Spending extended amounts of time out of the saddle is not something professional futurity trainer Craig Brooks is used to. But after breaking his ankle in February 2021 when a horse fell down with him at the Royal Crown race in Bryan, Texas, the EquiStat earner of more than $1.1 million was forced to get accustomed to life on the couch for a few weeks.
The time off had both perks and drawbacks for the Eastanollee, Georgia, horse trainer.
“I’m always trying to get a million things done in one day, and that’s probably the only thing that was nice about it for the first few weeks was that I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t have that pressure on my shoulders or that drive to get 100 things done in a day,” Brooks said. “I was able to spend time with my family. I got to watch my son, who plays golf competitively and it’s his first season of baseball, so I didn’t have to miss anything. That was nice, but just watching other people ride my horses—I don’t normally have help to ride. Even though they did a good job, it was difficult for me to do. I just wanted to say let me see it; let me show you.”
Even so, Brooks was grateful to have so much help during his five weeks off. He stayed in Texas initially after the injury before heading home for ankle surgery with Dr. Fred Finney at Peachtree Orthopedics. Brooks sent a couple of his futurity colts, such as 2021 Lucky Dog Futurity/Breeders Challenge qualifier champion Im So Sway, with champion trainer Brandon Cullins to campaign through the Elite Extravaganza in March. Back home in Georgia, a local teen kept his barn full of horses exercised and ridden.
“Me and Brandon, we’ve been friends for a long time, long before he won anything, and he’s still the same guy he once was. I’ve always thought really highly of him,” Brooks said of Cullins, an EquiStat earner of more than $1.3 million. “He would come to me and ask me exactly what I wanted done with the horse, and for a guy of his caliber to come and check and make sure the tie-down was the right length that I wanted prior to running, I just couldn’t have had a better guy on him. Brandon did win some Breeders Challenge money on him [at the Elite], and he told [Im So Sway’s owner] to give it to me instead of him. Josh Pack brought the horse back to Georgia for me and didn’t charge a dollar—we couldn’t make him take money. Everybody stepped up.”
Im So Sway enjoyed a short break as well. Brooks let the colt have a few weeks off after getting him back from Cullins and started working him again several weeks prior to the Lucky Dog Productions Futurity and Breeders Challenge qualifier in Memphis, Tennessee, in May—Brooks’ first big futurity back after the injury.
Though “Sway” felt ready and Brooks felt strong enough to ride again, he admits the mental block surrounding the ankle injury posed a challenge.
“It is a bit of a mentality change just trying to convince yourself that No. 1, it’s not going to happen again; No. 2, that you’re stable enough to stay up there if something were to happen,” Brooks said. “Staying in the middle of him in a straight line I could handle pretty good. Just when he went to drop and make that move on the first barrel, I was just hoping my ankle could hold up to the weight that it was going to take on. But it actually felt really good; it was more of a mental block than anything to convince myself I was OK.”
The pair ultimately won the event. Brooks said the victory was nothing short of a blessing across the board.
“I’ve competed and placed high at most of the futurities, but I hadn’t won some of the bigger ones, so I had the mentality to try to go win it, not lose it,” Brooks said. “I didn’t make a training bill for a couple of months and on top of that, yes, we have insurance, but it’s a Christian healthcare insurance, so we’re still looking to be recouped because I had to self-pay everything out of pocket for all the surgeries. The income of it was a blessing. We were OK, but it’s nice to have that cushion, to feel better about things, make sure the injury wasn’t going to affect me mentally or physically. I was proud of myself holding up to the pressure of getting back going again, but most of all, my horse having that time off and then to go right back and compete—on top of that, win it—and know that he didn’t come untrained during that time off.”