DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATEs
Rolling his wheelchair up to the Meydan Racecourse, Rene Douglas wasn’t sure how he would feel.
It had been nearly four years since the Panamanian jockey was paralyzed when his horse fell on top of him at Arlington Park and this week was the first time he had been to a track. A winner of more than 3,600 races, Douglas said he thought about his 27-year career — including winning the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Dreaming of Anna and 1996 Belmont Stakes on Editor’s Note — but also his new life as co-owner of Private Zone, who races on Meydan on Saturday in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen.
“Happiness and sadness at the same time,” Douglas said of first trip to Meydan. “My heart started pumping a little bit.”
Douglas, 46, is part of the richest day in horse racing, a nine-race card that culminates with the $10 million Dubai World Cup. The day of races attracts some of the biggest names in the sport and this year the Dubai World Cup features 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, two-time Eclipse Award-winning Royal Delta and defending champion Monterosso, owned by Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.
Animal Kingdom is owned by Team Valor, which includes Youngstown businessman Bruce Zoldan.
But there may not be a more inspiring story than Douglas’ at the track.
Douglas grew up in a racing family and was sent by his father to the United States to start racing at 15. It all came to an abrupt halt in May 2009, when Douglas was aboard Born to Be during the Arlington Matron Handicap. His horse went down at the top of the stretch, tossed Douglas over her head and landed on him. He was under the horse for five minutes.
“They couldn’t get me out. They didn’t have the machines,” he said. “The horse saved my life. When the horse went down, it was paralyzed and couldn’t move. If it would have moved, it would have crushed me death. I’m here for a reason.”
Douglas spent six months in the hospital recovering from broken ribs and a punctured lung and struggling to come to terms with his new reality. He fell into a deep depression, mostly cutting himself off from the racing community that was his world for so many years. What was hardest for Douglas was the fact he had been scheduled to race at Royal Ascot soon after his fall.
For much of the time in the hospital, a group of five friends from Chicago — including Hall of Fame hockey player Denis Savard — were with him almost around the clock alongside his wife Natalia.
“For him and for me and for my family, they were like life savers,” Natalia Douglas said of the group. “… One of the reasons he is doing better now is because of them.”