Emerald Downs jockey racking up wins, not hanging up boots

Just in case you missed it: Kevin Radke isn’t retired. If the Emerald Downs star jockey was retired, he wouldn’t have notched his 1,000th career victory last Saturday.

Just in case you missed it: Kevin Radke isn’t retired.

If the Emerald Downs star jockey was retired, he wouldn’t have notched his 1,000th career victory last Saturday.

If he was retired, he wouldn’t have won five races on the 10-race card last Sunday, including a triumph in the Washington State Legislators Stakes.

If he was retired, Radke wouldn’t have recorded eight double-win days and six triples in addition to the five-bagger during the first 28 days has ridden at the track this season.

Retired? Not even close.

Riding high?

Most definitely.

“I kept seeing these articles that come out that said, ‘Radke retired; he’s making a comeback.’ That’s a bunch of BS,” the 36-year-old rider said. “I had moved back to Florida and bought a house in Florida with my brother. That kind of broke me, so I decided I had to get back to work.”

In a touch of irony, Radke’s monumental weekend came a year and a week after an accident that very well might have forced a lesser-driven jockey into packing his tack for good.

Last June 1, Radke was aboard Shady Unlimited in the paddock at Emerald when the horse threw him into the fence and fell on top of him. Radke wound up with eight broken ribs, a broken collarbone and shoulder blade, and a punctured lung.

“She exploded – she got a little afraid of the pony and crushed me on the outside fence,” Radke recalled. “It put a two-foot bend in a 16-gauge cast-iron pipe.

“I thought I was going to die. I’ve never felt that bad in my entire life.”

These days, Radke doesn’t hesitate to say he has never felt so good.

“I’m enjoying this again more than in the last five years,” said Radke, who won riding titles here in 2002 and ‘03. “I’m happy to come to work. (It used to be) if I was riding 10 times, after the first one, I was going, ‘Nine more.’ Then, ‘Eight more.’ “ That’s not the way I feel now.”In fact, any jockey will say that it’s not a matter of if they get hurt, only a matter of when. Radke also has dealt with a serious wrist injury, and this past January suffered a broken ankle while riding at Portland Meadows.

But when everything is in one piece, this late-comer to the Thoroughbred game – the Cleveland native didn’t start riding until he was 25 – is one of the best and most consistent on the track.

“Horses just run for him,” said longtime trainer Howard Belvoir, who was among the first to give him a mount when Radke was an apprentice at Bay Meadows during that track’s 1998-99 winter-spring season. “He has the hands. Horses just run for people with hands. He’s pretty smart, horse-wise.”

Change of plans

Though he certainly wasn’t retiring, Radke hadn’t planned to return full-time to Auburn this season. Last fall in Seoul, Korea, he became the first American to compete in the International Jockey Challenge. He made enough of an impression that he was offered a six-month contract to return this year. He gave it some thought, too.

But ultimately, he said no.

“The weight is so tough. You have to be about 110,” said the 5-foot-5 Radke, adding the he’s usually between 114 and 123. “I did it for a week (during the Jockey Challenge). But for me to maintain that kind of weight for six months is tough.”

Even so, another full season at Emerald Downs wasn’t on his radar. That is, until he spent some time working horses in Camden, S.C., for an Englishman named Vernon Greeves.

“It got me fit a lot quicker than I thought,” Radke said. “About the last week I was there, every single horse was running off with me. I said, ‘This is it, I’m going to go back to Seattle and start riding.’ ”

Coming out of last week’s four racing days that ended on Sunday, Radke and defending jockey champion Ricky Frazier are in a dead heat in the standings. Each of them has 48 victories, far ahead of the field. Juan Gutierrez is in third place with 30 wins; six more riders behind Gutierrez are in double digits in the win column.

“Guys like Seth Martinez (23 wins, tied for fourth with Gallyn Mitchell) make me work harder,” Radke said. “Ricky can flat-out ride. When you have guys like that to compete with, along with the Leslie Mawings, the Gallyn Mitchells and the Juan Gutierrezes, it makes it more of a challenge.

“Better riders make better riders,” Radke added.

And better riding makes for fun riding – something that Radke felt coming on during his time in South Carolina.

“There was something about that place,” he said. “Something come over me, and I enjoyed it again.”

Sounds like a guy who’s riding high.

And definitely doesn’t sound like one who’s ready to retire.