Just when jockey Flavien Prat, a native of France, was working himself into the conversation as one of the go-to riders in Southern California horse racing, he suffered five fractured vertebrae in his back and a punctured lung during a spill at Los Alamitos on Sept. 17.
It was a scary accident in which Prat had little time to react. His horse was in second place heading into the turn of a five-furlong race. The horse stumbled and sent Prat flying to the ground protected only by his helmet and padded safety vest. Another horse ran right into his, and jockey Santiago Gonzalez also went down, though he suffered only bruises.
"It's a tough job and part of the job," Prat said. "I knew I had something serious wrong. I knew I broke my back."
Prat spent five days in a hospital receiving treatment and more than two months wearing a body brace. But his injuries have healed. Since last month, he has been rehabbing, trying to regain his strength, work on his posture and prepare for his comeback with the start of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting Saturday. He is scheduled to ride three horses on opening day.
"I'm pretty excited," he said.
There's much to be excited about for Santa Anita's opening day, starting the 79th season for racing at the Arcadia track. There's a nine-race card, four graded stakes and the track's annual free calendar giveaway for patrons. First post is at noon.
Prat, 23, is starting to feel like a Southern California resident. He loves the weather and the competition. He has been taking classes to improve his English. He decided to ride in America permanently in 2015 after riding in Europe since he was 16. His father is a harness trainer in France.
Prat started to attract attention locally when he was the second-leading rider during the summer Del Mar meeting.
Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella let him hang out at his barn in 2010 at the request of one of his European owners and soon became his biggest fan.
"One of my clients sent me a note: Would I look after a young man and get him a little experience?" Mandella said. "If I wanted, I could ride him a little bit. He came out and was a wonderful person. By the time the few months were over, I wanted to adopt him.
"At the end of the year, I rode him three times. He finished third, second and won, then went home. I couldn't wait for him to come back. He decided he wants to be a jockey in America. I'm very much behind him."
Prat is penciled in to ride on three of Mandella's horses in stakes races Jan. 2. In early December, Prat started galloping horses for Mandella, the first time he was back on a horse since the accident.
"The more I ride, the more I feel good," Prat said. "It's good for my mind. I was surprised how I felt. I felt pretty good. I thought for three months off, I didn't feel bad."
Asked if he was scared about racing again, Prat said, "No, no, no. I'm too excited to be scared."
Santa Anita's 63-day winter meeting concludes on April 10, followed by a spring meeting that begins on May 5 and runs through July 10.
One of the highlights figures to be the return of 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, who is preparing to make his 2016 debut in the San Pasqual Stakes on Jan. 9. Also expected back is two-time Eclipse Award winner Beholder.
One big change at Santa Anita is the retirement of Trevor Denman after 33 years as the track announcer. Frank Mirahmadi and Michael Wrona will be the primary announcers while the track searches for a permanent replacement.
Santa Anita Winter Meeting
What: 63 days of thoroughbred racing.
When: Saturday through April 10.
Time: Opening-day first post is at noon; weekends 12:30 p.m.; weekday 1 p.m. beginning Jan. 7.
Admission: $5 general admission; $10 clubhouse. Free admission for infield on weekends.