Speed. It’s the motivation of many professional sports.
My husband, Thoroughbred jockey John Cantarini, lived for it. During a racing career that spanned 18 years, he rode more than 1,700 horses into the winner’s circle. He did it with courage, talent, and a consuming love of speed. Racing was his life.
But another type of speed almost killed him.
The tires of his blue Mercedes screeched on the wet California Freeway. The black, foggy night shattered when the car propelled past a turn at 85 miles per hour, vaulted over a ten-foot embankment, and flipped end-over-end for 280 feet.
When the advanced life support paramedics arrived, they found an unresponsive driver 50 feet from the car, face down in the mud. John had no measurable blood pressure. Speed, which had been his life, was close to ending it. A race he had ridden 15 years before would save it.
John was comatose as the ambulance raced to a California Trauma Center. He had a bi-lateral basilar skull fracture. His left eye was fixed, dilated and pointing backwards, indicating brain stem injury and one-sided paralysis. He was placed on a mechanical respirator to force oxygen into his blood. The “plate” that supports the brain was broken in two places, allowing spinal fluid to leak from his ears. It was doubtful he would live.
The chief neuro-surgeon was explicit. Surgical techniques and medication alone would not save my husband’s life. John had to want to live. To emerge from the coma, he had to fight. The surgeon said, “You must talk to him! He will hear every word you say.”
Remembering the inspiring Reader’s Digest story of the major league baseball pitcher (Tommy Johns) who talked with his comatose son, I was encouraged.
“When you wake up, son, Daddy will show you the beautiful tree,” said Johns. Upon waking, the little boy’s first words were, “Where’s the tree, Daddy?”
I, too, would do this. For days I sat by John’s bed, clinging tightly to his hand. I talked to him constantly, trying to rescue him from the coma. The doctors could do nothing more to help.
Desperately I kept talking, telling him the stories of our years on the racing circuit. I talked about the triumphs and failures that make up a jockey’s life.
I bragged about the racing records he had set and the famous horses he had ridden to victory. Yet he still began to slip away.
Time was limiting my opportunities. I searched my memory.
I remembered the 39th running of the Canadian Derby. John had ridden a very special horse, Irish Minstral, the class horse in the race. The horse had a great heart, the most important ingredient in a winner.
Out of the gate, Irish and John were in command of the race. The crowd cheered when they went to the front. They headed the pack as they turned for home. But three horses were in tight. Irish was on the rail. There was bumping, riders yelling, and suddenly blodd flying. Another horse had stepped on Irish’s leg, giving him a four-inch gash down to the coronet on his right rear foot.
The injury would have caused lesser horses to falter or perhaps fall into the path of the oncoming horses. But not Irish. In spite of the pain he continued to race, and was beaten only by a fifth of a second.
John needed to be reminded that courage comes from within, whether animal or man.
Over and over I retold the race. How Irish had won in spirit, if not in fact. I talked about his courage and his will to win, hoping that something would penetrate the coma and reach John.
I sat by the bed holding his listless hand. I studied him carefully watching for the smallest flicker of an eyelid. Exhausted, I was falling asleep in my chair when I felt, ever so softly, a delicate pressure as he squeezed my hand. He was trying. He was running again. He was going to finish the race . . . . .
Several hours later there was a major reversal in John’s condition. When he opened his eyes 18n hours later and slowly whispered, “Martha,” he was exhausted. It had been a long, hard ride.
The emotional impact of this incident was a crucial turning point in John’s recovery. He started to fight for his life. His struggle reflected the love he had for racing and for this horse and their mutual commitment “to finish the race.”
John and I live in Canada today. He plays golf, drives the car, plays with our beloved Golden Retriever and enjoys a peaceful retirement. He remembers nothing of the accident or being in the hospital.
A large picture of John aboard Irish Minstral hangs in our living room. It is a monument to the spirits that were too strong to give up, a tribute to two champions determined to win.