Not far from the Laurel race track, there is a night spot of the urban cowboy persuasion. Paul Nicolo chose it as the place to corrupt his best buddy, Sammy Boulmetis. They are an odd couple, both jockeys but one a street tough kid from Boston, the other the boy next door who at 24 still won't use profanity in front of his parents. Nicolo said no one ought to be that nice, and so a month ago he watched happily as the boy next door, after an unprecedented two beers, $2 to ride the mechanical bull.
"I can bust this bull's buns," Sammy Boulmetis said loudly, putting down his beer and taking a hard look at the saddled robot.
"Cut the crap and get to it," Nicolo said. The race track has a lot of folks called common, meaning lowdown, but the kid from Boston knew Boulmetis was uncommon and loved him for it. Only Sammy could get away with teasing Nicolo about the nice chaps he wore for morning workouts; "tah-tah chaps," he said, as if speaking to a British dandy, not a Boston tough. Now, because Nicolo would leave Maryland soon, moving his tack to Kentucky for the spring, this might be his last night out with Sammy for a while. "You gonna ride or not?" Nicolo said.
It took only five seconds for the bull to toss Boulmetis on his ear. Nicolo thought it was the funniest thing he had ever seen when Sammy, staggering up, looked at the bull and said, "I've got him now."
The second time around, Boulmetis rode the hair off that bull.
And then, celebrating with a third beer, he said to Nicolo, "Your turn."
"Nope," Nicolo said. "I get paid to ride; I don't pay to ride."
Sammy Boulmetis was paid $35 for the ride that broke his back March 22. A rider seven years and better each year, he worked for the $35 as a substitute rider on a filly named Val Des Portes in the ninth race at Pimlico that day. The jockey who had ridden the filly in her only other race, Ken Black, had to ride for another trainer in the ninth. Sammy worked the filly in the morning two weeks earlier, and the owner liked the courteous, clean-cut kid. So Sammy's agent, Bobby Vaughan, got the assignment for his client.
As the field turned into the stretch, Val Des Portes was far behind. The book on Boulmetis is that he sits still on a horse, keeps out of trouble and finishes strongly. Even with the filly out of it, Boulmetis did an honest day's work. He passed Noble Jade, the horse Ken Black rode, and was running next to last when, with a report like a gunshot, Val Des Portes' right foreleg shattered.
Had there been warning, it might have been different. A jockey knows the signals of pain from a horse, the half-steps of indecision that come in an animal bred both for running and courage. Given warning, a rider can pull his horse's head up to slow down.
That is why the Jockeys Guild, the riders' union, has campaigned for strict enforcement of medication rules. Because tracks all over America run day and night nearly every day of the year, the demand for horses increase annually. To keep horses running, and so to make money, some horsemen have abused medications and sent animals to work so drugged up their brains could not receive warning signals of pain from their legs.
In the old days, unscrupulous trainers "nerved" their horses, which is to say they took a knife and cut the foreleg nerves that deliver the messages of pain. Nowadays they use laser beams instead of knives.
Val Des Portes was a sound horse, making only her second start. She was a victim not of man, but of her breed. Thoroughbreds are 1,000-pound animals running 30 miles per hour on legs half the thickness of Pete Rose's forearm. As all that force came down on the filly's left hoof, the leg exploded.
The horse took a header. With no warning of danger, Sammy Boulmetis was perched atop the filly's shoulders, pushing her to work harder. He might have sat back and coasted home for the standard $35 a rider gets for running out of the money. But Sammy did honest work, and so he balanced himself over the filly's neck as if this anonymous ninth race were the Kentucky Derby. Always vulnerable, jockeys never are in more danger than when driving their horses to a better effort.
Race trackers talk of spills. A jockey doesn't fall, he doesn't have an accident; he takes a spill. It sounds dainty, almost harmless. The half-ton animal tips forward and the 100-pound man is spilled off its back.These brave little men are spilled so often they don't keep count. Three weeks earlier, Sammy Boulmetis had X-rays taken of his shoulder after a spill at Bowie. The shoulder still has two pins in it from a spill in '78.
This time, in a meaningless race that would earn him $35, Boulmetis was thrown violently to the ground.
Maybe he broke his back right then, or maybe it was broken when Ken Black's horse, coming up from behind, stepped on him.
The first time he saw the X-ray picture of his son's spine, the older rider let his eyes go shut.
Sammy's spine was broken in two. The top piece ran straight and true to about waist level. The piece in the pelvic region was twisted at an odd angle with the broken-off end pulled maybe an inch and a half away from the rest of the spine. Jockeys see a lot of X-rays, but Sam Boulmetis Sr. had never seen one this bad. There was, on the picture, a snowstorm of bone fragments along the broken twig of a spine.
A printer's devil in Baltimore after World War II, Boulmetis took a job at the Laurel race track because everybody kept telling him that he was little enough to be a jockey. For eight months, at $50 a month, he mucked stalls and hot-walked horses, occasionally wangling his way on top of a horse for a morning workout.
He won his first race May 10, 1949, and he won nearly 2,700 more before he retired in 1966, a Hall of Fame rider. Only 37 then, he said he quit because he had four children from 6 to 13 and he wanted to go out on top. Wise guys at the tracks, though, said he no longer was the daring gambler of his youth, that he preferred safety to risk. Given a choice of taking the oustside or flying into a closing hole on the rail, he took the long way. Any horse Boulmetis rode would have to be much the best to win, a handicapper said.
Jockeys don't admit fear because to admit it is to betray the hero's code of the bravest little men in sports. "You don't think about going into a hole," Sam Boulmetis said o fhis daring youth, "you just go. You're there before you realize there is a hole. It's reflexes. What happened to me was reflexes. That, and competitive desire. I could feel it wasn't the same. Before, if I got beat, I was annoyed. Later, I wasn't."
It wasn't fear, he said. Maybe 20 times in 20,000 races in his 17 years, Boulmetis went down with a horse. He was never hurt seriously, just broken arms and legs and the collarbone a few times.
"Being scared? No. Getting hurt? No. I didn't have that fear. It was just certain things I wanted for my family. And I had a good job waiting as a patrol judge."
Now a state racing steward in New Jersey, Boulmetis, 51, was putting sealer on a new kitchen floor at home when the phone rang just after 5 o'clock March 22.
Four hours later, in Baltimore's Sinai Hospital, he looked at an X-ray that made him close his eyes against its story.
Julie Snellings quit her race track job in Florida and drove two days to get to Sinai. She believed she knew what Sammy wanted to hear. Only she knew.
Julie's sister, Cyd, is Sammy's finace. His parents never left the hospital. Nicolo was there, and so was Bill Passmore, a jockey who at 48 had ridden with Sam Boulmetis Sr. and then taken Sammy as a race track son. Two years ago Passmore broke his back, cracking two vertebrae in about the same place Sammy did. Passmore had seen a lot of X-rays, including his own, but Sammy's pictures caused a chill to pass across his shoulders.
They all cared, but Julie drove two days because only she knew what Sammy had to hear. Only she was in a wheelchair.
For six months in 1977, Julie Snellings may have been the best woman jockey ever. She won 46 races on the Maryland-New Jersey circuit. Her agent, Chick Lang Jr., said Julie looked like the woman who would make it big because she had built credibility without going to bed with trainers. She came from a race track family; her mother was a trainer for 25 years and her father, Aubrey, was a top rider in the '50s until he broke a leg in a spill at Charles Town. Eighteen years ago, when Julie was 5, Aubrey Snellings commnitted suicide.
Always a strong kid behind soft brown eyes and a smile that could melt a steward's cold cold heart from a furlong away, Julie wrote a letter in July of '77 to an old boy friend, the jockey Jackie Fires, who had been paralyzed in a spill at River Downs.
"You're the toughest guy I ever met," Julie wrote. It had taken her a month to find the right words, she said. In that month she tried to put herself in Jackie's place. She would hold her legs motionless and try to get out of bed. She wanted to know how it felt to be paralyzed before she wrote anything. "If anybody can do it, you can," Julie wrote.
Her spill happened the next month at Delaware Park when a careless rider cut in front of her horse, tripping it.
As Sammy Boulmetis would be four years later, Julie Snellings was a pickup rider on her last mount. She didn't want to ride Roc Ruler, because she already and six jobs on a 100-degree day, including a ride for the nation's leading trainer then, King Leatherbury. Working for Leatherbury, she said, was the biggest thrill of her life. But when Roc Ruler's trainer begged her to help him she did. A new rider needs friends.
This was a race for 2-year-old maidens, the kind of race no rider likes because the horses are unpredictable and sometimes unmanageable. If they don't pin you screaming against the gate, they may toss you over the rail. It is all a rider can do to keep these babies going straight. Julie Snellings sensed she was in trouble as soon as a horse passed her on the outside. She knew the jockey as a punk with no brains.
She knew, somehow, that he would cut back in front of her too soon. She tried to get her horse's head up, to slow down. It was too late, and her horse's reaching front legs clipped the heels of the other horse.
Catapulted from the saddle, Snellings landed on the back of her neck. She broke the fifth, sixth and seventh thoracic vertebra and severed the spinal cord.
The doctors were brutally direct. They told her immediately she would never walk again. She hated them for not lying to her. All she wanted was some kind of encouragement, even false hope. Without hope, she told them to let her die. Pull the plugs, get these tubes out of my throat. Kill me, she said. When a nurse said, "Young lady, you better get used to it, you're never gonna walk," Snellings grabbed a pitcher of water at her bedside and threw it in the nurse's face.
One day Jackie Fires called.
"Remember that letter you wrote to me?" he said. "I put a return address on it and it's coming back to you."
So four years later, by now lighting the world again with her smile, Julie Snellings believed she knew what Sammy Boulmetis needed to hear. Only Julie, of all the people who loved Sammy, really knew. Her sister was engaged to him, but her sister wasn't a rider and her sister wasn't in a wheelchair. Only four months before Sammy's spill, Julie watched him sneak her four years' worth of medical reports out of the house. He sat in his car three hours reading about Julie's physical and emotional problems.
Sammy often pushed Julie in her wheelchair, teasing her by suddenly tilting the chair up, and Julie laughing, would say, "One of these days, just wait, when I'm walking and your're in this thing, I'll scare the hell out of you."
Julie shared with Sammy an intimacy of dreams and fears. Julie would know what to say, and Sammy would listen.
"There are a lot of people crying outside this door, because they think you're not going to make it," she said.
She had sneaked into Boulmetis' hospital room, entering only after the rider's parents had left the building. They were worried that seeing Julie in her wheelchair would hurt their son.
"But I'm not crying," Julie said, "and do you know why? Because you're going to walk out of here. As low in your back as the break is, the spinal cord can't be severed." "Julie, they told me it was," Boulmetis said. "But Julie, I've got this tingling in my leg. Did you have that?"
"Sammy, listen to me. That's good. If your leg is tingling, the spinal cord isn't severed."
"I wouldn't be telling you if it wasn't so."
Racing killed her father and put her baby sister in a wheelchair, but Cyd Snellings wasn't worried when she met the jocket Sammy Boulmetis. She is 24, a race tracker, working at the mutuel windows some, in the photo department some, and she wasn't worried about falling in love with a jockey. With his shoulder ripped up in a spill lthat summer of '78, Sammy had his arm bandaged for their first date. But that comes with the territory. Nothing serious.
This past Christmas Sammy gave Cyd an engagement ring. The boy next door and the tiny girl with the China doll beauty are building a home in Baltimore. Something worse than a ripped-up shoulder can't happen to Sammy, Cyd thought. It happened to her sister and that was a guarantee against it happening again to anyone close to her.
At Sinai Hospital about 6 o'clock March 22, a doctor told Cyd Snellings that her man had the worst broken back he had ever seen. I hate to be blunt, the doctor said, but Sammy probably will be paralyzed from the waist down forever. Everybody was crying in the hallway, Cyd said, and then she screamed, No, no, this can't be happending, this doesn't happen twice in a lifetime, I have to see Sam.
She ran into his room, pulling away from doctors, and the first thing Sammy said to his fiance was, "Now I'll be able to keep Julie company."
"Oh, God, Sammy, don't say that," Cyd said.
They had him doped up against the pain. "I love you bad, Cyd."
"I love you, too."
Just be strong for me," he said.
Sammy Boulmetis traded in his black Riviera for a silver Peugeot diesel because the back car showed all the race track dirt. Next to riding, he loves working on that car the most, tuning it up, making oil changes. Most race trackers' cars look like a horse slept in the front seat. But Sammy's Peugeot, Bill Passmore said, is the world's cleanest race tracker's car. That car is just like Sammy, the rider said: clean, bright, handsome, economical.
If you ask around about Sammy, all you hear is how great a guy he is. His agent, Bobby Vaughan "He's the greatest kid you could ever imagine. You want to know about Sammy? The horse he took the spill on, they called it a nickname, Pickles. The first thing Sammy said to me when he came out of the sedative was he winked and said, 'Robert, how's Pickles?'" His peer/father confessor, Passmore: "He's a super fella, a real stand-up fella who never said a bad word about anybody and if heard you say something bad about somebody, he would stand up for them."
Paul Nicolo, his jockey buddy, went to Sammy's hospital room in Baltimore. Everyone was quiet, worn down by melancholy.
"Sam, does this mean you can't do my oil change?" he said.
On the first Sunday after Boulmetis' spill, doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia gave the rider's family good news.
The spinal cord, as Julie Snellings had said, was in fact not severed. The break in the spine occurred below the cord and affected only a bunching of nerves known as "the horse's tail." The nerves were bruised badly, but Boulmetis did have feeling in three spots down his right leg and high on his lift thigh.
Doctors would do surgery the next Thursday, April 2, in an attempt to realign the pieces of the spine. The injury was "a bad fracture dislocation of the lumbar spine, a relatively common injury in high velocity car crashes," said Dr. Jewell L. Osterholm, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Jefferson and a project director of the Regional Spinal Cord Injury Center of Delaware Valley one of only 14 such specialized centers in the U.S.
"The prognosis," Osterholm said before the surgery, "is better than with a cord injury. There is some possibility to recoup use of some muscles."
Paul Nicolo, upon hearing this back in Baltimore, delayed for a day his move to Kentucky's Kenneland Race Course. He would celebrate.
He put on his tah-tah chaps. He went to the urban cowboy place. This tough kid who doesn't pay to ride, paid this time.
"i'm gonna ride that damned bull for Sammy," he announced.
Nicolo rode the hair off that thing, going around five times, stopping only when blisters came up on his hold hand.
To prepare Boulmetis for surgery, the Philadelphia doctors first put him in traction for five days. They drilled four holes in his skull to attach a metal ring. From pins through his knees, they hung bags of sand. Now Sam Boulmetis Sr. saw a new X-ray picture. This time, he kept his eyes open, for now he could see hope. Slowly, the pieces of the spine were moving together.
The doctors finished the work Thursday when they inserted two steel rods along the spine, clamped them and a metal plate together next to the spine and grafted bone from the hip to the point of the break -- all done to stablize the spine, once shattered into snowstorm fragments but now a pretty X-ray picture of the orthopedic surgery work of Dr. Jerome M. Cotler, Osterholm's partner in the Jefferson acute care department.
That first night at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Sam Boulmetis Sr. thought his son would be yet another of the dozens of brave little riders he has seen go from the track into wheelchairs. One of them, Ron Turcotte, who rode the great Secretariat, called the hospital the other day. Another of them, Julie Snellings, is writing Sammy a letter just as she wrote Jackie Fires four years ago.
Now the old rider thinks his son will walk with braces.
"The good news," Boulmetis said, "is that a lot of Sammy's nerves were not damaged. The doctors are very optimistic he will get more feeling back in his legs. There is even a little bit of movement in the right leg. In the left leg, he doesn't have any movement, but when they asked him to move it, you could see the thigh muscles trying to move. That's a good sign because he couldn't do that before.
"There was lots of pressure on the nerves and they were badly bruised, so it will take a long time, maybe a year, for the nerves to be okay. But the doctors right now feel Sam has an excellent chance of walking with braces."
Osterholm wouldn't go that far in talking to a newspaperman. "The injury is to the cauda equina -- the horse's tail -- and those nerves have the potential for recovery. The patient is recovering, improving all the time in terms of sensation. The prognosis is reasonably favorable, but this was a very severe injury and I am hesitant to say how much will return."
Next week Sammy Boulmetis will be fitted with a "tortoise shell," a molded, removable plastic vest used for support in place of the maddening body casts so many riders have endured. As soon as he gets the shell, Boulmetis will go downstairs at Jefferson to the rehabilitation center.
"He can't wait to get started," his father said. "And as soon as he can sit up, Sammy wants to see everybody who wants to see him." He didn't want to talk yet, while on his back, but he told his father to tell the newspapers to thank the Sanai hospital people and the Jefferson spinal cord unit.
"Some of our prayers have been answered," Sam Boulmetis Sr. said.
Because Sammy is allergic to plants, the family has asked that no one send flowers to the hospital.
Paul Nicolo knows that, but he intends to ignore the family's wishes the first Saturday in May when he is at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.
"I'm going to get a rose from the winning jockey," the tough kid said, "and send it to Sammy."