SPORTS WATCH

Smallest athletes, most dangerous game

No horse-race rider stands taller, so to speak, than Canada’s own Sandy Hawley, five-feet-two, eyes of blue (as it happens), 108lb.

TRENT FRAYNE October 9 1995
SPORTS WATCH

Smallest athletes, most dangerous game

No horse-race rider stands taller, so to speak, than Canada’s own Sandy Hawley, five-feet-two, eyes of blue (as it happens), 108lb.

TRENT FRAYNE October 9 1995

Smallest athletes, most dangerous game

SPORTS WATCH

No horse-race rider stands taller, so to speak, than Canada’s own Sandy Hawley, five-feet-two, eyes of blue (as it happens), 108lb.

TRENT FRAYNE

Sandy Hawley lies on his back in his living-room peering between upraised legs at his television screen. Some people believe Sandy is the best jockey ever raised in Canada, but right now he is prone on a couch and nursing a few injuries. Such as two fractures in his pelvis, one in his tailbone, two broken ribs, a separated shoulder and a severed urethra, which is the tube connecting the bladder with the outside world.

Terrible things happen to jockeys when they fall off horses. There was a rider at Woodbine in Toronto named Pat Remillard whom grooms and valets in the jocks’ room claimed had broken every bone in his body at least once. Pat denied this.

“Never did break my jaw,” Pat said. Still, it’s a fact that he broke his back twice, fractured both legs, both arms, most of his ribs, a collarbone, and once was unconscious for 18 days following a spill. Eventually, Pat retired in his middle 50s and became a trainer.

There are grounds for the claim that the world’s smallest professional athletes, jockeys, are in the world’s most dangerous spectator sport, horse-race riding. Some people might opt for bullfighting. Others might press for auto racing or perhaps the repugnant fight game where the object is to scramble a guy’s brain. And once, close to home, hockey’s goaltenders were considered the most endangered species.

Such as when Terry Sawchuk was plying his trade in a 21-year career at Detroit, Boston, Detroit again, Toronto, Los Angeles, Detroit again, and New York. Terry wore some 400 stitches in his face and head before he adopted a mask. He broke bones regularly, had concussions and ugly blue and purple welts where the frozen pucks kept crushing into his body pads. His stand-up, bent-double style of playing goal contributed to a spinal condition called lordosis that was so painful he could sleep only in two-hour stretches. Once, he believed he had suffered a stroke

when his left side went numb. It turned out to be two herniated discs in his back. A spinal operation could have ended his career but he had it done anyway, and it didn’t.

Other goaltenders endured pain and fear, a point that comes up in Ken Dryden’s literary classic, The Game. However, the former Montreal master puts down the notion that goaltending is now a most-dangerous contender. “[Goalers] stand as obstacles to a hard rubber disc, frequently shot at a lethal speed, sometimes unseen, sometimes deflected; the danger to them is obvious but it is exaggerated. The danger of playing goal is a potential danger, but equipment technology, like a net below a trapeze act, has made serious injury extremely unlikely.”

And so, as I suggest, jockeys remain the gutsiest athletes in the most-dangerous game, setting aside guys who jump off mountains gripping hang gliders, or those nuts with chairs who go into cages full of tigers with big long teeth and grumpy dispositions. And none stands taller, so to speak, than Sandy Hawley, five-feet-two, eyes of blue (as it happens), 108 lb.

Sandy is 46 and he has been at his game for 31 years, going back to his beginning in

Oshawa, Ont., where an uncle, Webb Bride, took a look at his 15-year-old nephew, noted his size, and said, ‘What are you going to do with yourself? You might think about becoming a jockey.”

Uncle Webb knew a widely respected trainer of thoroughbreds, one Duke Campbell, a former Alberta rodeo rider and cowboy, who, the story goes, was once cornered in a stall by a horse suddenly gone mean. Duke couldn’t escape, so he hauled back his right fist and landed a one-punch kayo squarely between the 1,200-lb. horse’s eyes.

Anyway, Duke took on Sandy Hawley as a rider. Since then, Sandy has won almost everything available to a jockey. He has twice been named Canada’s Athlete of the Year, is in the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame, has been inducted into the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga in the United States, has earned four victories in the Queen’s Plate, and has been awarded the Order of Canada. These successes have failed to turn his head. Indeed, with no trace of unctuousness, Hawley may be the most courteous athlete on the sports firmament (talk about damning with faint praise). He is unfailingly polite, bright and articulate in interviews and without false modesty.

Part of this may be due to the fact he is aware of his own mortality. Ten years ago, he began taking treatment for a malignant melanoma. Surgery took care of a tumor on his back and lymph glands in his right arm, and, two years ago, surgery cleared a lung spot. He makes an annual California pilgrimage, where he rode for 10 years in the 1980s, to continue a program of immune therapy.

More recently, his long run as a race rider was interrupted by a spill at Woodbine. It’s the reason he has been peering between upraised legs at his television screen. Last Aug. 2, in front of the grandstand during the post parade, his horse, a filly named Regent’s Revenue, was backed into by another horse and was startled. She reared, fanning the air like an unhinged boxer.

Sandy wasn’t caught by surprise. “Ordinarily, you let a horse right himself, but this time my filly reached the point of no return and started to go over backwards. I bailed out and lay on my side on the track. I’m not sure what happened next, I just know I felt a lot of pressure from the horse. They said she came right over and landed on top of me and rolled off of me.”

But now, after two months, he is restless, recently able to walk with crutches, soon to begin a swimming program, but still many weeks from recovery. He looks forward to the California trip accompanied by his wife, Lisa, and their two small boys, but, before that, he says he’ll be riding again. The possibility of further injury doesn’t invade his consciousness. “I believe in fate. If it’s your fate to get hurt, you’ll get hurt, riding a horse, driving a car, whatever.” He hopes to ride at Woodbine in late November, then in California in Santa Anita’s opening on Boxing Day. Back riding? Of course he’ll be back. He’s a jockey, isn’t he?