HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — On a chilly morning at Oaklawn, Rocco Bowen mounts a horse from the barn of trainer Paul Holthus. The truth is, he might not be here without Paul or his wife Nancy, the park’s paddock analyst. There are countless other friends he wants to thank. Above them all, he says he wouldn’t be here without his mom, reports KATV.
“Most of my family, they made a lot of sacrifices to get me where I’m at today,” Bowen said in the unmistakably Caribbean accent of his native Barbados.
Bowen began his journey as a jockey in Canada, though his career took off at Emerald Downs, outside Seattle. In September 2018, he was three wins shy of a record third-straight 100 win season. That’s when his memory goes blank.
“I guess the rein broke and the horse went over the outside fence. I woke up in the hospital 25 minutes later,” he said.
Bowen suffered a concussion, separated shoulder and nerve damage. Determined to win three more races, however, he was back in the saddle a week later. He finished with 109 wins, but the shooting pain from his neck to his arm made him feel finished himself. He entered what he described as “a very dark place.”
“It’s some place I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” he explained. “It’s not a fun place. I had no contact, no phone.
“I was like a mole in the winter. I buried myself and just stuck my head in a hole and was just shut out from the world because I didn’t feel like there was any way back.”
His debilitating injury baffled doctors. He stopped watching races. His weight ballooned.
“My mom got really disturbed with me. She said, ‘son, what are you doing, letting yourself go?’ I said, ‘well mom, it’s two options: either stay here on the couch or come back home to Barbados.’ She’s like, ‘you’re ready for none of the two yet.'”
On April 1 2020, Bowen weighed 152 lbs. A month later, he said, he weighed 122. Three weeks later – 640 days since his last race – he was back at a starting gate.
Shortly thereafter, he pulled off what any jockey would consider a career feat: he won a race at Churchill Downs.
“It was a very emotional time because it was my first ride, first win,” Bowen said. “It felt like I was in a dream.”
This fall, Bowen won his 1,000th career race. The milestone proved he was back on top of the sport he once couldn’t bare to watch. His next dream? He wants to buy his mom a home near Indiana Grand.
“Maybe that will be all my giving back because I can’t ever repay my mom for what she’s done for me. When we have an [open] house, to say, ‘mom, this is for you for getting me out of that dark pace and showing me there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.'”
Bowen said he credits those closest to him for pulling him out of the depths of despair. He hopes that serves as a lesson to everyone who watches him race at Oaklawn this season.
“There’s always people out there, no matter what color, that’s trying to help you. I want people to understand that. It doesn’t take much to help a person that you see down.
“Reaching out to someone can save someone’s life or make a difference in someone’s life. It surely did make a difference in my life.”
Bowen said he will eventually need surgery on his lingering hand injury, but that will wait until after retirement.