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The future of jockey Don Howard crystallized in a Shrevepor

January 17, 1997

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) _ The future of jockey Don Howard crystallized in a Shreveport, La., bone and joint clinic.

Howard was only 35, but he had been sidelined 40 months because of a spill at Louisiana Downs. His doctor, Don Burt, asked Howard if he wanted to ride again and the jockey’s wife, Carla, jumped in: ``Don will never race again.″

The comment jolted Howard.

``I felt like somebody had reached in, grabbed my backbone, and just took it out and just threw me away,″ he said.

At that point, Howard realized he had to take another shot at riding.

``If I couldn’t, then it was going to be my decision to say I can’t do it,″ he said.

Last October, he was back riding at The Downs at Albuquerque, N.M. Now he has returned to Oaklawn, one of his favorite racetracks.

Howard was a leading rider in the South early in the ’90s. In 1990, he was fifth in the standing at Oaklawn with 46 winners. The next year, he won five races on the final day and finished second to perennial champion Pat Day, with 71 winners.

In September 1992, Howard had the accident at Bossier City that left him with a concussion and a broken humerus in his right arm. Burt told him he was lucky.

The kick to the head knocked him sideways. Otherwise, the horse that broke his arm could have caved in his chest.

Months after the accident, he took his daughter to Denver for modeling classes and decided to climb on a couple of thoroughbreds. Howard could always pop a horse with the whip, but when he reached back to swat his mount a second time, he couldn’t raise his arm.

He rushed to a phone and called Burt, who ordered an X-ray. Howard returned to Shreveport.

Burt had to operate on Howard again, pinning the fracture and bone-grafting it. It took more than 45 minutes just to untangle some nerves, Howard said.

By then, the jockey was short of cash, and his marriage was in trouble. He did carpentry work, left-handed. Because of his head injury, he needed someone around almost constantly. Talking of suicide, he was in and out of a couple of hospitals.

Eventually, a counselor gave him the name of a woman in Farmington, N.M. He stashed the number in his day planner and, a month later, picked up the phone.

Now he and Yvonne Wray talk almost daily, and the chats give him inspiration.

Howard didn’t ride again in a race until last October, when he decided to give it a go in Albuquerque. He told his agent he wanted no publicity, and he rolled into town sporting a big, bushy beard.

He decided to ride until Dec. 1 and see how things went.

``I would know whether my arm was going to be good enough to come back and whether my mind was going to be good enough to come back and whether I wanted to come back,″ he said. ``That’s a big thing. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be here.″

Howard got in an immediate groove and finished in the top three in the jockey standings.

When things started clicking at Albuquerque, he said to himself, ``I’d better get back to Oaklawn.″

At Oaklawn, Howard and his new agent, Lee Lorick, have been shaking hands on the backstretch and trying to line up rides for the Oaklawn meeting, which began Jan. 17.

``He has a reputation as a hard worker and a hard rider,″ Lorick said. ``Oaklawn has always been one of his favorites ... and this is where the money is.″

Howard is glad to be riding again, but says it’s tough being on his own. His two teen-aged daughters are with Carla, now his ex-wife.

``If you go home and you’ve had a bad day, there’s someone to lean on,″ he said. ``If you have a good day, you have someone to share with.″

A tightrope walker has the right approach to life, Howard said.

``Watch one of those guys _ they’re either moving forward or backward, never standing still,″ he said. ``Life has got to be the same way _ two steps forward or two steps backward.″

End advance for Jan. 18-19

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