Back In The Saddle -- Kent Jockey Vann Belvoir, 17, Not Letting Leg Injury Slow Him

RENTON - Replays of the accident that hospitalized jockey Vann Belvoir are almost too gruesome to watch.

Im Crafty, flying down the stretch at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif., suddenly leaped the rail. The thoroughbred escaped unscathed, but Belvoir was jammed into the railing. The jockey's right leg snapped like a twig.

Belvoir's father, a longtime trainer, watched in horror from the grandstand.

"It looked like he was going to win easily," Howard Belvoir said. "Then all of a sudden he was going over the rail. It was pretty serious. He could have lost his leg."

Belvoir's brief but spectacular career almost came to a disastrous end. But he was back in the saddle only four months later.

Belvoir, who resumed riding a little more than a week ago at Longacres Park, calls the accident "just a fluke. . . . Something spooked him."

Belvoir, 17, knows from experience that injuries are part of his high-risk business.

"You always have accidents," he said. "Horses are like people. They have their bad days, too."

Belvoir, a Kent native, has had two bad days, both in California. The broken leg, which happened in February, was his second major accident. He suffered a compress fracture of a vertebra during a workout at Del Mar when he was thrown by a horse that fell on him. He was more fortunate then, missing only a week of racing.

The week before his mishap aboard Im Crafty, Belvoir escaped unhurt in an almost identical accident. His mount leaped the rail, but Belvoir fell onto the track.

Belvoir still walks with a limp but said the injury has not affected his riding. He has ridden 10 winners since returning to the track early this month.

"There was a lot of nerve and tendon damage, and my muscles get sore," he said. "I felt rusty at first. I was very disappointed because I wasn't in rhythm with the horse."

Belvoir's recovery was relatively brief, considering the extent of damage to his leg. The injury required the insertion of a rod and four screws. The rehabilitation process was slow and tedious until he began working with a physical therapist.

"The mental part was more difficult than anything else," his father said. "Not that he was scared. He was impatient to get back to riding."

Rehabilitation was slow until Vann began working with Jim Richards, a Bellevue athletic trainer.

"Jockeys tend to think, after an injury, they'll get well just by riding," Richards said. "But his injury was just too extensive and he was struggling. One leg was normal and the other was a pencil."

Belvoir worked with Richards and two physical therapists every day for three weeks. That regimen was reduced to two days a week once he resumed riding.

"We got him at the right time," Richards said. "Both mentally and physically, he was ready to push himself."

Howard Belvoir isn't surprised his son bounced back so quickly. "He's young, he's very dedicated, and he worked very hard."

The jockey eventually picked up where he left off last year, when as a 16-year-old apprentice he was second to Gary Boulanger at Longacres with 117 victories.

He continued to impress veteran horsemen last winter in California by riding more than 100 winners. His 82 victories placed him fifth in jockey standings at Golden Gate Fields.

A star wrestler at Kentwood his sophomore year, Belvoir appears to have unusual perspective for a teenager, whose injuries and riding pursuits have prevented him for finishing high school. He earned more than $200,000 last year and already is planning ahead, investing his winnings.

"I'm putting it in savings and retirement funds," he said. "A lot of riders make a lot of money and don't have anything when they're done riding. I'm going to ride as long as I can. But a rider probably is at his peak in his late 20s and then starts going downhill. Your body wears and tears."

Belvoir, 5 feet 6 and 109 pounds, gravitated to riding naturally. Raised on a farm near Kent, he began galloping thoroughbreds at Longacres when he was 12, after grooming horses or "doing whatever I could."

Belvoir was a "natural," in the eyes of his father. "He had the talent from the beginning," Howard Belvoir said. "Anybody who'd been around very long could see that. He's a class act."

Belvoir said he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Gary Stevens, another local jockey who became one of the nation's leading riders. He plans to return to California, where the action is swifter and the money far greater.

"Last year, I watched Stevens and the other riders and picked up a lot of tips," Belvoir said.

"You see how patient they are, and how they get to an opening. There are a lot of split (second) decisions you have to make out there. You don't have time to think, just react."