It was near dusk as the field of thoroughbreds moved along the Laurel backstretch. Details of the final race can be obscured on winter days, but there was no mistaking the incident around the final turn.

A horse had gone down, thrusting his orange-silked rider -- Clarence (Jo Jo) Ladner -- onto the frozen infield turf. Replays confirmed that Kent Desormeaux, Maryland's No. 1 jockey, caused the accident; after discussing the incident with the riders involved, racing stewards issued Desormeaux a one-week suspension.

After the meeting, Desormeaux said, "{Ladner} tried everything in his will to keep me from getting {suspended}. He really showed me something."

For several months, many Maryland racegoers have experienced Desormeaux's sense of enlightenment, watching Ladner rise from the ranks of the undistinguished to the circuit's third-leading rider.

Such a prospect once seemed far-fetched. In 1984, his first year in Maryland, Ladner averaged one winner and eight mounts per week. Then among a colony of apprentice jockeys -- generally well-valued by Maryland trainers for the weight-allowance they receive in races -- Ladner nonetheless scrambled to make a living by exercising horses.

Disillusioned, he returned home to Louisiana for a 10-day Christmas vacation and stayed a month. "It was just such a struggle at the time," said Ladner, now 22. "You wonder, 'Is it worth it? Am I ever going to get started?' For the first time, I wasn't sure that I wanted to ride for a living."

Certain trainers were reluctant to use Ladner even before they saw him ride. They looked at the jockey, and risk stared back.

Ladner bears the marks of an auto accident that slashed his face and right eye when he was 22 months old. After four cornea transplants, he sees only blurred images and patches of color. The dark brown iris is concealed behind a mass of gray, and a pink scar extends from his right ear lobe, angling to the corner of his mouth.

"I'm sure there were at least a couple of trainers who weren't sure about me because of my eye," Ladner said. "But I can't ever remember a time when my vision cost me a race. I may have to look around a little more than other riders do, but that's not a problem. Anyway, a horse can sneak up on anybody who's not paying attention.

"I'd always felt I was competitive with the other riders. I just wasn't getting much of an opportunity."

That changed after Ladner attended fellow jockey Donald Miller Jr.'s Christmas party in 1986. There he renewed his acquaintance with Eric Fried, who at the time felt unfulfilled with his own career as an exercise rider.

"I'd seen Jo Jo ride, and I thought he had some good qualities that hadn't been cultivated," said Fried, the kinetic force behind Ladner's ascent. "He was a kid who couldn't get a break. Nobody helped him; nobody pushed him. We started talking, and I told him I was looking to become a {jockey's} agent. He told me he was looking to make a change {in agents}.

"As we went around to the different barns, the response was great. It wasn't simply a matter of 'Will you help Jo Jo get started race-riding?' It was also 'Will you help me get started as an agent?' No trainer has ever said, face to face, 'I don't want a rider with a bad eye,' but the message was clear: It's tough enough to try to win races around here without having to use a rider with one eye."

Fried's aggressive tactics helped Ladner gain acceptance, but it wasn't until last fall that business boomed. Dennis Heard, who trains a private stable for Glenn Lane, shipped some 30 horses from New Jersey to Laurel. He brought jockey Tammi Campbell with him, but after several weeks of bare results, Campbell went to Suffolk Downs and Heard was in need of a rider.

Heard said at the time that he preferred to employ a single dedicated rider, and that Ladner had shown signs of promise as an apprentice. On Nov. 3, he began using Ladner on a trial basis, and the association remains intact.

"When we first connected, I wasn't sure it was going to work out," Ladner said. "There definitely was a little bit of pressure. But Dennis told me some basic things that he likes done with his horses, and then the race-riding just came natural after that."

With Heard's stable behind him, Ladner became a fixture among Maryland's top 10 for the first time and finished 1987 with career highs in victories (105), mounts (925) and purses ($1,114,104).

"Dennis has definitely helped me a lot," Ladner said. "He's taught me about the importance of saving ground in a race. Our success with him has helped open some doors to other big stables."

Fried has nurtured ties with such trainers as Dick Small, Carlos Garcia and Dale Capuano while remaining loyal to Heard. Heard, however, has said the stable could move to Monmouth Park for the New Jersey track's three-month summer meeting, and he hasn't disclosed whether Ladner would join him.

"Dennis has given Jo Jo a chance to get some great exposure," Fried said. "But because we don't know how long our tenure with Dennis Heard will last, we have to have some options.

"Still, it's gotten to the point where I'm not afraid to walk up to any trainer and ask if they'll use us. In the old days, we would be asking for their help. Now, I honestly feel like we're doing something to help them."