By Bill Heller
Andrew Lakeman was paralyzed from the waist down in a racing accident at Belmont Park. Originally from England, Lakeman came to the United States in the mid-1990s and worked for Michael Dickinson, Hall of Famers Nick Zito and D. Wayne Lukas, Barclay Tagg and Tom Skiffington before finding a home with Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens. Jerkens, who used Lakeman extensively in the mornings and afternoons, said, "Naturally, it's tough. He has better days than others. It's got to be an awful thing to get used to." It is. "In the beginning, sometimes I thought, 'Why me?'," said the 33-year-old Lakeman. "Now I'm handling it better."
He proved that by attending "Simply the BEST," a dinner benefitting the Backstretch Employee Service Team of New York, Inc. and honoring Jerkens with a special award as Lifetime Outstanding Trainer. At the dinner, Lakeman was treated like a rock star. "I thought it was really cool," he said. "I haven't been in contact with many people at all. There were so many people who came over and said, 'Hi, how are you doing?' Allen spent a lot of time at my table. He's very emotional. I'll never forget one time I won a stakes for him, he cried. He said, 'Way to go Andrew.' He was crying in the winner's circle. He's amazing. He not only helps people out, he changes lives. He changed my life."
Lakeman thought he had already endured the greatest challenge of his life when he overcame substance abuse problems with the help of BEST. "I went to them for help," he said. "The Racing and Wagering Board was going to take my license away because I had problems the previous two years with drugs and alcohol."
Lakeman earned his stripes working and/or riding four of Jerkens' top horses: Political Force, Miss Shop, Swap Fliparoo and Teammate. Lakeman is especially proud of his work with Political Force. Though he never rode him in a race, Political Force might never have finished second in the Grade 1 Met Mile, won the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap and finished third in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup without Lakeman's intervention. "I always had a connection with horses, just a real good connection," he said. "They're like a mirror to your soul. Because they can't speak, but they feel you." With other stronger exercise riders, Political Force was uncontrollable. "This is when I'd just come back from rehab," Lakeman said. "One of the exercise riders, a big guy, 170 pounds, he dumped him. And two other guys. He'd rear up and they hit him." Lakeman eventually convinced Jerkens to give him a shot with Political Force. "He said, 'What the hell are you going to do with him? You weigh 110 pounds,'" Lakeman recalled. Jerkens told him to go ahead. "What happened was the guy would pull the reins before hitting him," Lakeman said. "So what I did was put some spurs on and a pair of blinkers on him. When he got to the point where he'd begin acting up, I hit him. And he went good. Then I took the blinkers off. Then he really liked me. He used to go to the track and wheel. I got him on the track and gave him peppermints." "The Chief said, 'Now we have to work on him in the gate.'
The gate crew didn't want anything to do with him. I said, 'Don't worry about it.' I walked him toward the gate. He sniffed the gate. I gave him a candy. And he walked straight in. He left the gate awesome." But the owners of Political Force, as well as the owners of Teammate, insisted Jerkens use a more experienced jockey in races.
However, Lakeman rode eventual Grade 1 stakes winner Miss Shop in her first two races, winning her maiden debut on a sloppy track at Delaware Park by 4 ½ lengths before finishing fifth in an allowance race. He also rode the eventual Grade 1 stakes winner Swap Fliparoo 10 times, winning a maiden and allowance race and finishing third in the Grade 2 Nassau County and second in an ungraded stakes. In the fourth race at Belmont Park, May 25th, 2007, Lakeman's mount, Our Montana Dream, clipped heels and fell, throwing him hard to the turf. He was paralyzed. From his hospital bed three days later, he watched on TV as Political Force finished second by three-quarters of a length to Corinthian in the Met Mile at 24-1. "He was awesome," Lakeman said. "That was my favorite thing: difficult horses. They want to run.
Allen is very good at that. He trains them as individuals. He really gets into their heads and gets the best out of them." Lakeman is rebuilding his life with the help of rehabilitation and therapy. "At first it went really slow and I wasn't getting anywhere," he said. "I wasn't improving. But today I'm doing very good. I worked hard in therapy. I can transfer from my chair to the bed. I can shower on my own. I've become more self-dependent." In January, he told his therapist he wanted to drive a car. "I took the lessons, 12 lessons," he said. "I did the course on a computer and the driving course right at St. Charles Rehabilitation. I got a car with hand control. Now that I'm driving again, I'll go by the track.
Allen said he wanted me to come with him and stay by him. I really want to train horses." He knows other trainers and owners will help him, because dozens of them have already helped him get through the roughest part of his ordeal. And he takes heart in the continuing career of Dan Hendricks, the top California trainer who didn't let paralysis from the waist down suffered in a 2004 motocross accident end his career. He was back training in less than two months and developed Brother Derek, one of the top three-year-olds of 2006 who won the Santa Anita Derby. Lakeman said, "There's no reason I can't do it, because it's already been done."