Jockey Tad Leggett: Breathing Easy in Bandera

From left daughter Tiffany,son Travis, Tad, his wife Tina and youngest son Trevor

Former jockey Tad Leggett remembered his mount breaking from the starting gate then collapsing beneath him. His next memory a month later was waking up on a noisy private plane on the way to a rehab facility for spinal cord injuries. The breathing machine down his throat had malfunctioned. He struggled for his next breath.

“I was just starting to come around when we got on the plane,” said Leggett from his home in Bandera Texas. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I couldn’t move. It was scary.”

The successful jockey was riding a trial for the Black Gold Futurity at Oklahoma’s Fair Meadows Racetrack on July 30, 2010. His mount, Hoist the Colours, started wobbling and veering toward the inside rail. He didn’t know the two-year-old suffered rare broken vertebrae. He remembers the horse eventually collapsing. All went black. The spill broke Leggett’s neck, crushing his number three, four and five vertebrae and leaving him on a breathing machine, and at 45 a quadriplegic.

For Leggett, a story that begin in trauma and fear has progressed into an appreciation of life however differently lived. His is not only a story of survival, but one of hope and healing, anchored by his faith, his family, and his extended racetrack family.

Since 1940, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports 150 North American jockeys died in track accidents. Add American riders Juan Saez, who died at 17 following a 2014 spill and renowned Quarter Horse Jockey, Jacky Martin, who died April 4 from injuries suffered in 2011, and the number totals 152, an average of over two each year. Since its founding in 2006, the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which supports riders with a variety of catastrophic injuries, has assisted some 71 permanently disabled jockeys. An estimated 50 suffered career-ending spinal cord injuries. This in a group barely larger than NFL players.

These are facts jockeys deal with ever time they walk their mounts onto a racetrack. “I knew this could happen at any time,” Leggett said. “But did I think about it? Not at all.”

Leggett’s youngest son, Trevor, then 11, had traveled with his father to the trial races. He called his mother, Tina, an Emergency Room RN, telling her of the spill he saw, saying an ambulance had taken his dad to the hospital. “I tend to be an optimist and I’m thinking an overnight stay,” she said.

But friends she called at the hospital said her husband was not moving his limbs. Tina threw a few things in the car and with Travis, then 16, beside her drove all night to Tulsa. She learned from nurses Tad was not only immobile, he was not breathing at all without a ventilator. “In the Emergency Room, we’re trained to be calm and not shook up, and at that point the magnitude of his injury had not sunk in,” she said. “But I knew that all was being done that could be done, and it was still not working.”

On July 4, Leggett underwent a nine-hour surgery at Tulsa’s St. John Hospital. Using incisions in front and back, doctors inserted screws and plates. He developed pneumonia and doctors discovered nerve damage in his diaphragm. He clung to life.

Racetrack friends visited. Daughter Tiffany, 19 at the time, flew in. Tina stayed with Tad constantly, moving only early each morning to a room in the hospital basement. The family had become regulars at Ridin the River Cowboy Church in Bandera and between naps, Tina would pray. Tommy Griffin, the track chaplain, visited often, listening to her and praying with her. “I believe in miracles, and I believe in a healing God,” she said. “I didn’t just sit around thinking this was all I was going to get.”

Tad and Tina met at Custer County Fairgrounds near his home in Broken Bow, Nebraska two decades earlier. He was starting his career, and she was a groom. They married and moved to Bandera, where Tad could ride at Bandera Downs some nine months each year. But the track closed in 1995, and the rider spent much time on the road.

After two weeks, doctors removed the ventilator tube in Tad’s throat, opened a hole in his throat and attached a tracheotomy (trach) collar. Heavily sedated, he could mouth words and Tina learned to read his lips. Tad remembers none of this. Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund Director, Nancy LaSala—herself married to a former jockey—stayed in contact, something Tina called a huge help.

After a month, doctors told Tina her husband had stabilized. They suggested he go to an acute care nursing facility near their home. There were no plans to wean him from the ventilator or the feeding tube inserted into his stomach. Tina wanted more. Her search for a better facility proved fruitless. Late one night a nurse she didn’t know stopped by Tad’s room in ICU and suggested Craig Hospital in Denver. She considered it an answer to prayer. She and LaSala contacted them; they sent an assessment team and accepted him.

When he arrived there by private jet, the mechanical ventilator malfunctioned, and nurses had to insert a tube into his lungs and pump an attached plastic bag to keep him breathing. But soon he was breathing on his own and eating real food. “It was worth whatever it took,” said Tad. “They don’t tell you they’re going to teach you to walk, but they teach you how to live your life; how to brush your teeth, tie your shoelaces and get in your car. I had counseling, and it was painful, but I didn’t want any antidepressants.”

When he left three months later, he was moving a big toe and lifting an arm. Yet, Tina said the second they drove up to their home in Bandera and she saw the new wheelchair ramp, she knew their life was forever changed.. “I finally realized that what we had done every day of our lives, we could no longer do. Frankly, I felt a little cheated.”

Time together, traveling or even having a cozy dinner at a restaurant was difficult if not impossible. Tina left her nursing job and for the next two years concentrated on taking care of Tad. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But it was still a lot better than our kids losing their dad and me losing my husband.”

One challenge was money. Several tracks held fundraisers for Tad, and Tina used the cash to negotiate lower fees from the hospital. Fair Meadows held a $500,000 catastrophic Insurance policy for its jockeys. Those funds ran out before Tad left Craig. The couple received a bill from the hospital for $60,000. She remembers piling the bills on their living room table and praying over them.

She contacted Craig to work out a payment plan. Officials there had her fill out an application and their charity cut the amount down to $6,000. She called again, and they told her the debt had been forgiven.

In 20 years, Tad had ridden some 9,000 Quarter Horse races and another 2,000 on thoroughbreds. He won at least 1,600 races, including 131 QH stakes races, with eight being Grade I. His mounts earned nearly $14 million. Still, with neither working they were soon living off what remained from the fundraisers and monthly payments from the Jockeys’ Guild and PDJF. “We didn’t live high off the hog,” Tina said. “But the money paid the bills and took care of Tad’s care. Without their help, there is no way I could have stayed home with Tad.”

“My injury was a life changing experience for the entire family,” Tad said. “For me it was catastrophic, but it had to be the same for all of us. It’s one thing for me to be hurt, but to see my family have to go through those changes was hard.”

And yes, Tad’s faith was severely tested. “I asked God, why did He let this happen? But I came to realize that Jesus didn’t let this happen, and we’re not going to go through anything that He is not there to help. And when you come out the other side, you’ll be a better person.”

Today, Tad concentrates on exercising, both at an outside facility and with a physical therapist at home, something paid for by PDJF. He walks up to 45 yards with the aid of a walker. If he has something to hold on to, he can rise to his feet. Yet, his hands are closed and only about 20% normal. Driving an auto is a goal. “I’m a quadriplegic, but I get around better than some paraplegics,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger. Therapy is great, and I praise God that they are there to help.”

Tina is back at work; a senior nurse for a local hospice. She also works most nights from home, assigning on-call nurses to emergency patient needs. She was accepted into a Masters Degree program and hopes to become a Nurse Practitioner.

They visited Las Vegas last fall and made trips to tracks to meet with their many friends, some of whom Tad says still call. He thanks track friends who “rolled in to visit” at Craig. He chiefly needs help getting in and out of bed, and with Trevor still in high school, spends a great deal of time alone.

Before fellow Quarter Horse jockey Jacky Martin died, the two often spoke by phone. Tad even made the trip to visit Martin in his Houston rehab hospital. Martin, 59, was also a quadriplegic, one permanently hooked to trach collar breathing machine. “He was my idol and it’s sad,” Leggett said. “Makes me realize things could be worse (for me).
“Sometimes I slow down and I’ve had time to search myself. I believe a lot of things in my life have changed for the better. I have some bad days, but I know I can dwell on the past all I want, and it won’t change anything. Every day isn’t easy, and I might talk light to some people. But there is a lot going on emotionally, physically and mentally. But by George, I know it’s like that for a lot of people. I look at it like my life is a book. One chapter is done, and now it’s time to go on to the next.”

Tad Leggett, who rode at Indiana’s Hoosier Park, will one of four catastrophically injured jockeys honored at Jockey and Jeans. The fundraiser for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund is set for May 30 at Indiana Grand Racing & Casino and a bevy of Hall of Fame jockeys are scheduled to attend. The annual event was started by five former jockeys, including “Ride the White Horse” author Eddie Donnally, a former journalist for the Dallas Morning News and the only former flat jockey to win an Eclipse Award for writing.