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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Sleep would come intermittently and often unexpectedly. An hour here, a few minutes there, a catnap while sitting up on the couch.
But those moments of blessed relief would never last long before the pain intruded. Searing discomfort was a constant state for Rajiv Maragh, his broken torso causing him to wake up screaming.
“For month upon month, my whole day was just painful,” he said. “I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t lay on my back, and I couldn’t lay on my side. It was torturous.”
On July 10, 2015, the jockey’s mount, Yourcreditisgood, fell on top of him after a spill at Belmont Park in New York. That’s roughly 1,000 pounds of animal crashing down on a man weighing about 115. That’s a mismatch.
The immediate diagnosis at the hospital was broken ribs and a punctured lung, which didn’t seem too bad. Then an MRI showed the rest of the damage the next day: eight broken vertebrae.
It was bad enough for long enough that Maragh’s characteristic laughter was, at best, a weak echo of its normal self. The perpetually upbeat 31-year-old frequently peppers conversations with infectious giggles.
“When he laughs,” said Maragh’s racetrack valet, Harry Rice, “the whole room laughs.”
But when it hurts that much to laugh, you tend to stop laughing.
For nine months, the guy known as “Raj” spent almost every waking moment in an upper-body brace. And for 16 months, one of the nation’s top 20 riders was out of racing. A vibrant existence was almost at a standstill, as Maragh depended heavily on his wife, Angelina, for help getting around and emotional support.
“So many sleepless nights,” she said.
Yet on Saturday, Rajiv Maragh will ride one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby, co-second choice Irish War Cry. If you like a good comeback story – fueled by fortitude, fearlessness, friendship and even forgiveness – the Jamaican native of Indian descent is your guy.
“From what I seen 16 months before that,” said Maragh’s agent, Tony Micallef, “you never thought it was going to happen.”
Few, if any, athletes flirt with danger on a more regular basis than jockeys. Balancing their tiny bodies on the balls of their feet, which rest on thin metal stirrups, they are tasked with guiding large animals at high rates of speed in confined quarters. One wrong step can be catastrophic.
Injuries considered severe in other sports are moderate at the track, where a bad day at the office can get a rider killed or paralyzed.
“It’s the only sport where an ambulance follows you around,” Micallef noted.
Like driving on a crowded freeway, the element of danger is exacerbated by the accompanying traffic. You may be a careful driver, but what if those around you are not?
And in horse racing, the risks go beyond mere carelessness. With livelihoods on the line, aggressive riding and risk-taking is part of the deal. Sometimes even cutthroat tactics come into play.
When Rajiv Maragh wound up broken on the dirt track at Belmont in July 2015 – gasping for breath and trying not to pass out, for fear he would never wake up – it wasn’t his fault. Neither was he to blame in September 2014, when a spill left him with a compound arm fracture.
“We all know that’s part of the game,” said Rice, who takes care of Maragh’s equipment and racing silks on a daily basis. “But his two injuries should never have happened. It’s bad riding by other guys.”
In the 2014 incident, in the high-profile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Moreno jockey Junior Alvarado cut off a couple of other riders. Among them was Maragh aboard Wicked Strong, resulting in the spill and arm fracture. Alvarado was suspended 15 days for careless riding.
In the 2015 incident that sidelined him for nearly a year and a half, jockey Ruben Silvera drifted his mount, Mini Muffin, into Maragh’s path and created the spill. Silvera was suspended 10 days for that ride.
Silvera also was suspended twice in 2016, and Alvarado was fined last year as well. But it’s hard to find any rider who has a clean slate with the racing commissions – including Maragh himself.
He had two suspensions for riding incidents in 2011, including a memorable one at the Belmont Stakes. Shortly after coming out of the gate in that Triple Crown race, Maragh’s mount, Isn’t He Perfect, veered into the path of Mucho Macho Man. That caused a chain reaction which led favorite and Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom to stumble and nearly fall, with jockey John Velazquez’s left foot out of the iron and off-balance for several strides – that doomed Animal Kingdom’s chances of winning.
Velazquez publicly accused Maragh of deliberately sabotaging Mucho Macho Man – a mount Maragh had lost since that year’s Preakness to Ramon Dominguez. Animal Kingdom was simply caught in the crossfire.
Maragh was suspended seven days for that.
The jockey said he regretted causing the problem but insisted it was unintentional, his actions in no way driven by trying to get revenge upon Dominguez or the Mucho Macho Man connections. But some members of Team Valor, the group that owned Animal Kingdom, have always held it against Maragh.
One member of Animal Kingdom’s connections who has not held that race against Maragh: trainer Graham Motion, who also happens to train Irish War Cry.
“It’s one of those things that was incredibly disappointing at the time, but I never really held a grudge against him for it,” Motion told the Daily Racing Form.
Clearly, there is no grudge. Not only has British native Motion put Maragh on the backs of many of his best horses since 2011, the two have formed a friendship beyond the track, meeting periodically with their wives for dinner.
And when Maragh was ready to make his comeback in November 2016, Motion watched him ride some horses during training hours and did not hesitate to use him in races.
“He has confidence in me,” Maragh said. “He’s always given me great opportunities.”
Said Motion: “I just have so much respect for him after what he went through. Honestly, I wasn’t sure he’d ride again. But it’s a passion for him.”
Rajiv Maragh has been immersed in horse racing since shortly after birth. The family connections to the sport are endless.
His father was a jockey and is now a trainer. His brother is a jockey. Four of his aunts married jockeys. The list goes on.
“I was surrounded by jockeys,” Maragh said with the trademark laugh. “Engulfed by jockeys. That’s all I aspired to be was a jockey. In Jamaica, other kids wanted to be basketball players and soccer players, but I wanted to be a jockey.”
Still, his parents did not let him ride professionally until age 18, after he graduated from high school. Shortly thereafter he moved to America, and it did not take long for his career to take off. For seven straight years from 2008-14, Maragh ranked among the top 20 American jockeys in purse money.
Then disaster struck in 2015, and his career was at a crossroads.
Despite the arduous and tedious rehab, the sleepless nights, the omnipresent pain, Maragh never gave serious thought to abandoning the sport. Many riders have lost their nerve coming back to the track after a major injury – and oftentimes the most dangerous riders are considered to be those who are too cautious. Maragh figured all along he would come back, and figured he would ride like he always did.
The fellow jockeys in his family understood. Angelina eventually did, too.
“I fully support him in his career,” she said. “He’s so passionate about it. That fear is always in the back of my mind, but I try not to let it overtake me.”
Said Maragh: “For me, I’ve come to accept that I love what I do. If I get injured, that’s just what I signed on for. I don’t have any fear. If I get seriously injured again, I’m not going to get mad about it.”
But even if the spirit was willing to return to the track, the flesh was initially weak. Maragh might have come back too soon, his legs still weak, causing him to bounce a bit in the saddle. That, combined with drawing relatively lackluster mounts, contributed to a 33-race losing streak to begin his return.
Even after Maragh finally rode a winner – Bass River Road in a claiming race at Aqueduct last Nov. 23rd – it took a couple more weeks before he got back into his groove. At that point Maragh could be considered to “have some stink on him” – a racetrack term for a jockey in a slump – but he kept his spirits high. After more than a year being trapped in a broken body, just riding was its own reward.
Still, as someone who had ridden in four previous Kentucky Derbies and finished as high as third (Mucho Macho Man), he hungered for the opportunity to ride top 3-year-olds as they worked through the prep races toward the Triple Crown events.
Motion gave him the opportunity of a reborn career in April.
Irish War Cry began his career with three impressive victories, the last of the three being the Holy Bull Stakes in February under elite rider Joel Rosario. But in March the colt bombed in the Fountain Of Youth Stakes, finishing seventh – “a debacle,” Motion said, with English pronunciation – and Rosario looked for another Derby mount.
Motion then turned to Maragh for Irish War Cry’s final Derby prep race, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Maragh rode the horse three mornings that week to get a feel for him, then booted him home for a dazzling victory.
Their Kentucky Derby ticket was punched. And Rajiv Maragh’s comeback was complete.
“A 16th of a mile after the wire I got hit with a lot of emotions,” he said. “My mind flashed back and it was almost like a collage of all the things I went through. It was overwhelming and surreal, like a big dream.
“I definitely beat a lot of odds.”
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