To be a jockey as long as Nick Shuk has, a man must learn to accept the vicissitudes of fortune, to deal with physical danger and, sometimes, physical pain.
Perhaps that is the reason that when the doctors told him this summer that he has cancer, Shuk didn't blink.
When he checked into Johns Hopkins to await his first operation for the disease, Shuk checked out for an afternoon, drove to Delaware Park to ride a horse, then returned to the hospital. Two months after that difficult operation, in which surgeons cut open the side of his face to remove malignant tissue from his neck and jaw, Shuk was riding again.
As he awaits another operation on another cancer next month, the 51-year-old rider still is practicing his profession at Laurel Race Course, which will honor him with a Nick Shuk Day on Wednesday. "The doctors say I'm a real tough dude," the jockey said.
That is an assessment no one could have disputed at any stage of his career.
Nick Shuk grew up in Illinois, near a horse farm, and decided early in life what he wanted to be. In 1945 he went to work for a trainer, and followed him to Maryland, but that was an era when aspiring jockeys had to pay their dues. Shuk didn't get to ride in competition until 1947, and it was not until 1948 that he rode his first winner for owner Art Rooney, who also owns the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After some moderate initial successes, Shuk continued to struggle. He recalled, "The trainer I worked for told me, 'You'll never make a rider.' I went from track to track; I couldn't do no good. I won six races in 1950. But I think you can be anything if you want it bad enough."
Shuk finally enjoyed a measure of success at Charles Town, then came back to Maryland to ride for Frank Bonsal, one of the dominant trainers in the state. That was the beginning. Seven times in the next decade Shuk was the leading jockey in Maryland. He won major stakes races throughout the East.
The more he rode, of course, the more he was exposed to the inescapable hazards of his profession. "I've had so many spills," Shuk said. "One time at Tropical Park I fell and lay there until I thought all the horses were by me, but the last horse ran over me and ruptured my kidney. Another time I was out eight months with internal injuries, came back and fell at Laurel and was out another eight months with a fractured neck." He held his fingers a fraction of an inch apart. "I was this far away from being paralyzed."
None of these traumas stopped him. Shuk remained in remarkable physical condition and last year, when he was 50 years old, he rode in 510 races and scored 47 victories.
Shuk's most difficult ordeal would begin this summer with a sensation "that I'd swallowed a fishbone." The doctors saw immediately that it was no fishbone, but a lesion in his throat. They gave Shuk six weeks of radiation treatment before the operation, but, as he awaited it, he didn't alter his life noticeably.
"I'm not going to sit around and brood," he said. "I'm going to ride horses and play golf and fish and hunt. When it worries you, that's when it's got you."
Since that 7 1/2-hour operation in July, Shuk's speech has been slightly slurred, he hasn't been able to eat normally, and his weight has dropped from 104 to 98. But otherwise his life is almost back to normal. In mid-September he returned to competition in a race at Bowie -- and won it. Every morning at 6 o'clock he goes to the Laurel stable area to exercise a few horses and try to line up future mounts.
This routine will have to be interrupted again soon, however. Shuk's doctors found cancer in the lymph node on the right side of his face, and they will operate on it next month. They also suspect the presence of cancer in the jockey's esophagus. "I've got the best hospital, the best doctor. I feel positive," Shuk said, but he does not seem preoccupied by his disease. He seems to view it as he did the physical risks that are part of his profession -- as something that must be acknowledged and accepted but not feared.
He preoccupies himself instead with the pleasures of his life. And, having won 2,668 races in his career, he still has one great dream: "I'd like to win 3,000 races." Shuk knows that this is unlikely, but he probably would settle for a more modest goal: "I want to keep riding as long as my legs are okay and my health is good. I'd like to ride at least for another year or two. It all depends."