Pablo Morales (Ben Baugh)
By Ben Baugh
Imagine going to work, starting your daily routine as you’ve done thousands of times.
However, most of us aren’t professional athletes, let alone jockeys, who are faced with the prospect of guiding an 1,100-pound teammate, going 40 mph, having to break from an apparatus made of metal.
It’s those moments in the gate, more often than not with horses on either side of you, before the gates open and the race starts that would wreak havoc on the average person’s mind, the unknown while being confined in a small place, on an a large animal. But this is routine in a jockey’s life, and their thoughts are elsewhere, playing out in their mind how the ensuing race will unfold. An injury can occur in a split second, altering one’s day and thought process, possibly transforming the course of their life and in the worst case scenario ending their career.
And for Pablo Morales, March 19th at Tampa Bay Downs seemed just like any other day at the racetrack. He had a number of mounts including a call in the first race, but what was about to have happened no one could have predicted, it was the farthest thought from anyone’s mind.
“The horse I was on had a good shot,” said Morales. “It just happened in a blink of an eye. A horse backed out, something that happens all the time. There was nothing random about it. And then all of a sudden, I felt a hit, something squished my finger and smashed me into the metal. It happened very quickly and then I felt a lot of heat in my hand. That’s when I saw my finger with the bone sticking out.”
Morales had the opportunity to review the replay of the incident, and a more accurate description of what actually happened, was the horse’s teeth macheted his pinky against the metal.
“He threw his head hard against me, my hand was literally grabbing, so he couldn’t bite it,” said Morales. “He couldn’t have had it inside his mouth. His teeth sheared into the top of my hand my hand, my pinky was on the metal, so he completely crushed the bone, and made the bone come outside the inside of my palm. It was like a machete coming full force.”
The vagaries of life found Morales, who was second in the jockey standings at Tampa Bay Downs at the time of the incident, wondering about his immediate future and his road to recovery.
“My bone actually went through the glove,” said Morales. “It was kind of a shock. It was painful, but it was even more scary. I could tell it wasn’t like I had just banged myself and was going to be okay, and even if I couldn’t ride this race, I could just put some ice on it and come back, From the severity of the injury, I knew this was going to take a while.”
No one seemed to be aware of the extent of the injury, as Morales began to get off the horse, holding his finger in place because it was dangling. He found himself walking to the ambulance, answering a battery of questions, conveying that he was in intense pain and that the bone was sticking out of his hand, it seemed like an eternity before he could get things addressed.
The psychological effect of the injury found the elite athlete wondering if his body would be the same while waiting for a prognosis on something that may be life-transforming.
“It was definitely a rough experience, and in my mind, I was thinking that I was probably going to lose my finger because I could see it wasn’t attached,” said Morales. “There were definitely some scary moments. The trip to the hospital was terrible because it took forever.”
Morales found himself in the emergency room and with a compound fracture of his right pinky. He believed it warranted some immediate attention because of the severity of the break, but it was at least a half-hour before they came by to talk with him about what happened.
“When they came to me, they were very nonchalant about it,” said Morales. “They were like, ‘okay, let’s take an x-ray. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’”
However, being seen where they could actually address his needs, seemed like an insurmountable challenge, in part because of the wait and that time seemed to be moving so slowly, with every second making a significant difference. There were other people in the emergency room who were in need of serious medical attention, and even with his untoward situation, Morales was aware that there were other people who had been admitted with much more serious conditions, who were facing life-threatening circumstances.
“They took some tests, and they were like, ‘your finger isn’t getting a pulse, but it still has some color,’” said Morales. “This isn’t a catastrophic injury, you definitely need surgery, so we’ll get you in whenever we can. I understood of course, if it’s not surgery that’s going to save someone’s life.”
However, for a professional athlete, who has won more than 2,500 races, the abrupt change to one’s anatomy could have grave consequences and transform his life into a way that was totally unexpected and unwelcome. The hours between the time of the incident and the time he found himself on the operating table were extremely stressful.
“A pinky’s definitely not worrisome, for me it was important,” said Morales. “I really didn’t want to lose my pinky. I didn’t want to lose a part of my body as insignificant as that sounds. When you’re in that situation, it’s not fun. I knew that time was an issue too. I went in there at like 1:30 in the afternoon, and I didn’t go into the surgery room until like 8:30 at night.”
His experience in the emergency room and in other parts of the hospital were harrowing, and the waiting took on greater gravitas with time dragging in a tedious manner, making things more difficult to digest as the process seemed to take forever.
“They stabilized my finger; they literally pulled and squished my finger, like the raw skin, and they took the bone and manually put it in place and wrapped it up and told me to wait,” said Morales. “Every couple of hours, I would ask what was going on, and they would say, ‘you have an order for surgery, but we don’t know for sure (at what time) whenever the OR (operating room) becomes available. They moved me from the ER to another area, and I just pretty much had to wait there.”
The aftermath presented its own series of challenges, and Morales found himself with a number of questions, those that could only be answered with time, but the window prior to the start of Presque Isle Downs meet was rapidly approaching, providing the jockey with a definite objective, but whether he would be ready for the meet was filled with uncertainty.
“It was about 3 ½ weeks later when they took the cast off and removed the stitches,” said Morales. “I noticed it (his right pinky) wasn’t working at all. I had feeling in the rest of my fingers, but I felt like it wasn’t mine (his right pinky). I could barely move the rest of my fingers. It felt hard and numb. I couldn’t move it.”
However, his physical status was about to change, although those lingering questions about whether or not he would gain complete feeling back in his hand remained.
“Right away, they sent me to therapy, and when I was in therapy, they told me what I was experiencing was normal,” said Morales. “But I heard from other people about their experiences and some of them told me they were never had full motion in their finger again.”
There were some melancholy moments, but Morales was determined to work as hard as he could to return to his former self. The process was painstaking, hardly moving at a rapid pace, but it provided him with the motivation and with a daily indefatigable effort, whatever he found himself doing in therapy, he would do ten more times at home. It could be frustrating at times.
“I wasn’t going to give up, and I had to get motion back, I wanted to ride,” said Morales. “That’s all I could think about. I knew how much you need it, even if you can’t use it. It has to be out of your way to grab the reins, and to me, my finger was just sticking out. If I’m going to ride a horse like this, I’m just going to break it off against the horse because I can’t tuck it in.”
Being sidelined and with a cast on created additional challenges, but Morales unwavering commitment to return to the saddle found him overcoming that adversity.
“I was working on my whole arm because I didn’t use it for so long,” said Morales. “I lost all my muscle in my right arm, my forearm. I was lifting weights, probably doing more than the doctor recommended. I think athletes don’t take anything lying down. We push ourselves over the limit. That’s pretty much what I did.”
The start of the Presque Isle Downs meet served as the impetus for Morales to return to his previous form, and there was some question whether or not he’d be ready for May 15. About three weeks before opening day at the Erie, Pa, racetrack, he began working out more strenuously, but noticed an encouraging sign that his pinky wasn’t swelling up the day after.
“In the beginning, every time I pushed myself, I felt great, and the next day my hand would be like the Incredible Hulk’s hand. And then all of a sudden, I was in too much pain the next day,” said Morales. “I started getting stronger and stronger, and I knew I would be able to return. I had a doctor’s appointment on the ninth, and of course the decision was going to be up to the doctor, but I had to make sure that I was going to be in the best possible condition in ordered to get cleared.
“Whatever the x-ray showed was going to be my range of motion, my strength, but it was going to let the doctor decide whether I could ride or not. I set a goal and worked as much as I could with what I had. I did all kind of therapy with my finger twice a week with the therapist, and 24/7 every day.”
Morales’ finger doesn’t look the same as it used to, its crooked and bigger because of the screw that’s been inserted and the surrounding scar tissue, and he has to stretch it routinely to get it back to normal, but it wasn’t going to keep the jockey from returning to the saddle. Now, he finds himself having to warm-up 10 or 20 minutes longer prior to riding, but he feels robust and confident.
“To me, there was no need to wait any longer, and the doctor told me, ‘your bone is still pretty good, your flexibility, I feel comfortable with you riding,’” said Morales. “’There’s going to be some swelling and stiffness. But you worked hard and your therapist marveled at how much you were doing. I don’t want to stop you from riding. You can do it. He gave me the green light.”
He found himself flying to Erie, Pa. on May 11th, and there was some anxiety on his part with not having ridden in two months. In Tampa, Morales had the support of his family, his wife Erin, daughter Sophia and son Camilo, but having to shift his tack north meant some changes for the athlete.
“You’re used to being with your family, you have to go on your own a little bit, until the kids get out of school,” said Morales. “You have to find a place to stay…and I’ve been busy with working on my finger, my arms and my weight, and my weight was actually pretty good considering, but I wanted to be prepared as much as I could be, if not better after not riding for two months.”
It was as if Morales never missed a step, winning a race opening day at the meet on Enjoy the Music, and then three the following day, and another the day after that, giving five trips to the winner’s circle his first week back riding. He tacked on another four victories during week two. The jockey was thankful for the support he received from the owners and trainers who believed in his ability.
“I felt so good,” said Morales. “It takes a big weight off your shoulders. The confidence comes back and you’re back to yourself.”
The stress and impact on one’s mental health can be a challenge, but Morales’ character and courage saw him get through the difficult times despite the complications that had come with the injury. His family was incredibly supportive and encouraging during the entire process.
“Erin was great, she was there the whole time,” said Morales. “She saw me on days where I wanted to see more progress, when I felt things were moving slowly. My therapist was impressed at how fast things were moving along, but because I was working to get stronger every day, I wasn’t able to gauge my progress accurately. I really couldn’t tell. My therapist only saw me every couple of days, but I couldn’t tell if I was getting better. She took measurements of my flexibility and strength, and she was like, ‘Pablo, you’re moving faster than anyone I’ve seen.’ The recovery process is tougher mentally than anything else associated with the injury. There’s pain and discomfort, but you just want to get back to work.”
Initially, when he had the cast on, Morales, experienced discomfort, pain from the injury, and was sweating underneath the fiberglass and moldable plastic. It was an adjustment for the athlete.
“My cast was almost all the way past my forearm, So I really couldn’t grab anything,” said Morales. “I had to learn how to brush my teeth, eat and put on my clothes with my left hand. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but it does take a toll mentally.”
However, Morales persevered, and with the start of Presque Isle Downs meet on May 15th on the horizon, the jockey faced the challenge of the component to be ready on time.
“I knew I had to do better, I wanted to be here opening day,” said Morales, who has won eight riding titles at the Erie, Pa. track. “This is the track where I do the best. I didn’t want to miss anything.”
Every morning, Morales finds himself going through a routine when comes home from the track, including lifting weights, working with his therapy puddy and stretching pinky, work that he did with the therapist.
“If I have to be to work by seven, I would get up at 6:20, now I’m up at 5:50, soaking my hand in Epsom salt, stretching my pinky, doing my therapy with the puddy, it’s taking me longer, but I’m trying to take care of myself the best I can.”