Friday, May 03, 2002

Oaks suits D'Amico fine

2 Derby mounts later, jockey on favorite today

By Neil Schmidt,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — When Tony D'Amico lost two chances to ride in his first Kentucky Derby, he said it hurt. But not like a broken neck.

        For a man who couldn't lift a coffee cup 2 1/2 years and figured his riding career over, wounded pride is more easily mended. The fact the Union, Ky., jockey is aboard favorite Take Charge Lady today in the Kentucky Oaks, the world's biggest race for fillies, is one heck of a pick-me-up.

        “You hate to lose good horses, but I'm not bitter at all,” D'Amico said. “This will be the biggest race of my career, and I'm looking forward to it.”

        D'Amico, 46, has been a jockey for 27 years, mostly riding in Kentucky. He was leading rider at Turfway Park in 1996 and 2000, but he hadn't ever been considered for a Derby mount.

        He seemed to find good fortune last fall and winter riding three talented horses for Ken McPeek: Harlan's Holiday, Repent and Take Charge Lady. The latter two are owned by Jerry and Feye Bach of Indian Hill.

        In February, D'Amico lost two mounts within four days. First was Harlan's Holiday, lost to Edgar Prado. Then Jerry Bailey replaced him on Repent. D'Amico had been the only jockey ever to ride either colt.

        McPeek said the Derby-bound horses needed an experienced jockey.

        “It was a very hard personal decision for all of us to take Tony off those horses,” he said.

        D'Amico was diplomatic, though he admitted the decision hurt. He responded with his best race: Take Charge Lady's victory in the April6 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland was the first Grade I stakes victory ever for either him or McPeek.

        Even if McPeek hadn't made changes, D'Amico would have been forced to pick one colt to ride this spring because of date conflicts. His choice, he said, would have been Repent, who wound up felled by an ankle injury. If he had that choice, he would have missed out on riding Take Charge Lady, a 2-1 choice, today.

        “It all worked out,” D'Amico said. “Now I can focus on the filly, try to win this race, and go from there.”

        After three neck surgeries, D'Amico is glad to ride anywhere. An accident at Churchill Downs in late 1999 led to the final operation, in which his spine was fused.

        He missed just four months. D'Amico was so gracious to his doctors at Norton Hospital in Louisville that the hospital is featuring him in its billboard, print and TV ad campaign.

        “It means so much to me to be able to ride,” D'Amico said. “Those doctors don't know it, but I thank them every day.”


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