Saturday, February 7, 2004

Injured jockey loved to compete


'We're all praying for a miracle. ... He's fighting for his life.'

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Tammy Rowland (right), wife of injured jockey Michael Rowland, waits with family friend Sandy Caminita before a press conference in the chapel at University Hospital Friday.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
The note tucked under Bruce Tallisman's windshield wiper startled him as he walked to his car in darkness of Thistledown's parking lot.

It was from young jockey Michael Rowland, who rode one of Tallisman's horses to a victory earlier in the day at the Cleveland area track. "Thanks for giving me the ride. There will be more to come." It was signed: "The one and only."

The 20-year-old note, still tucked away in a desk drawer at Tallisman's home, was prophetic. Rowland has gone on to win 3,998 horse races.

But his last race, Wednesday at Turfway Park in Florence, left him on life support at University Hospital. Rowland was thrown onto the track when his horse, World Trade, broke a leg in the seventh race. Two other horses got caught up in the spill, and one stepped on Rowland's head, leaving him critically injured.

Tallisman and about a dozen other friends and family members gathered at the hospital Friday to pray for Rowland. They talked of his quick smile, easy jokes, sweet golf swing and devotion to family - and, of course, the number of trips into the winner's circle.

"Mike masters everything he sets out to do in life," Tallisman said. "He's a perfectionist and has a work ethic that is second to none. He's just got a competitive spirit. He's a competitor in life and a winner in life."

It's that competitive spirit doctors now hope will save his life. Rowland suffers from a fractured skull and severe swelling of the brain. His brain stem also is damaged, said family spokeswoman Sandy Caminita.

"We're all praying for a miracle," Caminita said. "His head injuries are very serious and he's fighting for his life. The surgeons have all told us we have just got to pray."

Damon Thayer, a Kentucky senator and vice president of the Breeder's Cup & Event Marketing for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, has seen his career intersect with Rowland's at least three times. He says Rowland is an ideal jockey for any public relations situation.

"Mike really is a public relations dream," Thayer said. "If I needed somebody to meet with a reporter or talk to fans, he is the kind of positive face you want associated with horse racing. He's always laughing and joking, so the fans love him. The fans especially love him because they know when they bet on him, they'll get their money's worth."

Tony Caminita, Sandy's husband and a jockey who has been friends with Rowland for five years, said the one hobby his buddy has yet to master is the guitar. Although Tony Caminita does remember the day Rowland jumped on stage and jammed with a classic rock band at Thistledown.

"He's not shy," Tony Caminita said shortly after cleaning out Rowland's locker at Turfway Park.

Sandy Caminita said trips to the Rowland home almost always involve a song and dance. "We get serenaded," she said. "He straps on his guitar and a little amp."

Jokes and bar chords aside, Rowland made himself into one of the premier jockeys in the Midwest. Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen, who retired in 1992 with 3,000 career wins, said Rowland's career is exceptional.

"He's (41) now, so he has averaged about 200 wins per year during his career," Cauthen said. "It just shows you how long you have to be riding at the very top level to achieve that sort of number. That's a very consistent career."

Fewer than 50 jockeys have ever achieved 4,000 wins in a career.

Tallisman said one thing that sets Rowland apart from other jockeys is his appreciation for the horses he rides.

"He has a love for the animals, and not all jockeys do," Tallisman said. "He communicates with his horses; goes back to the barn after races to see how they're doing. I asked him about getting to 4,000 wins. He told me he's looking forward to 5,000, that this was just a step to get there.

"He's just a very likeable young man."

Turfway Park President Robert Elliston said he feels like Rowland is part of the family. He said it was a difficult decision to resume racing Friday.

"When you see one of your family members in a difficult situation, it is sobering," Elliston said. "But we're going to fight our way through this and continue to pull and pray for Michael and his family. I think it's imperative for us to get back to business. But it's just as important to keep Michael and his family in our thoughts."

E-mail: dklepal@enquirer.com




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