It happened so fast that even today Robbie Davis has trouble sorting out the whole haunting nightmare: the terrible fall and the vision of the silks flashing beneath him, the sound like a water balloon bursting at his horse's feet, his own screaming voice, the sight of the dead jockey, and then his hiding like a child in the darkened broom closet in the first-aid room at Belmont Park.
On the afternoon of Oct. 13, 1988, in the fifth race at Belmont Park, Davis, atop Drums in the Night, was moving down the backstretch of the turf course and sensing in the hollow of his bones that he could not have been in a sweeter spot on this great green earth. "It was a beautiful, gorgeous, perfect day," Davis says. "There's nothing like a fall day in New York, you know, and I had won with my horse the time before and I had all sorts of horse under me."
Davis had never been riding better. With almost three months left in the year, his mounts had won 231 races and $7,154,435. He was the sixth-leading jockey in the nation in money won and was, at that moment, sitting just where he wanted to be. Drums in the Night was trailing the leaders but running strong against the bit in the 1[1/16]-mile allowance race. "I was next to last," says Davis. "I was staying down on the inside, saving ground and waiting for some running room. I was waiting for the real running to start. Then all of a sudden...."
Davis saw the horse directly in front of him—Mr. Walter K., with veteran jockey Mike Venezia up—stumble suddenly and veer to the right, out of Drums in the Night's path. Instinctively, Davis took hold of his horse, waiting to see what would happen in front of him. "All of a sudden I seen the jockey pop up right in front of me," he says, "and I took straight back to see which way he would go, so I could miss him. I didn't want to move until he committed himself in one direction or the other. All of a sudden he lost his balance—it happened so fast, I didn't know who it was—and he kicked off the left side of his horse, and he went under my horse. My horse tried to jump, but it was too late. He clipped him and stumbled. The jockey's head was right in the path of my horse, right underneath! I looked down and seen him under me, and my horse scissored his head with his back feet. Shattered his skull."
Davis screamed, "Oh, my God!" He looked back and saw the body lying on the grass, motionless in the sun. Caught in the hot whips of panic, Davis came undone. He looked over to his left and saw jockey Nick Santagata, and he hollered, "Nickie! Who was that? I just killed him! I just run over him. Who was that?"
Santagata glanced at Davis over his shoulder. "Venezia!" he shouted.
The two men raced together for the far turn. Davis screamed again to Santagata: "I killed him! I swear I killed him. What do I do? Do I ride? I can't believe it. Nickie! What do I do?"
Santagata never answered, and together the two men drove their horses home. Drums in the Night finished fourth, and as Davis pulled him up at the clubhouse turn, he looked over his left shoulder and saw the ambulance already out on the backstretch. Venezia had been killed instantly, the blow from Drums in the Night's hooves having struck his head so sharply that it dislodged his right eye. But as Davis slowly walked his horse back to the unsaddling area, he didn't know that. He prayed, "God, I know I busted something, but I just hope he's O.K."
Davis dismounted and took the saddle off Drums in the Night and studied the horse's feet. "They were beautiful horse feet, so dainty," says Davis, "and he stood there so kind, the horse did, and there were no marks on him, and he was just a beautiful black horse with nice perfect feet, and I'm looking down and saying, 'These are the feet. Why these feet? Why this horse? Why this?' "
Davis walked slowly back through the passage under the grandstand and down the stairs to the underground maze that leads to the jockeys' room. When he got below, he saw the ambulance sitting in the service tunnel, Pinkerton guards all around it, and he began hollering at the driver and the guards, "What the hell are you doing here? Get him to the hospital! What are you waiting for? Why are you leaving him here? Get him out of here! Out! Now!"