Riding a mare named Dacron in the ninth race that day, Smith was skimming along Saratoga's turf-course hedge, going into the first turn, when a filly on his outside slammed into his mount, driving her into the hedge. As Dacron fell headfirst, Smith somersaulted into the air and landed hard on the small of his back.
Unhurt, Dacron climbed to her feet and galloped off. Smith, 33, felt a searing pain in his back and was gasping for breath. "It hurt so bad, I thought I was going to the," he recalls. "My back was in spasms. The wind was knocked out of me, and I was panicking because I knew the horses would be coming around again."
Although Smith had fractured three vertebrae in his lower back (after he landed, his mount rolled over on him as she got up), he had been spared the fate that riders fear more than death: paralysis. So he feels blessed these days, even as he faces four to six months on the shelf. "It could have been worse," says Smith, who has ridden racehorses for 17 years and has been one of the nation's top jockeys for the past decade.
In a plaster cast that extends from his sternum to his waist, Smith spends his afternoons on the couch in his Searingtown, N.Y., home, channel surfing between soap operas and races broadcast from Belmont Park. The cast is wrapped in red and black fiberglass—the racing colors of the sport's powerful Phipps family, for whom Smith has won numerous stakes. While he wears the cast (for perhaps another six weeks), Smith isn't allowed to exercise, but he can dream about his return to the saddle, which he hopes will come at the Gulf-stream Park winter meeting that begins on Jan. 3. "I probably won't miss the money for about four months," he says, "but I'm missing the action right now."
Sales, Form On Upswing
After years of decline, with signs that its demise was no farther than an eighth pole away, racing is giving indications that there is life in the sport's old bones. The average purchase price was way up not only at major yearling sales this summer—Keeneland's July figures showed a 35% increase over 1997 and one colt fetched $4 million—but also in sales of horses of all ages. TV ratings were up for shows such as ESPN's Racing Across America, bolstered by the spring performance of Real Quiet, who came within a nose of winning the first Triple Crown in two decades.
Yet another positive sign for the industry was the sale last month of the doddering Daily Racing Form—for more than 100 years the bible of horseplayers—to a group led by Steven Crist, a former New York Times turf writer who owns one of the keenest minds in the sport. Primedia unloaded the paper for $40 million, half the asking price just 18 months ago. The Form's troubles stemmed from cutbacks that diminished the quality of the paper and from its feckless response to the presence of a major statistical competitor, Equibase, as well as to a sea change in the sport: the decline of wagering on live races and the rise of simulcasting. At its peak in the late '80s, the Form sold more than 100,000 copies a day; it sells about 45,000 now. "Circulation has been going down eight to 10 percent a year for the last six years," says Crist. "That's a lot of bleeding. The challenge is not to restore the lost circulation. It's to stop the bleeding."
For starters Crist raided his alma mater to fill the top two editorial jobs and hired a Times alum for the No. 1 advertising post Next he plans to make the paper more attractive to bettors by beefing up its guts—the past performances.
"When I first fell in love with racing," says Crist, 41, "I used to run out to the newsstand at 96th Street and Broadway every night at 10 till nine to buy the Form. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the paper. I want people to feel that way again."