"How is he so strong when he's so skinny?"
That's what the nurses are saying at Albany Medical Center about injured exercise rider Ray Bulgado, who was admitted Monday with broken bones in his neck.
Bulgado was injured when 3-year-old gelding Ricochet Court fell while working on the Oklahoma turf course Monday morning. The rider was transported by ambulance to Saratoga Hospital and later flown by helicopter to Albany. He was in critical condition, but a friend said the 24-year-old native of Puerto Rico was stable and that doctors were optimistic. He was even expected to be moved to a traditional hospital room soon.
"He was better today (Wednesday)," said Zeke Castro, an exercise rider for trainer Tony Dutrow. "He was asking questions and you could talk to him. He wants to leave, but that's a good thing to me. He wants to move."
And that's where the nurses come in. Bulgado's neck injuries are severe and he was heavily medicated to prevent movement and further injury.
Wednesday, the doctors decreased some of the medication and Bulgado was able to talk and move slightly. Still is better, and the nurses are working on it. Castro said doctors are optimistic that Bulgado will not need surgery, if his condition continues to progress. Castro also said there was no apparent head injury, though Bulgado has a broken nose in addition to the neck injuries.
Monday's reports sounded grave. Tuesday's were a little better. Castro called it a "horrible" time, but Wednesday he talked of positive signs, good news from doctors and a recovery.
He was on his way to the airport to pick up Bulgado's mother - giving the injured rider some immediate family at the hospital. Not that he's been without company.
"At first they told us we weren't family, that we weren't related, so we couldn't stay," Castro said. "Nobody has family here and something like this could happen to any of us. We are all family. We work together, we know each other."
Castro met Bulgado, who's been in the United States for "four or five years" when both worked at Delaware Park.
Bulgado worked for trainer Tony Dutrow there and at Parx Racing, and later for Todd Pletcher in New York before joining Nick Zito's staff. Richochet Court, who was euthanized, was trained by Zito, who has played a key role in Bulgado's care - enlisting owners Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson for help.
"It's been amazing," said Castro. "The people at the hospital have been great and he's getting the best treatment he can get."
Castro called Bulgado a "normal guy." He rides horses in the mornings, practices on the Equicizer when he can and is always trying to be a better rider. For Pletcher, Bulgado rode stakes horses Sidney's Candy and Shanghai Bobby among others.
"He's the kind of guy, when he's working for someone he works hard and really cares," said Castro. "You can see it. He's quiet, he barely goes out. We went to dinner here the first week I was here, but he's at home most of the time. He's a normal guy, a classy guy."
Bulgado, Castro and anyone else connected to the sport know the danger and felt it first-hand Monday morning at Saratoga. The Oklahoma turf was busy, as usual, and then it went to full chaos.
The incident siren wailed, the lights flashed. Horses and riders scattered, aborting training sessions. Ambulances, human and equine, sprung to action and roared to the accident on the turn near East Avenue. Everybody looked, cringed, wondered. Was it their horse? Their jockey? Their exercise rider? Their friend?
The turf course was closed, another horse got loose and ran toward the scene, only to be turned around and caught. Soon, it was loose again though it did not go back toward the far turn.
Mostly, it was a strange time to be at the track. Saturday, Saratoga rocked with a Travers decided in the final stride. Sunday, the old place rained with cheers for champion Royal Delta, who made the Personal Ensign her personal playground. Monday, Saratoga feared for someone's life.
Ultimately, it's a risky game full of unpredictability. Horses are big and fast and strong. They're also fragile, or at least potentially so. Bulgado knows it. Castro knows it, too.
"You just deal with this," he said. "It's the risk that we take to do what we love."
Stay strong, Ray.