By Keith McCalmont, Triple Dead
On October 30th at Keeneland, Julia Brimo was aboard Golden Stride who clipped heels sending the jockey crashing to the ground. Brimo suffered an incomplete spinal injury that threatened to end her career. Just six weeks removed from the fall, and after undergoing neck surgery to fuse a broken vertebra, Brimo is walking and inspiring fellow inpatients at Toronto Rehab's Lyndhurst Centre with her positive spirit and determination.
Not that it hasn’t been a troubled trip.
"When I first started back at the hospital in Kentucky, I couldn't even sit up in bed," states Brimo.
Her sister, Alicia Brimo, recalls the moment. “They sat her up in bed with her legs dangling over the edge and Julia sitting upright. They held her up for three minutes and that was the point that was too much.”
“Alicia told me I was screaming ‘I need to lay down’,” interjects Brimo. “Now here at Lyndhurst, I’m like, ‘do it harder’.”
The Mississauga native has made significant steps in the six short weeks since the accident. Basically, she has had to learn how to walk all over again.
“At first I would take about five steps and my legs would shake and I’d have to sit down,” says Brimo. “They put a belt around me real tight and someone behind me would hold the belt and so if I go to fall they have me. I just kept on walking. I pushed myself a lot harder than they wanted me to.”
Brimo kept pushing and now she leads a daily post parade of inpatients.
“I inspired people here,” laughs Brimo. “I’m walking around every night and do laps around the ward and so many people now want to do it too. They’re going to their therapist saying they want to walk as well. I’m setting up my own walking or wheeling club. People come up to me and say, ‘I stood up today’.”
Just walking, though is not nearly good enough for Brimo. Maintaining eye contact, the jock leans in and states sternly, “I’m coming back to ride. Definitely.”
Laughter resonates throughout the conversation as I sit at the Lyndhurst cafeteria with Julia, Alicia and Woodbine trainer Sean Hall reflecting on the fast start to Brimo’s career.
Brimo won a Sovereign Award in 2003 as Canada’s top apprentice. Fast, it seems, is the only way the bubbly brunette knows how to move. “I spent about a day as a groom,” giggles Brimo. “I knew I only wanted to ride.”
As a youth, Brimo went to the races regularly with her grandfather Allan Silvera – part of Woodbine’s well-know racing family. It was the Silveras who gave the aspiring jock a chance.
“The first time I got on a horse was for Laurie Silvera and we went out to the track and up I went to work a horse. My ass would bounce up and down and I was hurting so bad,” laughs Brimo. “I was in the middle of the track on this big chestnut plodder horse and I had jockey Stanley Bethley go by me on the outside and he yelled, ‘you need to keep your ass up’!”
“That’s so Stanley,” exclaims Sean Hall. “Julia was my go to rider. In my opinion, if she had stuck it out, she would have made it at Woodbine as a journeyman. We won many races together.”
Brimo would win 75 races in 2003 to clinch the Sovereign Award. However, after losing her apprentice weight allowance the good mounts began to dry up.
“You’re competing with everyone else who has more experience and you have to find ways to sell yourself,” declares Brimo.
And that’s where sister Alicia stepped in to help out as an agent.
“We did a lot of marketing,” grins Alicia. “Julia made cartoon air fresheners of herself, there were bottles of Julia Brimo hand sanitizer. Every month it was something different.”
Brimo would get a first winner on her sister’s books with a horse trained by Hall.
“In my opinion, Julia was a perfect rider,” states Hall. “She was someone I could trust with any horse and trust in a rider is very important for a trainer.
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to keep the jockey at Woodbine. Looking to start over, Brimo made her way to the U.S. for a fresh start.
“I left Woodbine and went to Ocala,” says Brimo. “Then I went to Kentucky, Fair Grounds, Saratoga and at that time I was working on getting my Visa.”
Brimo was also working on getting fit and becoming physically stronger.
“What I did was I ran,” laughs Brimo. “I wanted to be so fit. I’m riding with some good riders and I wanted to make this work so I ran four or five miles a day. I worked horses in the morning and I was on the Equicizer every day. I just pushed because I really wanted it. Let me tell ya, Kentucky’s got some hills now. I was always running up some hill.”
The hard work paid off and renowned agent Doc Danner, who holds the books for Shaun Bridgmohan and once represented Pat Day, added Brimo to his roster. Brimo began to pick up mounts at Turfway and was working hard at Keeneland when disaster struck in only her second mount of the meet.
The day of the accident is a blur for Brimo.
“I don’t remember anything from the time until they took out the life support,” says Brimo. “I remember the morning of the race I asked this rider if I could get a ride with him to Keeneland. Just before the race, I was already dressed and I’d forgotten my stick in his car. So I got his keys, went to the car and got my stick and came back out and that’s the last thing I remember. I woke up and they sat me up a bit and they took this big tube out of my mouth. When that tube came out I thought they were killing me.”
It was a frantic time for Brimo’s family.
“I found out the afternoon of the 30th,” recalls Alicia. “Suzanne (Brimo’s other sister) and I were calling everywhere trying to find out what happened. Suzanne and I drove down to Kentucky that night and I stayed with Julia until she came back to Canada.”
“Alicia took care of me from the beginning,” Brimo says fondly.
Anxious to demonstrate the depth of her recovery, Brimo leads us on a tour of the Lyndhurst facility. Perhaps it's second nature for a jockey to save ground, but Brimo is cutting corners as she accelerates past fellow patients who call out her name as she blows by them.
Our group struggles to keep pace in her wake.
Brimo enters her private room and proudly shows off the many photos on her wall. Pointing at a shot of a burly English bulldog, Brimo advises, “That’s Bodacious. He flew back to Canada with me on a private jet.”
On another wall hangs a placard signed by jockeys, trainers and assorted friends from Woodbine.
The list of visitors is a testament to Brimo’s popularity and engaging personality. “Robbie King, Ray Sabourin, Monique Dionne and Jason Portuondo have been by to visit,” smiles Brimo.
Her eyes light up and with a big grin she asks, “Do you know who came to see me last week…Edgar Prado!”
Alicia Brimo speaks fondly of the many well wishers who have stopped by to offer assistance. Among those is Matthew Straight, the brother of jockey Michael Straight who was left paralyzed following an August 26th spill at Arlington Park. “Matthew came out and introduced himself and said if we needed any help that we could talk to him. So that support has been amazing. Not just the publicity stuff, but the personal calls from people have been amazing.”
The hospital room with all of its cards and photos has become a place of inspiration for the recovering jock. Each day brings new challenges. Though Brimo’s legs are moving well, there is still stiffness in the shoulders and a lack of mobility in both hands.
“Once I was lying in bed moving my hand back and forth and in my head the hand was moving but it really wasn’t.” With a real wave of a hand, Brimo laughs, “It’s taken a lot of work to do this. This is all new.”
“I got to get these things working,” says Brimo gesturing with her hands. “This hand, I move very well but this one not so much. I keep telling them ‘come on guys, wake up, got to get going’.”
A self-starter, Brimo isn’t waiting for recovery to happen and instead is finding creative ways to re-train her body to move as it once could.
“Last night I dumped out a box of Hershey Kisses and put them back in the box one-by-one,” said Brimo. “I’ll unscrew nuts and bolts and put them back together. I stretch constantly. Everyone is saying that I’m so advanced but I’m so go go go and want to be ready for spring.”
Brimo’s enthusiasm is palpable. The only scars she suffers from the accident are a pair of three and four inch marks on her neck from the spinal surgery. Mentally, it seems, the jockey is ready to get back on the horse.
The journey to recovery for Brimo begins at Toronto Rehab’s Lyndhurst facility where the jockey will be rooming until February. Each day, Brimo works with Sylvia Haycock, an Inpatient Occupational Therapist, to learn how to cope with her injuries.
“Working with Julia has been inspiring and different in that she has a lot of spontaneous motor recovery,” says Haycock. “Julia is very motivated and she had a pre-existing high level of fitness due to her ability to race horses so she was in shape as an athlete. Her body awareness is excellent and we’re progressing well in teaching and learning movement strategies and learning movements that she had before.”
“It’s a lot of work,” adds Brimo. “I work every day to move my fingers and my arms to get my brain to send the right signals.”
“It’s an incomplete injury,” continues Haycock. “We don’t know what part of the spinal cord was spared, we only know by her presentation. As a therapist, we augment whatever muscle movements we see and we also use the body alignment.”
During an afternoon therapy session, Haycock puts Brimo through a variety of exercises and works to stretch out the finely toned muscles of a highly trained athlete to recover range of motion. A typical session starts with Brimo dipping her hands into a hot wax wrap which coats the jock’s fingers in molten wax heated up to 136 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat of the wax helps to loosen Brimo’s muscles as Haycock then massages manually on the digits of each hand to elicit a response.
“It’s hard to put someone on a curve as every injury is unique,” says Haycock. “But I would say she is doing very well considering her injury was on October 30th. She still has work ahead of her but she’s up for it daily, with exercises and therapy, and going for it way more than 100%. It’s an inspiration her will to recover.”
Realistically, there is no way to measure what recovery is possible.
“We check the range every day and re-assess her movement. We assess for changes in terms of new problems,” states Haycock. “We do as much as we can here implementing into a home program. Three months here is the start of recovery which will continue to improve for two to three more years.”
Brimo has been invited to take part in a Valentine’s Day event at Gulfstream Park in February and the irrepressible jock plans to be there even if she isn’t able to ride just yet.
She is working hard at her program and if full recovery is possible, considering her determination, it would be hard to imagine anyone more capable. To that end, Brimo speaks about inspiring others.
“The main thing I want to talk about is spinal cord injury and how if you’re positive and work hard you can overcome it and achieve your goals,” states Brimo. “It’s not the end of the world. I know it’s easy for people to get down but all I can think about is riding again.”
To do so, the 33-year-old is again working hard at regaining fitness. This time, the hills she climbs are the peaks and valleys of personal physical limitations rather than those covered in Kentucky bluegrass. Undaunted, Brimo has visions of a brighter future.
“I picture a sunny day, as fit as I can be and I’m on the best horse in the race and I win,” laughs Brimo. “I’m coming back to win.”
The Julia Brimo Fund was established at Fifth Third Bank by friend Cindy Werner. Contributions can be made to the Fund by sending a check made out to the Julia Brimo Fund and sent to Cindy Werner at 1116 Flat Rock Road, Louisville, KY 40245