It began as a typical day for Kevin Radke on April 14, 2004. He was riding at Bay Meadows in Northern California, building on the momentum...
It began as a typical day for Kevin Radke on April 14, 2004.
He was riding at Bay Meadows in Northern California, building on the momentum of winning two straight jockey titles at Emerald Downs. Radke was 32 and a rising star, and getting aboard Reflected Light that day was nothing out of the ordinary.
“We were on the turf course, and she was pretty erratic,” Radke said, more than 15 months later. “I tried to get her under control, but she clipped heels with the horse in front of me.”
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Radke fell, suffering compound fractures to his left wrist and to his nose. Three wrist surgeries later, Radke still hopes to make a comeback, despite doctors’ advice that he give up the sport.
“For normal living, my wrist is fine, but it just won’t hold up when I’m riding horses,” Radke said. “The amount of pull and pressure on your wrist when you are riding is unbelievable.”
Radke envisioned this story having a different ending. He had planned to ride Nite Moon on July 24 in the Angie C. stakes at Emerald Downs. In preparation, he had worked out horses for three days and felt fine.
“On the fourth day, I worked out some hard horses to ride and it swelled up,” Radke said. “The wrist just wasn’t going to hold up.”
Radke realizes that the first surgeon who operated on his wrist might have been right when he suggested a career change.
“Warren King, the surgeon for the Oakland Raiders, operated on me,” Radke said. “He suggested that I begin a retraining program, because he didn’t think I would ever ride again.”
Radke went to another surgeon, who stabilized the joint. He had a third surgery this past April.
“Absolutely, I realize that I might not be able to ride again,” he said. “But it’s too early to give up. I might be able to ride next year, maybe in six months. It’s only been four months since the last operation. It’s too soon to give up.”
Trainer Tim McCanna, Emerald Downs’ career leader in victories, employed Radke often.
“He was just a natural,” McCanna said. “Horses ran for him. Other jockeys, they have to get the horses to run, but not Kevin.”
While he waits, Radke will continue his new life, which has not included horse racing.
He spends his time working on his Auburn house, traveling to property he is thinking about buying and enjoying the outdoors, from camping to riding jet boats.
As the leading rider at Emerald Downs in 2002 and 2003, Radke made a good living. All of his medical bills have been paid and he is doing fine financially, but he knows he may need to find a new way to make a living.
“I have a couple of options I have thought about, but I don’t even want to talk about them right now, because I still hope to ride,” he said.
Radke is trying to beat the odds, which he did just to become a top rider. Unlike most jockeys, who begin in the sport as youngsters, Radke didn’t get his start in the business until he was 25 years old.
He had never even been to a racetrack. But after short stints in college, the Navy and the house-painting business, Radke gave horse racing a try on the suggestion of a friend.
Radke rode his first winner at Thistledown racetrack outside Cleveland in November 1998.
That began a quick ascension. After claiming his second Emerald title in 2003 with 144 wins, the second most in track history, he began 2004 by winning the riding title at Golden Gate Fields outside San Francisco.
“Kevin was on a real roll,” McCanna said. “And I’ll tell you what, that kid hadn’t peaked yet. Not being around horses when he was young, he was still learning about them.”
Despite the success in California, Radke was going to return to Emerald Downs in the summer of 2004. Now he is just hoping to return someday.
“I really love Emerald Downs,” Radke said. “I loved competing and winning the riding title. If I had my choice, I would be riding there right now, going for another title.
“I really don’t go to the track. I’ve got another life now, and things that I am doing. It’s just too hard to go there when I know I could be out there, doing what they’re doing and being successful.”