SARATOGA SPRINGS -- So you thought Mariano Rivera was fearless. Not true. The sight of a snorting, 1,000-pound thoroughbred makes the greatest relief pitcher in history cringe.
"I shy away from these horses," he said with a smile after touring Saratoga's backstretch with jockey John Velazquez. "I'm petrified of them."
Rivera hosted a benefit for his children's foundation at a local restaurant Thursday night and made his first visit to the track Friday on "Mariano Rivera Day." He said he loves the town but isn't a racing fan and would never bet on a horse. "There's a lot of racing back home in Panama," he said, "but I never went."
Rivera has been sidelined since tearing his right ACL while shagging fly balls May 3. For the first time since early childhood, he's enduring a summer without baseball.
"I miss playing the game. I'd like to be with the team, but I can't," he said. Watching the Yankees is particularly stressful, especially when the bullpen struggles. "It's difficult," Rivera said. "Sometimes I just have to walk away from the TV, especially lately."
Joe Girardi said Sunday he thinks there is a "99.9-percent chance" Rivera won't return this season, and the closer didn't contradict his manager.
"The rehab is going great, and I'm definitely trying to get in shape to pitch next year," Rivera said. "I'm working hard, but I'm not going to rush it.
"I want to compete now, but that doesn't mean I'll come back this year. I have to keep praying the Lord will heal me as soon as possible, but at the same time, you can't push it. You push it and you make a mistake, and you won't pitch again. I have to be wise and make sure I do the right thing."
Rivera had to face his fears about horses when he presented a trophy after the third race, named "The Spa Welcomes Mo." He stood beneath an umbrella 10 feet from mud-spattered Regal Strike, who was antsy. It would have been poetic if a closer had won, but Regal Strike went wire to wire for trainer Rick Dutrow. At least there was a pinstriped connection: Dutrow is a Yankees fan and a buddy of Joe Torre and Don Zimmer.