One Last Race

This is the story of a beloved old jockey, a beautiful but flawed horse, and one horrifying fall that sent two lives crashing into the muddy track at Suffolk Downs.

The Boston Globe Magazine

March 5, 2006

By Keith O’Brien

IT WAS THE LAST RACE ON A COLD, forgettable day at Suffolk Downs, the 70-year-old racetrack just off Route 1A in East Boston. The grandstand was empty. Three long days of rain and wind had driven fans away, and now even employees were leaving. Tom Schwigen, the starter at the track, ran for the parking lot immediately after launching the ninth and final race. The day, mercifully, was over for him. But not for a journeyman rider named Michel “Mike” Lapensee and the flawed but beautiful horse beneath him. This was their time. This was their moment. Mecke’s Money was about to make his move.

The man and the horse were a familiar pair. Since May 2004, Lapensee had ridden Mecke’s Money in 22 of the 23 races in which the 6-year-old bay had been entered. They won once, placed second four times, and finished third in two races. That didn’t make Mecke’s Money a star. But it did make the cheap, hard-running horse successful, at least by the modest standards set by owners Richard and Mary Ann Fruzzetti of East Bridgewater. Exactly half of the horse’s top finishes had come with Lapensee riding — and in just over a year of racing together.

Lapensee and Mecke’s Money had traveled different paths over the years — carried to this point on October 24, 2005, by both good luck and bad — but they had much in common. Both Lapensee and Mecke’s Money had seen their potential slip away. Both enjoyed natural gifts but now, for the most part, were getting by on grit, willing to do almost anything, not only to win, but to just keep racing. This was the only life they had known. They were competitors, yet they were also pleasant company. In the starting gate, recalls Schwigen, neither Mecke’s Money nor Lapensee ever gave him any trouble. Even with all the shouting and the kicking that usually went on, with horses rearing up and jockeys hollering and yanking on the reins, these two were quiet. It was as if they weren’t even there.

Lapensee, a jockey with nearly 40 years experience and 2,678 wins, had made his name as a front-runner, as the guy you couldn’t beat once he grabbed a lead. Even now, at 58, with weight problems and astride a horse struggling to breathe, Lapensee became dangerous when he was out front. And so, as they barreled down the muddy backstretch at Suffolk Downs on this October afternoon, Lapensee nudged the horse to the outside, just past the half-mile pole, and pushed him toward the front. Mecke’s Money was on the move. Mecke’s Money had a shot to win. And then, in a blink, Mecke’s Money was going down — and his jockey was going down with him.

LAPENSEE, THE CANADIAN-BORN SON of a janitor and a seamstress, had no business being a jockey. He didn’t grow up around horses. As a kid, he couldn’t saddle one, much less ride one. He couldn’t even speak English when he showed up outside Jacque Dumas’s barn in Montreal in 1963 and asked for a job. He wanted to learn how to ride. Dumas looked Lapensee up and down. As one of the top trainers at Blue Bonnets Raceway, Dumas was often approached by hopeful jockeys. He turned many of them away. Some, he could tell, were too big to ride. Others had grown up around the track and felt entitled. They didn’t want to pay their dues. They wanted to ride immediately.

Blue Bonnets was “a gypsy racetrack,” according to trainer David Vivian. A short track, just five-eighths of a mile long, with small purses. But Lapensee, then 16, didn’t care about the money. He wanted to learn, and he had one other thing going for him: He was small. Dumas gave him a job.

“He would do everything I asked of him,” recalls Dumas, “working around the barn, at first not riding horses. He would walk the horses. He would clean the horses. It showed he really wanted to do something.”

Lapensee was in it for the speed. As he wrote in a jockey questionnaire at Suffolk Downs in 1976, he had a “speed dream.” He wanted to be a race-car driver before he ever laid eyes on a horse. But for a hardscrabble kid, fast and fancy cars were another world. Horse racing would have to do, and he soon became a fixture at Blue Bonnets.

“He was just a little kid,” recalls Vivian, who worked as a trainer in the barn next to Dumas’s. “Every time he’d go to the track, he’d fall off the horse, and the horse would come back with nothing on his back.”

Vivian didn’t think Lapensee could make it as a jockey. But he underestimated him. Lapensee was determined, and he learned fast — because he had to. Many riders at Blue Bonnets were green. Many horses were mediocre. And on the short track, there was very little room for error. Danger lurked along the rail, and yet that’s where the best jockeys needed to be to have a chance to win.

Lapensee didn’t mind. He was fearless. And by the time Dumas gave him a chance to ride in 1967, he was ready. In his third start that year, riding at now-closed Green Mountain Race Track in Vermont, the baby-faced jockey who stood 5 feet tall on tiptoe surprised veteran rider Philip Ernst, who raced the New England circuit for 40 years before retiring in 1997. Ernst had the lead in the stretch that day and thought he was going to win. Then, from behind, he heard someone screaming in a euphoric, almost childlike voice:

“I’m gonna win! I’m gonna win!”

Ernst turned just in time to watch Lapensee pass him by.

THE FIRST THING MAUREEN DOWNING NOTICED about the jockey was his smile. It was the end of 1967, Lapensee’s first year in the saddle, and Downing wasn’t content to just watch him as she did that first day at Narragansett Park in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She wanted to meet him. Friends arranged it the following spring, and Lapensee soon fell in love with the Catholic girl from Providence. They married on July 6, 1969, in a double ceremony with Downing’s sister and another jockey. The Downings were raised around the track, but marrying into the business was another thing altogether. Maureen was a worrier by nature. She cried when her husband got hurt, and Lapensee, like most jockeys, got hurt a lot. And then, of course, there was the constant moving: chasing warm weather, better horses, bigger purses, elusive glory.

“We had a car, clothes, dishes, sheets, towels, pans. Sometimes a dog,” says Maureen Lapensee. “But we’d go and move. Just pack it all up in a U-Haul, and we’d go.”

Lapensee, by then, was no longer a nobody. He was winning races, earning a reputation for being tough to beat in the stretch and developing his own style. Horse racing is all about timing, knowing how much a horse has left, when to make a move and when to wait. Retired jockey Carl Gambardella says Lapensee had a way of making the competition believe his horse was spent, that he was riding hard, when, really, he was just nudging the horse along, loose reined and easy.

“That was Mike’s game,” says Bobby Pion, who first met Lapensee at Blue Bonnets when the two were teenagers. “He’d wait — wait and sit for an opening. He would not panic on a horse. He’d just sit, sit, sit. And when an opening came, he had enough horse to make it through the hole.”

The ability to know horses — to really know what they’ve got — cannot be taught, jockeys will tell you. You either have it or you don’t, and the fact that Lapensee had it got him noticed by David Vivian, the trainer at Blue Bonnets who had first doubted Lapensee. By the late 1970s, Vivian realized that he had been wrong, and the two hooked up for a successful run.

In 1984, they won 10 stakes races together, including five on a 2-year-old gray mare named Sheer Ice, the sort of horse that jockeys wait all their lives to ride. In their first race together that June, Sheer Ice won at Suffolk by a stunning 13 lengths. She and Lapensee won two more times that summer in New England, and then Vivian asked Lapensee to ride Sheer Ice that winter in Florida. It was a huge opportunity. There was more money to be made in Florida, bigger crowds, better horses. Also, for the first time, Lapensee had a major financial benefactor in the horse’s owner, Roy Cohen, the former owner of the Sugarbush Resort in Vermont.

Lapensee couldn’t say no. He moved his wife and their 11-year-old son, Michel Jr., to Florida. They rented an apartment north of Miami, not far from Gulfstream Park, and Lapensee enjoyed a series of wins that winter that could have kept the family in Florida for a long time to come.

But his wife and son missed New England. They wanted to go back, and Lapensee understood. He rode Sheer Ice one last time, on January 21, 1985, in the $52,920 Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream. He had the lead going into the stretch. And then, to everyone’s surprise, a 31-to-1 long shot, ridden by an apprentice jockey, caught Lapensee and beat him by less than a length. Soon after that, he packed up his family and returned to New England.

MECKE’S MONEY LOOKED LIKE A CHAMPION from the start, and breeder Bill Hunter expected big things. The horse’s pedigree was strong. His father, Mecke, earned more than $2.4 million in his career. Mecke was durable and professional.

“The total package,” says Mike O’Farrell, who now keeps the horse at his stables. By 1995, posters hailed him as “the Mighty Mecke,” and he finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby. The mother of Mecke’s Money, by contrast, didn’t have such impressive outings. But what she lacked in statistics she made up for in lineage. Lady Starlit’s grandfather was none other than Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner.

“Her lineage dictated that — if mated correctly — she should produce some fantastic foals,” says Hunter. And so, in 1999, he paired her with Mecke, and Mecke’s Money was born on Maurleen Miller’s 100 acre farm northwest of Ocala, Florida. He was a striking animal from the start: straight-legged and wide-chested. Mitchell Broussard, an Ocala trainer, says he had no problem breaking the horse — Mecke’s Money took quickly to the starting gate — and he later recommended that Miller buy the horse from Hunter.

Miller agreed, purchasing Mecke’s Money for $15,000 in the spring of 2001. The horse didn’t just look good on paper or in the barn. As a 3-year-old, he won the fourth race he ever ran.

But his trainer, Kathleen O’Connell, was not impressed by the win. She knew Mecke’s Money had just gotten lucky that day. The horse had a problem: Mecke’s Money had to struggle to breathe.

His air passage, as it turned out, was smaller than normal, a problem O’Connell discovered after she noticed the horse laboring during heavy workouts and had a veterinarian check him out.

The small air passage didn’t mean Mecke’s Money was disabled; it just meant he wasn’t going to win races like his father had. O’Connell trained him, and, for a time, they all hoped for the best. “Keep in mind, this is a horse that can’t breathe. But he’s running full out,” Hunter says. “Honest to God, that son of a gun had to work very hard.”

In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. He was “claimed,” or bought in a claiming race, from Miller for $5,000 in February 2003 and spent the next 14 months kicking around the Florida race circuit. In that time, he won two races. More often than not, race fans were likely to find Mecke’s Money pulling up the rear.

Richard and Mary Ann Fruzzetti, who bought the horse in the spring of 2004, could see that as well as anyone. The horse’s results were all there in the racing forms. But the East Bridgewater couple, with a 24-acre farm and more than four decades of racing experience, have never been interested in the most expensive or the best horses. They mine for the hidden gems, the cheap, hard-working horses. That’s how they make their living. And for them, Mecke’s Money was a perfect fit. He was, according to Mary Ann Fruzzetti, one “hard-trying little horse,” and they were confident that Lapensee, who had been racing their horses for more than 20 years, could squeeze the most out of him. The only question was: Was Lapensee still willing to keep his weight low enough to ride?

THIS IS HOW IT OFTEN ENDS for jockeys: After years of starving themselves or throwing up or spending hours in a steam room they call the “hot box” — it can leave you weak and dehydrated, suffering from headaches or cramps — they finally walk away, tired of keeping off the weight.

“Say you had to lose 4 pounds,” says Joe Frazzoni, Lapensee’s valet, who prepared his gear before races. “You wouldn’t go in there and just do it in 20 minutes… . You’re just drained the whole day.” A smart jockey pulls the weight off over a matter of hours every morning, taking breaks after long stretches sweating off pounds.

This was Lapensee’s routine: He awoke every day around 4 a.m., had a light breakfast, and made the drive north from Providence to Suffolk Downs, to gallop horses for trainer Herman Kinchen. “You could set your watch by him,” says Kinchen. Just before 6 every morning, Lapensee pulled up outside the barns in East Boston, rode Kinchen’s horses, and then headed to the hot box in the belly of the grandstand. There, over the next couple of hours, he would pull 4 to 6 pounds, maybe more, off his small, potbellied frame, trying to get down to 119 pounds — the high end of what a jockey should weigh, saddle and silks included. And while he rarely complained about it, friends knew how hard it was. “The reducing,” says Richard Fruzzetti, “was killing him.”

Jockeys almost half his age watched in awe, vowing to quit before having to do what he did, while retired jockeys Lapensee’s age wondered how he was still doing it after all those years. “It’s like finding a 58-year-old prizefighter,” says the Suffolk Downs track starter, Schwigen. “You’ll find a few. But damn few.” Lapensee just couldn’t walk away from the horses.

“No matter what he thought he was going to do, he always came back to horse racing,” says his son, Michel Lapensee Jr., now 32. “He could look at the want ads, circle ads, and say, `Maybe I’ll deliver pizza.’ But, honestly, I don’t think he could ever imagine himself doing anything else other than being at the track.”

Lapensee may have once dreamed of being like Bill Shoemaker, the prolific Hall of Fame jockey with more than 8,800 wins. But now he was just trying to earn a living doing the only thing he knew. Even a heart attack in October 1994 couldn’t keep him away for long. He quit smoking and was back riding horses a couple of months later. He retired, only to return in April 1997. As far as the Fruzzettis were concerned, he could ride for them as long as he wanted. In fact, when Lapensee climbed on Mecke’s Money on October 24, 2005, in the last race of the day, the Fruzzettis were having their best year ever.

“THEY’RE OFF,” track announcer Larry Collmus said as the gate swung open and Mecke’s Money galloped into the slop. Lapensee guided him toward the rail, and they fell in behind the leaders near the first turn. The track was muddy, but the pace was fast. Gun Is Set streaked to the front and stayed there, followed by Sutter Hills, Promise of War, Convey the Moment, and Mecke’s Money.

He was stalking the leaders, about three lengths behind them, biding his time as the field turned for the backstretch. By the half-mile pole, less than three lengths separated the top four horses, and that’s when Lapensee started to make his move. He pushed Mecke’s Money to the outside, pulled down his mud-splattered goggles, and prepared to make the second turn, barreling for home. He was in fourth place now, 2 1/2 lengths behind Gun Is Set. Then it happened: Mecke’s Money pitched violently forward. His left front cannon bone — the weight-bearing bone between the ankle and knee — had shattered. He began to go down.

Just moments earlier, Lapensee was looking for a win to try to salvage a disappointing day. In his four previous races that afternoon, he hadn’t finished any better than fifth place; in one of them, he finished last, 27 lengths off the pace. He had wanted this race. But now he was just trying to keep Mecke’s Money from falling.

It’s the best a jockey can do in this situation: Pull the horse straight back, hold the horse up, try to get steady. Lapensee gripped the reins tight. But there was nothing he could do to control a horse that easily weighed 1,000 pounds and had suffered a broken leg. He tumbled off Mecke’s Money, over the horse’s left shoulder, and directly into the hooves roaring up from behind.

“You hit the ground going 100 miles per hour, my friend,” says Rudy Baez, who won more than 4,800 races before being paralyzed in an accident at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire in 1999. “You go down so quick — pow! — you and the horse both. The only thing that can save you is how you go down, where you go down, and where the horses are behind you.”

Jockeys learn certain tricks to survive spills like these: Cover your head. Get your feet up. Stay there. Don’t move. Wait. But Lapensee had no safe place to be. When the horse’s leg snapped, it pushed him to the inside, directly into the path of Sutter Hills and the trailing Soldier Bear. Lapensee was trampled by at least two horses, leaving him motionless on the track in the Fruzzettis’ signature orange silks. Meanwhile, Mecke’s Money hobbled away, trying desperately to keep up with the pack. Somehow, despite everything, he had managed not to fall. But there was no surviving this injury. Track veterinarian Kevin O’Gorman met the horse, now limping, about three-eighths of a mile from the finish line and injected Mecke’s Money with a lethal solution to stop his heart.

The horse slipped slowly into the mud.

LAPENSEE DIED four days later at Massachusetts General Hospital, surrounded by his family. No amount of praying by his wife could save him from the massive head injuries he’d suffered in the fall. At the time, Lapensee was the first jockey in the United States to die from race injuries in more than a year. But by Thanksgiving, there would be another to add to the list: A 16-year-old apprentice jockey would be killed in Ohio under circumstances similar to Lapensee’s. This is the sad but inevitable part of the sport. There are accidents. Horses break down. Cannon bones snap without warning. Even a sound animal like Mecke’s Money can just collapse midstride. But such information does little to console the Fruzzettis, who refused to race a horse for weeks after the accident and are still mourning Lapensee. “Our heart,” says Richard Fruzzetti, “is just not in it.”

He can’t stop thinking about what happened to his horse, and to his friend. He can’t stop thinking about the timing. MaryAnn Fruzzetti was planning to retire Mecke’s Money after the 2005 season, to sell him to someone who’d let him run free, maybe ride him on weekends. The horse, she thought, had done enough.

Lapensee had seemed unsure of his future in the days before the accident. In one conversation, he had admitted to friend Carl Gambardella that he was tired of pulling the weight off his body. In another, he told his wife that maybe he should keep riding through the winter, that maybe they could go back to Florida after the season ended in November at Suffolk Downs. Maybe win a few more races down there.

There was no question the old jockey had it in him. He just needed a good horse and that slim opening to grab the lead. Even in their last ride, in the final moments before it all went wrong, the race was theirs for the taking. Mike Lapensee was going to win, and Mecke’s Money was going to take him there.

Keith O’Brien is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain. E-mail him at keith@keithob.com.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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