Tom Metzen wasn't sure he'd see Scott Stevens walk again after that night last July. As he watched a medical helicopter land on the Canterbury Park turf course, ready to rush the badly injured jockey to the hospital, Metzen felt certain he would never see his friend ride again.
So Metzen wasn't terribly disappointed when Fight On Gino finished last in a five-horse field Friday night at Canterbury's season opener. The horse tired in the slop, but he came back safe and sound -- as did Stevens, back in the saddle at the Shakopee track. Half an hour later, Stevens had better luck aboard Afleetmovinangel, sweeping past the field in the stretch to earn his first victory of the new season.
The last time Stevens rode here, he wondered whether he would survive a horrific spill. As his broken bones, damaged nerves and collapsed lungs began to heal, he felt determined to ride again. Friday, not even the mud caked on his face could keep Stevens from smiling all night long.
A crowd of 5,818 turned out for the first evening of a 62-day season at Canterbury Park. Handle on the eight-race card was $178,178, and total handle was $366,119. The first stakes races of the season, the 10,000 Lakes Stakes and the Lady Slipper Stakes, will be run Saturday.
"I feel very blessed," said Stevens, 50, who rode seven of the eight races on opening night. "It took a lot of hard work, a lot of physical therapy, but I had a great winter in Phoenix. And I love it here. It's great to be back."
His many Minnesota fans returned his affection, gathering outside in the rain to holler his name in the paddock and lean over the fence to hug him in the winners' circle. Metzen, who has long put Stevens aboard the horses he owns, shook his head in wonder, amazed to see Stevens as strong as ever.
On July 2, Stevens' mount in the sixth race at Canterbury broke a leg and pitched him to the dirt. He broke his sternum, both collarbones and several ribs -- some in more than one place -- and had a tear in his spleen. That night, as Stevens gasped for air, Metzen feared the worst.
Stevens spent three days in intensive care after the accident. By September, he had healed enough to begin rehabilitation. The same therapist who helped him recover from another career injury -- a ruptured knee ligament suffered in a track accident in 2008 -- guided him through two months of grueling workouts to rebuild his strength and flexibility.
Stevens resumed riding in November at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. On March 18 at that track, he won his 4,000th thoroughbred race aboard a horse named Summer Nights, a mare owned and trained by Miguel Silva -- the same guy whose horse Stevens was riding when he had his accident at Canterbury.
Despite missing the first part of the Turf Paradise season, Stevens finished third in the jockey standings with 77 victories. He also maintained his reputation as a man who cares deeply about his sport and the people in it, one of the reasons Metzen was so delighted that Stevens defied the odds and returned to riding.
"I wasn't sure he was going to live," said Metzen, of St. Paul. "I told him not to come back. And I know his mom and dad didn't want him to ride, and neither did his girlfriend.
"But he won't quit. He just loves it so much, and he's such a good-hearted guy; he's always helping out anyone who needs it. He's doing great, and it's great to have him back."
Metzen said Stevens will be back aboard Fight On Gino for the horse's next race. The only lingering effect from the accident, Stevens said, is some numbness in his right pinkie finger -- something he hardly notices, now that he's back doing the only job he ever wanted to do.
"It doesn't really bother me," he said. "I feel good, and I'm ready to go. I'm looking forward to a good summer here.''