By Ray Paulick
Every kid should be so lucky to have parents like Sandy and Beth Straight.
“They are very inspirational people,” said Nancy LaSala, executive director of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
The Straights are parents of 23-year-old twin sons, Michael and Matthew, who were living out their dream together as professional Thoroughbred jockeys until that dream turned into a nightmare in a split second on Aug. 26. That's the day Michael Straight suffered severe spinal and head injuries in an Arlington Park racing accident. The lives of the family from Albany, N.Y., took a dramatic and tragic change.
Sandy and Beth Straight were watching the race at the Albany OTB parlor. Matthew was riding in Kentucky. All of them knew immediately that this was a bad spill. Arlington Park chairman Dick Duchossois dispatched his private jet to New York to bring Michael's parents to the hospital. Matthew didn't need to be told. He got in his car and began driving to Chicago within minutes of the accident.
Sandy and Beth Straight put their lives on hold and have remained with their son in Chicago since August. Every day they come to the hospital, first at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge and now at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where Michael was moved Oct. 11 and is now undergoing occupational, physical and speech therapy. They are there from nine in the morning till seven at night many days, offering support, love and hope to their son. “It's one day at a time Michael,” Beth Straight said.
The Straights aren't wealthy people; they work for the state of New York's labor department—or used to until Michael was injured. But thanks to fellow riders, friends, family, people in the horse industry and organizations like the Jockey Club Foundation, the Don MacBeth Fund and the Jockeys' Guild, they are getting able to stay with Michael. Right now, the situation is grim. “No one knows,” Sandy Straight said. “The spine is a mystery. You just can't give up hope.”
Matthew has been there for his twin, too, spending as much time with him as he can. “He likes us to be around,” Sandy said, “but there's nothing that lifts his spirits as much as seeing his brother.” Earlier this week, Matthew took Michael out for lunch and cruised the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue, not far from the Rehabilitation Institute.
Michael and Matthew Straight have always been best friends, and they both grew up dreaming of becoming jockeys. Sandy Straight talked about how as young boys he'd seen them straddling the back of a couch, using pillows for saddles and crouching low while driving their mounts to the wire in an imaginary race. When they were nine, the boys went from riding the couch to practicing on an Equicizer, the simulated riding device developed by jockey Frank Lovato and used by professional jockeys to get back in riding shape after taking time off. At 12, Michael and Matthew learned about an organization started by the late Trudy McCaffery, “Kids to the Cup,” which offered expense paid visits to tracks hosting major races around the country including the Breeders' Cup. Getting a close-up look at their sport through the “Kids to the Cup” program cemented their desire to ride.
Eventually they went to the North American Riding Academy that Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron established at the Kentucky Horse Park, Matthew graduating in 2007 and Michael the following year. As required by the NARA curriculum, Michael served an apprenticeship, working in the stable of trainer Wesley Ward. He launched his career earlier this year, winning with his first mount at Tampa Bay Downs on March 6. He had 39 career wins when Im No Gentleman, the horse he was riding Aug. 26 apparently clipped heels and fell, throwing Michael to the Polytrack surface awkwardly. The horse, which apparently died from a broken neck, did not fall onto or roll over the jockey.
One of the Chicago-area owners Michael rode for, Dan Sullivan, organized a fundraiser for the jockey and his family on Oct. 25 at a restaurant Sullivan owns in a Chicago suburb. “Dan Sullivan has been incredible,” Sandy said. “He's done so much for us. One of his kids wrote that letter up there on the wall,” he said, pointing to an over-sized, hand-printed letter signed by all of his classmates.
“Bill Thayer (Arlington Park racing executive) just loves Michael and he's devastated over what happened. Guys like Wesley and Chris are being really hard on themselves, thinking they somehow are to blame for this, but it's not their fault.”
Sandy and Beth said it was tough to watch Matthew when he rode at Arlington Park for the first time after Michael's injury, and they watch his races from a completely different perspective today. “We always said ‘just get around the track safely,'” Sandy said, “but now…” He didn't need to finish the sentence.
We had the opportunity to visit with Michael and his parents, along with the PDJF's Nancy LaSala on Friday morning, while in Chicago on the second stop of the BREEDERS' CUP OR BUST fundraising drive from Kentucky to California. The drive, in partnership with Breeders' Cup Charities, is benefiting the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and the V Foundation for Cancer Research. We've had some fun raising money for the charities, but today's visit really hit home what these seriously injured riders go through.
Everyone in racing is hoping that Michael Straight will not have to become the next rider to benefit from the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund—certainly not his parents. But the PDJF has to be there to help these riders when there are no miracles and prayers are not enough.
Michael and Matthew Straight will turn 24 years old in a couple of weeks, on Nov. 12. The best birthday present for them would be an improvement in Michael's condition, but the odds are against that happening so soon. A donation to Breeders' Cup Charities to benefit the PDJF and V Foundation would be an appropriate way to recognize their birthdays. Please click here to make a donation.
If you can't give, please consider sending a birthday card to lift Michael's spirits. (It can be sent to Michael Straight, c/o Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, 345 E. Superior, Chicago, IL 60611.) It might also lift the spirits of Sandy and Beth Straight. They have shown incredible strength over the last 10 weeks, but the stress they are experiencing and the pain they are feeling is taking a toll on them, too.
Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report
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