Even at giddy moments like the start of Breeders’ Cup Week, there is an obligation to account for those chalked up as casualties along the way. Chance Rollins was reached on his seven-acre spread in Vernal, Utah. Ramon Dominguez answered his cell phone at home on Long Island, N.Y.
“The thing of it is, you know how jocks are,” said Rollins, 43, a winner of 2,049 Thoroughbred races. “You learn how to live with pain, and you learn how to ignore some of it. I could be like 99 percent of people who get hurt and feel sorry for myself, but every day I’m thankful.”
Rollins was thrown over the inside rail when his horse bolted shortly after the start of the third race at Bay Meadows on June 11, 2006. He landed headfirst on a patch of concrete, but luckily, where he fell was located not far from the office of Dr. David Seftel, the track physician. When Seftel reached Rollins, the rider was not breathing, and there was no pulse.
Rollins was resuscitated on the scene, then placed in an induced coma at the hospital while doctors dealt with swelling in his brain.
“It’s a miracle he’s alive,” Seftel said at the time.
It’s been about five years since Rollins returned to his hometown, tucked away in an isolated valley of eastern Utah. At this point, there’s not much Rollins can do in terms of rehabilitation, other than deal with the lingering pain of back injuries also suffered in the accident and cope with the frustrations of equilibrium and memory loss that come and go as a result of his head trauma.
For support, he’s got his life’s companion, Paige Schvaneveldt, and a solid posse from his racing past on speed-dial, including Gary Stevens, his brother, Scott Stevens, and trainers Dean Pederson, Jerry Hollendorfer, and Jeff Mullins, who has a 2-year-old horse whom Chvaneveldt and Rollins raised in their own backyard.
Rollins will grab his cane and binoculars and roam around the farm, his blue heeler at his side, with the Utah wildlife providing company while Schvaneveldt is at work.
“People take things for granted,” he said. “I watch all these deer and wild turkey come and go. It’s interesting to see how they teach their little ones how to deal with things.”
Horse racing, though, still is his passion, and his therapy.
“TVG and HRTV has helped me a whole bunch,” Rollins said. “Makes me feel at least kind of connected. The first time I ever texted Dorf was after he won a big race, and he texted me right back. Makes you feel good that someone of his caliber still remembers you. Good … but bad.”
Ramon Dominguez knows how Rollins feels. Like Rollins, Dominguez was 36 when he suffered serious brain trauma in an accident at Aqueduct last Jan. 18. At that moment, Dominguez had won 4,985 races and already had left an indelible mark, especially upon the Breeders’ Cup with his three memorable winners: Better Talk Now in the 2004 Turf, Hansen in the 2011 Juvenile, and Little Mike in the 2012 Turf. He also had second-place finishes to Zenyatta in the 2009 Classic on Gio Ponti and in the 2008 Ladies’ Classic on Cocoa Beach.
Going from a high-speed, adrenalin-filled life to a dead stop overnight can take a psychological toll. The extent of Rollins’s injuries preclude him from much physical activity. Dominguez, on the other hand, has options.
“Now that I’ve been cleared to jog, it’s something I look forward to every day,” Dominguez said. “Right away, I wanted to go for a three-hour run, but I was smart enough to start slowly. I wasn’t as tired as I thought I’d be.”
During his ongoing recovery, the praise has flowed freely, befitting Dominguez’s status as a national champion and three-time Eclipse Award winner. On Thursday of Breeders’ Cup Week, Dominguez will be honored by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association with the Mr. Fitz Award as an individual who embodies the spirit of Thoroughbred racing.
Still, the encomiums can be as bitter as they are sweet. Dominguez has trained himself to try to suppress the sadness of a career lost and enjoy the ovations.
“Those things make you feel great,” he said. “But I try to separate myself from what I have been doing and what is attached to me professionally because who I am apart from the professional side means a lot to me.”
And that means family. Last spring, when Dominguez had to face the reality of a premature retirement, he and his wife, Sharon, sat down with their two young sons. Alex is 9, Matthew 7.
“Never?” asked Matthew when told his dad would not ride again.
“No, I don’t think so,” his father replied.
Matthew was quick to figure it out.
“So, that means you can come to my birthday party this year?”
Rollins has the same thing going for him. He and Schvaneveldt have been a couple for almost 20 years.
“At this point, we’ve been together so long, I figure why get married and ruin something so good?” Schvaneveldt said with a laugh. “Chance did give me an engagement ring, though, not long before he’d gotten hurt. He told me it took him six years to finally give me this part, and it might take another six years to give me the other part.
“But he had bought the wedding band also,” she added. “It was in the safe at the house. When he was in the coma at the hospital, I went home and took it out of the safe. I’ve been wearing it ever since.”