Gary Donahue felt a familiar rush of adrenaline as he finished his first Gasparilla Distance Classic. Donahue crossed many finish lines before, but the feeling at last year's Gasparilla race was different - and better. He had won 574 races atop a thoroughbred. The Gasparilla was his first race on the road.
And his first in a wheelchair.
Donahue was a successful jockey for seven years in the Northeast and Florida. That career ended when his horse landed on him at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts on March 1, 1986. Donahue's leg were paralyzed.
He was out of competitive athletics until days before last year's
Gasparilla. Another patient undergoing therapy at the Sunrise Rehabilitation Hospital in Fort Lauderdale introduced him to wheelchair racing. Donahue entered the race after two training sessions.
Donahue didn't win, but he didn't lose either. He completed the
15-kilometer route in 1:07 and found something that could quench his thirst for competition.
"I was hooked (on) the adrenaline of racing, when you're pushing and you're racing. I got the feeling like I was racing horses again," said Donahue. "Competing against other people again.
"The feeling was the same for me. Even though I hadn't done it for three years, the feeling was there. It came right back, as soon as I heard the gun go off and I was racing against other guys around me.
And I beat some guys. That was it for me."
He had found a new sport, but he knew he needed to become more competitive. While his time was good for a first-timer, he lacked the skills and equipment to challenge the sport's top athletes.
"I knew as soon as I did that race that I had to move down here (from Massachusetts) full time so I could train all the time," said Donahue. "I knew what I had been missing. I missed that competition.
"When the injury first happened, I didn't say 'Why me?' What bothered me most was that I wanted to race horses still. That eventually went away. I feel like everything happens for a reason. And I found this."
Fate stepped in again last fall. Donahue was using a standard four-wheel chair to race instead of a three-wheel version that is lighter and more aerodynamic.
That changed when Boston Red Sox reliever Rob Murphy saw his story
chronicled in the Thoroughbred Racing Communications' newsletter.
Murphy, a horse-racing enthusiast, understood the need for an athlete to have first-rate equipment, and he joined the Jockey's Guild in purchasing a racing chair for Donahue that cost about $2,000.
They also paid the expenses to send Donahue to an international
wheelchair-only race in Oita, Japan.
Donahue said he could have retreated into self-pity after the accident, but has chosen the opposite path.
"He's such a positive person. I think a lot of people are surprised when they first meet him," said Tom Merritt of Thoroughbred Racing Communications. "I didn't know him until I was working on a story about injured jockeys. Someone suggested that I talk to him. I was initially impressed by how inspiring he is."
The injury didn't change Donahue's personality, but did give him a new perspective.
"I'm disappointed because I can't race horses anymore, but I can still do anything I did before. I can still ride on horses, I can drive a car. I have braces that allow me to walk around some.
"I learned a lot about myself. I realized that people take a lot for granted. The past four years have been the happiest times I've had. I found out that I really didn't enjoy (horse) racing that much.
You had so many people to please. I would be in a bad mood a lot and give my girlfriend a hard time. Now I'm very happy, I'm very independent."
The independence of a distance racer appeals to Donahue. There is no team of horses, no owners, no trainers - just the individual.
Today, Donahue competes with other racers and his own goals. He once completed a 50-mile race in Miami, although he admits he wouldn't do that again.
But he is looking forward to the start of the national wheelchair circuit in April. He'll travel to races in Louisiana, Seattle, Atlanta and, he hopes, to the Boston Marathon.
The Boston event holds a special spot in Donahue's heart. Many people knew him as a jockey there and now he wants to introduce them to Gary Donahue, the wheelchair racer. He also hopes that exposure might inspire other paralyzed jockeys to follow in his path. No other jockey has made the transition, to Merritt's knowledge.
"Hopefully, if some other jockeys read or hear about me, they might become interested, too," said Donahue. "It doesn't have to be the end."