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Paralyzed Belmont jockey turns to training horses

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Ever since jockey Andrew Lakeman became paralyzed from the chest down after his 78-1 longshot Our Montana Dream lost her footing during a race at Belmont Park four years ago, the Floral Park, L.I., resident has not given up.

“I don’t remember much of the race, but I do remember my horse was climbing and I was going to win the race,” Lakeman, 36, said during a news conference last Thursday at North Shore University Hospital, where he was treated for injuries in the 2007 accident.

Lakeman said the horse in front of his stopped and the next thing he remembered was waking up in North Shore, where he was also treated for five broken ribs, two punctured lungs and two cracks to his sternum.

“I really didn’t know what had happened, but I couldn’t speak because I paralyzed my vocal chords,” said Lakeman, who is originally from Sunderland, England.

Lakeman said his path to becoming a jockey was a tough one because at 5-foot-8 he was exceptionally tall by jockey standards and ran 3 miles a day with plastic wrapped around him to reduce his weight.

His height stopped him from getting the best horses to ride, but Lakeman was determined, starting his career in England before moving on to France and Germany and settling in Floral Park in 1997.

“I could say that I proved them wrong,” Lakeman said of the critics who doubted he could be an effective jockey.

Lakeman has won races at the state’s three tracks — Aqueduct Race Track, Belmont and Saratoga Race Course — but his injuries have not stopped his involvement in horse racing.

After his accident, Lakeman rented a house in Floral Park after recovering at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan´╗┐, and visited Saratoga to see horses he had ridden in the past.

“I wanted to stay here because ... in the back of my mind I wanted to train race horses and everybody thought I was crazy,” he said.

Lakeman called a friend in Florida who had a farm in Ocala — about 1 1/2 hours from Orlando — and bought a horse named Thisskysabeauty for $40,000.

“At the beginning, I knew this horse was special,” he said, noting that other horses flared their nostrils at his motorized wheelchair, “but when he came, he put his head in my lap.”

In Thisskysab­eauty’s first race, he finished third at Belmont Park.

“This accident took a lot away from me — physically, mentally — and this horse has brought me back to a new life,” Lakeman said.

The horse is set to race next month at Belmont after recovering from an injury.

“I’d love to win this next race at Belmont Park and my goal is to win with him at Saratoga,” Lakeman said.

Seven months after his injury, Lakeman also did something his doctors said should have come later in his recovery when he began to drive a car.´╗┐

In February 2008, Lakeman bought a car, which he said gave him back more of his independence. He uses one hand to steer the wheel while the other controls breaking and accelerating.

“Just because we are put in this chair, for whatever reason, life isn’t over,” Lakeman said. “My life is just beginning again.”

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

Updated 10:33 am, October 12, 2011
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