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Back In The Saddle

Alison Stanton | Jan 1, 2014, midnight

Gallyn Mitchell is living proof that if you love what you are doing in life, nothing—not even a broken back and massive heart attack—will keep you from pursuing your dreams.

From the time he was a little boy, Mitchell, 51, has been around horses.

“Instead of playing ball, I went to the rodeo,” he says.

When he was just 3 years old, he saw steeple racing on television for the first time. He turned to his parents and told them right then and there that when he got older, he wanted to race horses too.

Mitchell competed in rodeo from the time he was 8 until he was 15. His parents and family friends taught him the basics of horse racing, and at the age of 18, he began to work as a jockey.

Mitchell’s career has been extremely successful; he has been racing at Turf Paradise in Phoenix for more than a decade, and is well-known in the state of Washington, where he races during the summer. He’s the Emerald Downs’—Washington’s famed track—all-time leader in wins, stakes wins and purse earnings. And recently, he was inducted into the Washington Racing Hall of Fame.

Last December, just two days before Christmas, Mitchell was injured during a race at Turf Paradise.

“I took a turn for home, and a horse pushed me over another horse,” he says.

Although Mitchell recalls thinking his spill was “not that bad,” X-rays revealed a broken ankle and a back that was fractured in two spots.

“The doctors told me they couldn’t do any operations, and we had to let it all heal on its own,” he says.

Although he missed racing as he waited for his broken bones to heal, his spirits remained upbeat. He returned to Washington to recover, and bided his time until his back and ankle were completely mended.

“When I was sitting there watching other jockeys race, I really wanted to ride, but at that time I knew I couldn’t do anything about it.”

He spent only about three months out of commission before he began to get fit enough to race again. And once he got back on the horse, he continued his winning record. Mitchell began the 2013 season with all-time track-leading totals of 1,347 victories, 76 stakes triumphs and $13,847,580 in purse earnings. He was the only jockey to record 1,000 wins until recently being eclipsed by jockey Juan Gutierrez.

Then one morning in late April this year, out of the blue, Mitchell began to feel very warm.

“I was really sweating—that’s what got my attention. I called my wife Denise and told her I wanted to go home and take a nap, but she insisted that we go to the hospital.”

As doctors soon learned, Mitchell had suffered a massive heart attack. One of his arteries was 90 percent blocked, he says, and a second was blocked completely.

“When we got to the hospital, the doctors told my wife that it was a miracle I was still alive,” Mitchell says. “I had no blood flow anywhere, and I should not have made it.”

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