, I will get down.
"I always wanted to be the best as a rider. I hated anyone being better than me and always tried to work out how to beat people. In the first two years after my fall, I couldn't work out how to do anything, let alone beat anyone one, and I found that very difficult.
"If Private Zone wins, I'm hoping it will be the first time that I will walk – I'll just get up and go over to him."
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