For nearly four years, James Wellman had been dreaming of this day.
He had spent the early part of the afternoon sitting and waiting in the Hialeah jockeys' room, surrounded by some of the giants of his would-be profession. Before the seventh race, he put on his silks and walked out to the paddock, where the trainer offered a few words of encouragement and some pro forma instructions, and then boosted him onto the back of a filly named Star Rambles.
The 3-year-old had won one of her two career starts, and had shown speed both times. "She'd been taking off really fast in the mornings," Wellman said. "I knew I'd be on the lead." With that assumption, he could easily imagine coasting along on the lead down the backstretch, driving through the stretch, winning in the very first ride of his life. That might be a fanciful dream, but the life of a 17-year-old aspiring to be a jockey is, of necessity, built on dreams.
Wellman grew up in Lexington, Ky., where horses are an integral part of the local culture. When his uncle, trainer Raymond Lawrence, saw that he was unlikely to grow very tall, he encouraged Wellman to think about becoming a jockey. At 13, the ambition took hold of him.
When Lawrence was stabled at the Kentucky tracks, Keeneland and Churchill Downs, Wellman would go to his barn and get the typical indoctrination of a would-be jockey. He rode ponies, then graduated to galloping them, then started getting on thoroughbreds. At 15, he went to work for his uncle full time and joined the backstretch fraternity of exercise riders, the kids like himself who wanted to become jockeys, and the veterans who were either too old or too heavy to ride in competition.
From them, he got daily tutelage, and he welcomed it all. "Everything was tough," Wellman said. "There are so many things you can mess up on." For him, one of the toughest things was learning to come out of the gate sharply. His pal, Bobby Urioste, another of Lawrence's exercise riders, kept drumming it into him: "When you leave the gate, you've got to have control of the horse."
Wellman was understandably impatient to put all these lessons to the test, but whenever he asked Lawrence when he would get to ride in his first race, the trainer would put him off by saying, "Time will tell." The time finally arrived on the afternoon of Jan. 26 at Hialeah.
All the pointers and lessons he had absorbed over the previous four years were swirling through the kid's head as the nine fillies were loaded into the gate. Then the bell rang, the gate sprung open, and it was as if he had forgotten everything.
"What happened was really both of our faults," Wellman said. The filly wasn't quite prepared for the start, as her jockey was pulling too tightly on the reins. "I was pulling on her mouth," he said. "You're supposed to give her all of her head." The result was that Star Rambles came out of the gate last, and didn't get in gear for a couple of strides.
When she did, Wellman's vision of leading all the way was impossible; the filly had a lot of heavy traffic in front of her. Now she accelerated fast, with Wellman steering her inside the rest of the field. He didn't have the capacity, which comes only with years of experience, to survey the rest of the field and try to anticipate who was about to do what. "I was just watching straight ahead," Wellman said.
And so he never saw the beginnings of the chain reaction. Raise Me, the favorite who had broken from post position 7, began to drift left, jostling a filly who jostled another filly who jostled Star Rambles, who bumped the rail. Wellman doesn't remember the next few seconds with any clarity, but from the stands it looked as if he were performing some acrobatic act, or as if he had been shot from a catapult.
Star Rambles staggered as she hit the rail, and sent the rider flying over the rail into the infield. James Wellman's debut as a jockey had lasted all of 15 seconds.
The ambulance picked up Wellman, took him to the first-aid room and then to the hospital, where X-rays disclosed he had suffered a fractured collarbone. They told him he would be out of action for six weeks, but the next day he was at Lawrence's barn again, galloping horses, getting pointers from the other exercise boys and suggesting to the trainer that he would be ready for his second ride very soon.