The sign next to his thoroughbred's stall door in Barn 2 at Belmont Park reads:
"Never Give Up."
Former jockey Andrew Lakeman, 32, is a testament to that. Four years ago, he fell and was trampled in a race at Belmont Park, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
But life as paraplegic was not his only challenge. He has battled substance abuse more than once. Now 19 months sober, he is back at Belmont as trainer of his 3-year-old colt Thisskysabeauty -- thanks in part to his doctor, Adam Stein, chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation for the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Their doctor-patient relationship has evolved into friendship, Lakeman said.
"I never thought I'd be sitting in a wheelchair paralyzed, sober and training a racehorse," Lakeman, of Floral Park, said. "It's a miracle. The journey is just beginning."
Stein said the trainer's prognosis is good. "I think it is quite remarkable he has gotten to this place working at a vocation he loves so."
Race changed his fate
That wasn't the case four years ago. On May 25, 2007, Lakeman was riding a long shot filly named Our Montana Dream in a race at Belmont. The jockey, who had wanted to race thoroughbreds since he was 13 growing up near Newcastle, England, had nearly lost his career to alcohol and drugs.
But after rehab and 91/2 months clean and sober, he was back in the stirrups regularly. Then the filly's hooves clipped the heels of the horse in front of her and everything changed.
Lakeman was thrown and trampled. His neck was broken in three places and his spine was severed. He had five broken ribs, two punctured lungs and paralyzed vocal cords, and his sternum was cracked in two places. He said he nearly died twice on the operating table.
He spent five weeks at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, then went to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan for physical rehabilitation under Stein's guidance in the spinal cord injury unit.
Broken body and spirit
Stein, who joined North Shore-LIJ in July 2008, said Lakeman has since faced other complications -- from blood clots in both legs to deep pressure sores to a band of burning pain at the place in his upper chest where his spine was severed.
Bone growths in his hips, the result of his injury, have fused his pelvis and hips. That has made it difficult to manipulate his lower body and forced him to rely on an aide to help him dress and get into his motorized wheelchair in the morning. The 5-foot-8 jockey, who once kept his weight to 115 pounds, also ballooned to 258 pounds.
And he returned to drinking. But Lakeman said he realized he had to stop and has been sober since Sept. 7, 2009. He went on a diet and lost 40 pounds -- close to half of what he wants to lose.
He also realized he had to "do something to get rid of my idle time." He decided to follow his dream and become a horse trainer.
Last August, he bought the 16.2-hand black racehorse from a friend in Florida, Carlo Morales. Lakeman calls the horse, remarkably well-mannered for a young thoroughbred around his paraplegic owner, "a gift from God."
A gallop for the glory
On Jan. 29, the big colt ran his maiden race at nearby Aqueduct Raceway under Lakeman's colors -- blue and yellow -- coming in third after being 15 lengths behind. But Lakeman said he felt something was wrong with the horse's right foreleg. An X-ray found a stress fracture in his cannon bone and he sent the horse to New Jersey for surgery.
The colt has been back at the track almost three months and has been 100 percent sound, his owner said. He believes the big, strong horse -- intelligent and "professional" around other horses in a race -- will go well on a turf, or grass, course. "He is bred to go long and has a lot of turf pedigree," he said.
Wednesday, the horse looked relaxed and focused as he jogged and then galloped around the mile and a half track in the morning sun. His owner, seated in his wheelchair with binoculars to his eyes, looked the same.