DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Rolling his wheelchair up to the Meydan Racecourse, Rene Douglas wasn't sure how he would feel.
It had been nearly four years since the Panamanian jockey was paralyzed when his horse fell on top of him at Arlington Park and this week was the first time he had been to a track. A winner of more than 3,600 races, Douglas said he thought about his 27-year career — including winning the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies with Dreaming of Anna and 1996 Belmont Stakes on Editor's Note — but also his new life as co-owner of Private Zone, who races on Meydan on Saturday in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen.
"Happiness and sadness at the same time," Douglas said of first trip to Meydan. "My heart started pumping a little bit."
Douglas, 46, is part of the richest day in horse racing, a nine-race card that culminates with the $10 million Dubai World Cup. The day of races attracts some of the biggest names in the sport and this year the Dubai World Cup features 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, two-time Eclipse Award-winning Royal Delta and defending champion Monterosso, owned by Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.
But there may not be a more inspiring story than Douglas' at the track.
Douglas grew up in a racing family and was sent by his father to the United States to start racing at 15. It all came to an abrupt halt in May 2009, when Douglas was aboard Born to Be during the Arlington Matron Handicap. His horse went down at the top of the stretch, tossed Douglas over her head and landed on him. He was under the horse for five minutes.
"They couldn't get me out. They didn't have the machines," he said. "The horse saved my life. When the horse went down, it was paralyzed and couldn't move. If it would have moved, it would have crushed me death. I'm here for a reason."
Douglas spent six months in the hospital recovering from broken ribs and a punctured lung as well as struggling to come to terms with his new reality. He fell into a deep depression, mostly cutting himself off from the racing community that was his world for so many years. What was hardest for Douglas was the fact he had been scheduled to race at Royal Ascot soon after his fall.
"I was getting better at the time that I was supposed to go to Ascot to ride for (trainer) Wesley Ward," he said. "Riding in Ascot would have been huge for me."
For much of the time in the hospital, a group of five friends from Chicago — including a doctor, a judge and Hall of Fame hockey player Denis Savard — were with Douglas almost around the clock alongside his wife Natalia.
"For him and for me and for my family, they were like life savers," Natalia Douglas said of the group. "At the beginning, it was so hard. They were there every day for us, to sit with us, to keep his spirits up. One of the reasons he is doing better now is because of them."
But it was through horses that Douglas found his way back.
In an effort repay his five friends, Good Friends Stable was formed. Douglas served as the unofficial eyes and ears on the search for a possible contender. He helped arrange the purchase of Golden Moka for $60,000 in 2010, and the horse went on to win the $500,000 Prince of Wales in Canada before getting injured and having to be euthanized.
"One of the biggest healers was getting the first horse for my friends," said Douglas, dressed all in black and wearing sunglasses at the Meydan Hotel which overlooks the track. "They were there for me. Inside of me, I felt like I have to give back to them."
The loss of Golden Moka sent Douglas in search of another horse, this time purchasing Private Zone last year from his brother Rogelio in Panama for $80,000. The horse seemed at first like a bad bet, with trainer Rogelio calling the horse "crazy" and "nuts" for its tendency to abruptly stop and ignore instructions from its jockey.
But Douglas, who now lives in Aventura, Fla., turned to his network of racing friends who have helped turned the 4-year-old into a winner.
He hired Doug O'Neill — who had just won the Kentucky Derby with I'll Have Another — as the trainer and an old roommate and good friend Martin Pedroza to ride him. Over the second part of last year, Private Zone finished second four times and third once in his past five races leading to the Dubai invitation and dreams of the biggest payday yet for Good Friends.
"If I win, I honestly don't know if I'll pass out," Douglas said. "Maybe that is the day I'll stand up and walk. I told one of the owners I want to go into the winner's circle on your shoulders. I'll be on somebody's shoulders for sure. I want to lift the trophy."
Savard said it would be "very special" to see Douglas in the winner's circle.
"I remember with Golden Moka, we were all screaming and cheering. Hopefully we can have that feeling again," Savard said. "For him to have picked two horses of this caliber for our group is amazing. These horses have taken us everywhere. We have seen the world because of him."
But winning would be just one of the highlights of the Dubai trip. It also has allowed Douglas to reconnect with many of the horsemen who he once rode for, including Sheik Mohammad, whom he met Thursday night as well as trainers including Ward and Dale Romans.
"My favorite jockey of all time," said Romans, who has Dullahan in the Dubai World Cup, as he chatted with Douglas. "Everybody is so glad to see him back around the track where he belongs. He is the best horseman jockey that every rode for me. He could tell me more about a horse on the ground or on his back of any rider I had."
Ward admitted seeing Douglas for the first time since the accident this week "was emotional" but was comforted to know his former jockey was finally finding a new role for himself.
"The last time I saw him he was up on my horses and talking very vibrantly," he said. "You see him in different eyes now. You feel really bad for him but at the same point it's good to see him come out of his shell and moving forward."
With his recent good form, Douglas said Romans and others have encouraged him to start scouting horses for them. It is a good feeling, he said, to be recognized as "having an eye for horses."
"Now, I'm back," he said. "I feel like, you know, I want to be in these races. Of course, I have to find other horses. But I will."