Sports Vault: Jockey Perry Ouzts was told he'd never ride again. Ten years later, he's still racing

He came back for his 5,000th win … now at 6,807

CINCINNATI - Ten years ago this month, jockey Perry Ouzts overcame a horrific accident and an 11-month absence from horse racing before making a magnificent comeback that included his 5,000th career victory.

 

Some expected Ouzts to ride off into retirement after joining an elite club of 22 North American jockeys that conquered the 5,000-win milestone.

Those people didn't know Ouzts.

The Hebron resident still races at Belterra Park Gaming in the summer and Turfway Park in the winter, often seven or eight times a day. Ouzts, 63, recently claimed the No. 10 slot in all-time wins in North American racing history and at last count had 6,807 victories.

He’s only nine victories behind No. 9 Mario Pino and 149 wins behind No. 8 Edgar Prado.

“To make the Top 10, I thought was pretty awesome,” Ouzts said.

Ouzts’ career has spanned 44 years and featured winnings of $43.5 million. He started riding professionally at Beulah Park in 1973 and unlike many peers who gave up the sport due to weight gain, injury, disinterest or the difficult nature of the profession, Ouzts’ determination never wavered.

Perry Ouzts continues to race long after his peers have retired.

Scoot 'N Boot -- Ouzts' nickname, a nod to his ability to propel horses out of the gate -- has made 49,466 career starts. That's second only to Russell Baze.

Besides loving racing itself, Ouzts has a strong connection with horse parks. He shares that affinity with his wife of nearly 33 years, Toni. She was a groomer when they met at River Downs in 1984, and she remains a groomer now. The couple have two children: Kyle, 27, and Tyler, 24.

Perry Ouzts discouraged his kids from following in his footsteps career-wise, but it became a moot point when they grew to 6 feet. Ouzts once said that blocking out fear was part of being a jockey, because otherwise it became a gripping, oppressive worry about potential injury, paralysis or death.

Ouzts had two major racing injuries that came 14 years apart. He was thrown off a horse at River Downs in 1992 and spent half of his 10-day hospital stay in intensive care. His jaw was wired shut, necessitating a tracheotomy, and he had a broken nose and shoulder.

His most recent accident nearly cost his life.

Perry Ouzts races at River Downs.

Ouzts was atop Finders Chance at Turfway when the horse's front legs buckled near the quarter-pole in January of 2006. Ouzts was thrown from the horse as it hit the ground. Four of Ouzts' vertebrae were cracked and a fifth was crushed.

Ouzts' arm was broken by another horse that clipped him, and Finders Chance trampled his leg when it scrambled to its feet. The jockey ultimately needed three surgeries and nine months of rehab.

"Most guys would have said, 'Hey, I'm going to call it a day.' Not Perry, because he has that passion. He just wants to continue what he's doing as long as he can," said John Engelhardt, executive director of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners and a former 30-year promoter of racing in Cincinnati.

Ouzts returned to work Dec. 26, 2006. Riding Divine Dancer, he placed second on the same track on which he'd sustained his injuries.

Perry Ouzts came back from a horrific accident and months of rehab to eventually win his 5,000th race.

He nabbed his 5,000th win on Kandinsky at River Downs on Aug. 21, 2007. As the years progressed, his collection of victories grew to 6,000 and beyond and distanced a doctor's prognostication.

"The doctor told me that I wouldn't ride again. I've been riding for over 10 years and won a bunch of races, so I was right and he was wrong," Ouzts said.

Ouzts, the subject of the Eclipse Award-winning documentary "Ironman Perry Ouzts," has recorded more wins than a host of jockeys already in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Inductees Jorge Velasquez, Earlie Fires (Ouzts' cousin) and Sandy Hawley, for example, are ranked 11, 12 and 13 in career victories behind Ouzts.

Traditionally, jockeys who have competed in major races have been favored for nominations.

Jockey Perry Ouzts

"I don't think I can get in because I never win races at big race tracks. That's what they pretty much base it on. They don't care how many races you win or how hard you worked," Ouzts said.

Ouzts has plenty of support at the grassroots level, where last year fans sought to get the jockey into the Hall of Fame. A petition was started to support his consideration. He hasn't received a nomination, but Engelhardt said it may be possible.

"Is he deserving? Hell yeah," Engelhardt said.

Ouzts, Engelhardt said, could have been an elite rider anywhere he wanted but he chose destinations and routines he liked. Ouzts is always close to Toni. He's also just a short motorcycle ride away from their home.

So what's next?

More racing, of course. Ouzts has no plans to slow down or streamline his regimen. He simply loves his life's work.

Asked what it meant to have so many accomplishments in four decades, Ouzts summed it up in two words: "Just thankful."

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