Lakeman's determination in recovery not surprising - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Lakeman's determination in recovery not surprising

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Jockey Andrew Lakeman has been improving, his condition upgraded since a near fatal spill at Belmont Park May 25.

It is news his family and friends have prayed for; news some even expected because of the determination and courage they had seen in Lakeman a year ago, when he began a battle to overcome substance abuse. His new obsession with fitness had kept him sober for over eight months and given him a resolve that he could beat any odds.

"He was working very much on his physical health, became very aware of nutrition, what he was putting in his body. Andrew made sure he was in the very best of shape and possibly that allowed him, prepared him to help in this grave instance." says Cate Dolan, president of the Backstretch Employees Service Team at Belmont, the organization that aided the 32-year-old Englishman through recovery over the winter.

New York Racing Association, Adam Coglianese/APAndrew Lakeman has started rehabilitating for his severe injuries suffered in a track accident."It takes an incredible amount of strength, physical and emotional to overcome what he had faced. That strength can carry over to many other aspects of a person. He's not a survivor, he's a fighter," Raymond Maldonado, senior staff therapist for B.E.S.T., agrees.

Lakeman was thrown hard to the turf when his mount Our Montana Dream clipped heels with Irish Senorita on the far turn. He was rushed to North Shore Medical Center in Manhasset, New York, with spinal injuries. In critical condition, he spent days on a respirator. His had lost a considerable amount of blood and his pressure was dangerously low from the trauma to his body. As his recovery turned positive there was a setback from a bout with pneumonia.

Less than three weeks later, with a steel plate implanted to stabilize his broken spine, Lakeman can sit up in his hospital bed. He has been breathing on his own for over a week. Off the critical list, he started rehabilitation to build on the movement he has in his hands, arms and shoulders. There has not been an official announcement about the extent of his spinal injuries or a public prognosis.

Hospital details have been limited; the report on Lakeman comes from Maldonado, a friend for over four years and his counselor through his struggles with substance abuse. He has visited the hospital every day.

"He's excited about getting rehab, working with a therapist on his upper body." Maldonado said, describing Lakeman's mood following a Wednesday visit. "He was happy to hear there was interest in an article about him and wanted me to tell everyone he's doing much better. He was using his arms to make the motion like he was holding the reins of a horse, riding a race. His therapist has told him he'll get out of bed into a wheel chair soon and start using it."

Maldonado hesitates to speculate on the future. Instead, he talks about how everything was coming together for Lakeman, who left Great Britain in 2001 to come to New York with hopes of being a jockey. "He had problems assimilating to the culture here and turned to alcohol and cocaine. But the inner strength he has is inspirational. To recognize his problem, seek help, and for the last eight months he's been sober. He started to blossom as a horseman. He knows so much about horses, he was fit and so happy and so in demand he couldn't accommodate everyone's request to gallop their horses in the mornings."

Lakeman's race-riding success was modest. He did win the Huntington Stakes as a career highlight. But he has less than 200 career starts, the May 25 ride was only his 35th of the year. But his background is horses, growing up the son of a trainer he brought an innate feel to what he is best known and respected for at Belmont -- an outstanding exercise rider.

Most of Lakeman's race rides were for Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens. Almost immediately upon arriving in the U.S., he became a fixture around the Jerkens barn; galloping horses, tending to needs of the barn, noticing the little things that drew plenty of attention from the venerable trainer.

"He worked the horses, had a keen feel for them," Jerkens said. "Andrew is good to have around, he loves horses and knows them so well, knows the business of training. It's a shame what's happened. We all keep him in our thoughts each day."

On the backside of spacious Belmont Park there is a tight-knit group of exercise riders, grooms, people important to racing but rarely, if ever in the spotlight. People like Andrew Lakeman. The programs established by B.E.S.T. have helped in counseling, insurance assistance and family needs for this community. A dormitory is located here for those who are battling substance abuse. Lakeman had lived here since November in this controlled support network.

On the board of B.E.S.T. is the renowned track announcer Tom Durkin, who recalls overseeing a video-taping session with Lakeman for a testimonial promotion eight days before the accident. "He was very articulate, very pleasant as always and in 45 seconds gave a strong presentation, one take. I remember the last thing on the tape he said 'Thank God for B.E.S.T, life is really wonderful now."

"Andrew has that energy and spunk that we have all cherished," Dolan adds. "He has so much to give. he knows what he wants to communicate with people and horses."

Lakeman's parents arrived from England shortly after the accident and remain at a hotel near the hospital. His sister is also here. So too are the backstretch people, those who haven't had to opportunity to visit but reach out in thoughts and ask Dolan and Maldonado for daily updates.

"He is a very devout spiritual person. He has friends all over the backstretch. Andrew will give anyone a hand without expecting anything. People don't forget that, and haven't forgotten him," Maldonado said before relaying his most recent conversation with Lakeman.

"He wanted me to tell everyone he appreciates the prayers and thoughts. And to remember he's a horseman, he will be back at the track."

The Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) has established the Andrew Lakeman Assistance Fund. All proceeds of the fund will be used to offset Lakeman's medical expenses and ongoing care.

Contributions to the fund, which are tax-deductible, can be mailed to B.E.S.T., Belmont Park, 2150 Hempstead Turnpike, Gate 6, Cottage 28B, Elmont N.Y. 11003. Or call 516-488-3434.

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