When outrider Kaymarie Kreidel weaved through horses and humans to retrieve loose Bodexpress at the end of the Preakness Stakes, her ability to defuse a dangerous situation drew national attention. But the former jockey has endured much worse than that.
Kreidel broke her back three times in riding accidents in the early 1990s when she was one of the few women competing on the East Coast. The third time nearly killed her.
On June 5, 1993, she entered the starting gate at Delaware Park and felt an enormous sense of pride knowing that her mother, Linda, and her brother, Rick, were there to see what she could do. Shortly after the gates snapped open, her horse clipped heels with another and there was nothing she could do.
Although she had broken her back twice before in training incidents, this fall was particularly violent and devastating.
“I actually flatlined three times,” Kreidel said.
A defibrillator was used to restore her heartbeat on the track. The process of shocking her heart back into action again became necessary while she was being transported by ambulance. Her heart stopped once more at the hospital.
Once Kreidel entered intensive care, she said the outlook was grim. She was diagnosed with 32 injuries of varying severity; doctors did not expect her to survive more than 24 hours. Family members who lived a distance away were advised to make travel plans.
Kreidel recalls spending 10 days in intensive care, but she slowly recovered. She began to wonder what she would return to because doctors told her she would never ride again.
That thought shook her. She had been 18 months old when she was first placed on a pony. She had her first pony, Ebony Starfire, when she was 7. She grew up riding jumpers and dreamed of competing in the Olympics.
Riding was what she knew; it made her life complete.
The terrible accident left her with memory gaps, a heart murmur and the loss of some peripheral vision following a three-month recuperation. It did nothing to diminish her determination. She had to find out if she could ride again. She had to learn if she could overcome fear.
“Scared riders get other riders hurt,” she said. “I didn't want to be one of those riders.”
Kreidel, now 47, estimates that it took six or seven months before she attempted to ride again.
“I'm kind of hard-headed and stubborn. So when I want to do something, I'm doing it. I don't care what anybody says and I'm doing it right now,” she said. “I just had to go out there and find out if I could do it.”
She ultimately returned to competition, prompting John Faltynski, her agent at that time, to dub her “Special Kay.” Although she never won a graded stakes race, she finished with 190 victories and more than $3 million in earnings by the time she retired in 2006.
“She's always been someone to look up to growing up as a kid,” said T.J. Aguirre, her 23-year-old son. He became an exercise rider and is an aspiring trainer.
Kreidel made a smooth transition to her second career. She gallops 11 to 14 horses every morning at Laurel. She works as an outrider in the afternoon whenever there is racing, a job she relishes.
“I still get to go fast once in a while. I still get to ride horses. I still get to go to the races,” she said.
Kreidel was one of four outriders assigned to the Preakness. She was one of two positioned in front of the starting gate. When Bodexpress reared at the start and dumped John Velazquez, Kreidel's priority was to protect the integrity of the race and so she had no choice but to watch the 3-year-old join the pack and run on instinct before he and the rest of the field disappeared behind hospitality tents erected in the infield.
Kreidel, with her pony Witch Hunter at the ready, relied on radio communication after that before swinging into action. Aguirre, part of the crowd, never doubted they would get the job done.
“It's just like any other day for me. There was definitely a lot of pressure, but anybody from our track had all the confidence in the world she would catch that horse,” Aguirre said.
The task was infinitely more complex than usual because photographers and camera crews were rushing to be in position to focus on the winner, War of Will.
“I literally had to weave between horses and tons and tons of camera crews,” Kreidel said. “Nobody even paid attention that there was a loose horse.”
It took several attempts to snag Bodexpress, who still possessed energy to spare after his 1 3/16-mile romp. But snag him she did. The catch brought more notoriety to her than she ever received as a jockey, a livelihood that came terrifyingly close to taking her life.
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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