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Rajiv Maragh overcomes devastating injuries to ride in Kentucky Derby

Indo-Jamaican jockey missed 16 months of racing after nasty spill

Rajiv Maragh didn’t want to die on the racetrack. Stay conscious, don’t pass out, he kept telling himself as he lay face down in the dirt of Belmont Park.

Blood rushed to his mouth, so he kept trying to spit it out. Mentally he was sending signals to bring his limp arm up to touch his soiled lips, but his arm and hand stubbornly defied his commands. Was there really blood gushing if he could not see it and he had no recourse to check? Panic and desperation set in.

“I felt like I was close to a life-and-death experience,” the 31-year-old said.

On July 10, 2015, Ruben Silvera drifted his mount, Mini Muffin, into the path of Yourcreditisgood, ridden by Maragh. The mare tripped on the back of Mini Muffin’s legs. Maragh crash-landed in the dirt.

The Indo-Jamaican jockey was then body-slammed by his own horse. Broken ribs and a punctured lung made it hard for him to breathe. An MRI at the hospital later showed that Maragh also suffered eight broken vertebrae.

After missing 16 months of racing, Maragh has recovered and will ride in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby atop co-second choice Irish War Cry.

“Being a jockey is who I am and what I love,” said Maragh, who was born in Jamaica of Indian descent. “It really means the world to me. When I was down and out, I had a lot of time to reflect on my life and see what I wanted and what I wanted to do, and all roads led back to I just wanted to be a jockey. … That’s what my passion is for, and I enjoy it every day. It’s hard to describe what it means other than it’s just my life and livelihood.”

Imagine being hampered by a back brace and pain so intolerable that every time someone driving you somewhere hit a speed bump, you screamed in pain. Although Maragh’s injuries didn’t require surgery, the slightest movements caused him immense pain and eliminated his ability to be self-sufficient.

Now imagine you’ve been surrounded by horses, jockeys and trainers your whole life. His father was a jockey. Four of his aunts married jockeys. Racing was all he knew.

“Mentally, I was not ready to hang it up,” said Maragh, who has been a jockey since he was 18. “I would have been devastated if I couldn’t ride again. But also, I was going to be realistic about it, if I wasn’t going to be at my full potential or what I think is required to be successful or be the way I want to be as a jockey.”

Phase one of Maragh’s recovery was the hardest. Physical training was long and arduous. Being in the brace for nine months, because the bones weren’t healing as quickly as expected, made the muscles in his back incredibly weak. There was no muscle definition, and the muscles had deteriorated.

Not a single bend, lift or twist occurred for almost a year after the injury. Maragh and rubber bands became closely acquainted so he could gain strength. Even a pound of weight was too much, so he stuck to bands that maybe weighed an ounce.

“I hated everything about physical training,” Maragh said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to be here. I wish I could just snap my finger and just be in great shape.

“I’m just used to before being so agile and strong, and to be in the situation I’m in where I’m like a little kid learning how to walk again. That was frustration. … I just had to do it.”

Maragh returned to horse riding in early fall 2016. His balance was off, but this was progress. He was not in racing shape, but it was rewarding mentally.

When he returned to racing, Maragh went on a 30-race losing streak. He finally returned to winning on Nov. 23, in a claiming race at Aqueduct with Bass River Road.

Getting into this year’s Kentucky Derby was a bit of good timing for Maragh. Irish War Cry was having a good year, winning three races, the last coming in February, with jockey Joel Rosario. Then came the Fountain of Youth Stakes, when the colt tanked with a seventh-place finish. Rosario is now riding Practical Joke.

Irish War Cry spent much of his time in Florida, but for his final Derby prep race, the colt headed north for the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, where Maragh rode the horse to a dominant first-place finish over Battalion Runner.

Ironically, Maragh’s chance at the Kentucky Derby — an event he has ridden in four times, including a third-place finish — is coming from trainer Graham Motion, whose horse Maragh almost made fall during the 2011 Belmont Stakes.

Motion was a part of Team Valor that owned favored horse Animal Kingdom, which won the Kentucky Derby that year and was picked to win the Belmont Stakes.

Maragh, atop Isn’t He Perfect, drifted into the running lane of Mucho Macho Man, which eventually caused Animal Kingdom to stumble and throw jockey John Velazquez off balance for part of the ride.

Even Maragh didn’t anticipate getting back into the first race of the Triple Crown so quickly, and especially with a horse that has 6-1 odds of winning.

“I actually wasn’t expecting it. … I never thought that I was going to end up on him in the Derby,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get a mount in the Kentucky Derby, because there’s only 20 horses that make it every year. Since I’m trying this year to rebuild … I chose a conservative route of staying in Aqueduct in the wintertime, mainly because it’s easier to get top opportunities to win races on a daily basis.

“The problem with staying in Aqueduct is that the horses that stay on the Derby trail reside in Florida or other places with a warmer climate. So, usually, staying in Aqueduct you limit yourself or almost give up [your] chances to get a quality Derby mount.”

When Maragh was bedridden, he mentally formed a bucket list of things he wanted to accomplish in his second life in the sport.

He wants to win the Eclipse Award for the most outstanding jockey of the year. He wants to win Breeders’ Cup races, the Dubai World Cup and, of course, the Run for the Roses.

“A lot of nights when I was injured,” he said as he laughed, “what kept me happy was dreaming about riding in the Kentucky Derby and winning.”

After enduring that 16-month nightmare, Maragh has the chance Saturday to make the first of his many dreams come true.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.