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If you fall off, get back on

After hitting rock bottom, jockey speeds his way back to the top
by: DENISE FARWELL, Jockey Joe Crispin, who started riding horses on cattle ranches in South Dakota, says the thrill has come back to riding and racing for him now that he’s sober.

Jockey Joe Crispin's ride into history at Portland Meadows hasn't come without one big fall from grace.

Three years ago, the Oregon Racing Commission banned Crispin for life. He had fallen into trouble with prescription drugs and alcohol, and Crispin was facing charges (later dropped) that he harassed his wife during racing at Tillamook.

Crispin had spun out of control, and he didn't even realize it.

'I thank the judges, the district attorney and the Oregon Racing Commission,' Crispin says today, 'because I can live again.' Had they not intervened, 'I'd probably be dead.'

Reinstated last summer after being clean and sober since summer 2004, Crispin stands on the brink of breaking the Meadows record for thoroughbred racing wins in one season.

It's held by the great Gary Stevens, who had 126 in 1982-83. Crispin, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., and rides in just about every race during every Meadows meet, stood at 123 heading into the weekend. He's also won 16 quarterhorse races.

Stevens parlayed the talent and focus he displayed in tearing up Northwest tracks into national stardom.

He won eight Triple Crown events, including three Kentucky Derby races. He's in the Racing Hall of Fame. He went to Hollywood and starred in 'Seabiscuit' and People magazine named him one of its '50 Most Beautiful People' in 2003. He's a commentator for NBC.

Crispin, 46, has been married three times and has six children, the youngest in grade school in Vancouver. He got his start riding horses on cattle ranches in South Dakota, then competed in Bay Area and Southern California events starting in the late 1970s.

He moved north to Salem in 1995, and has won his share of races at venues and fairs throughout the Northwest. His career hardly has paralleled Stevens' - he actually rode for Stevens' father in Idaho - but Crispin always has performed well on the backs of beasts. He entered the year with 575 career wins at Portland Meadows.

He rode well even when abusing drugs and alcohol. Crispin suffered a broken neck after a fall in 2000, and he started to use painkillers after swearing off drugs and alcohol for about six years. Eventually, the painkillers consumed him, as well as the routine of stopping off at local pubs in Portland and Vancouver.

'I looked forward to being injured, so I could get high,' he says. 'It progressed over the next three years … the end is the worst place ever. Everybody else was seeing (the abuse) besides me. I had one thing: my talent - I could ride.

'I started deteriorating - body- and fitness-wise - and I didn't care,' he says. The kind of diet jockeys keep and Crispin's diabetes didn't help matters.

'I didn't drink during riding - I waited until afterward, and then drank till the next day,' he adds. 'You're never sober that way. I could drink two fifths without falling down.'

The Oregon Racing Commission took action, and Crispin set about getting counseling and help. He did odd jobs but still had to file for bankruptcy. Still, 'I haven't even been close' to drugs or alcohol since August 2004, he says.

'I've committed my life to sobriety,' he adds. 'I know there's a God because I got a second chance. I don't take anything for granted anymore.'

He tore up the Oregon fair circuit upon his return, and Meadows welcomed him back. One of its leading trainers, Jim Fergason, decided to employ Crispin as one of his primary jockeys.

Crispin has worked hard to earn back trust, Fergason says. Crispin will arrive early in the morning and put horses through workouts, and bring doughnuts for everybody.

'He was wanting to ride and he does a good job,' Fergason says, of employing Crispin. 'His work ethic has picked up quite a bit. That means a lot.'

Crispin agrees. 'When I was drinking, I wasn't thrilled about riding,' he says. 'I could care less. It killed every emotion I had. Now I'm having the year of my life.'

While enjoying his Meadows season, Crispin hopes to race at Emerald Downs in Washington this year. It'll be more money and notoriety, and he has an agent working on deals.

Fergason doesn't doubt Crispin could have success at the more prestigious track. 'His style will fit good up there - he likes to ride up front and be in position to win; he gets everything out of a horse,' he says.

'But, it'll be tough on him. He won't shine up there. It's real cliquey, and you've got to get quality horses. If you're not with a big barn and you struggle, they'll say, 'This kid can't ride.' '

With a clear head, Crispin will give it a go.

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