Nolan and Track President Randy Sampson


There is indeed substance to the notion that you can’t go home again, back to the place you left at one time and the way it was, with all of the same elements in place, supported now by only memory. But sometimes just getting to that physical place you left behind seems equally impossible.

No one is any better equipped to expound on that idea than Paul Nolan, a prominent figure in Canterbury Park history who fully intended to rejoin the jockey colony this spring until fate stepped in and changed those plans for the worse.

Paralyzed in a riding accident in April at Will Rogers Downs, Nolan was first cared for in a local hospital before he was transferred to the Craig Institute in suburban Denver and underwent extensive therapy for his injuries.

Then, on Tuesday, he traveled back to the Twin Cities where he and his wife, Sherry, have owned a home for years. He needs to undergo additional rehabilitation before he can again live at his Bloomington home and was brought to the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley.

He was not there 24 hours when he underwent a drop in heart rate, later attributed to the stress of travel and healing factors, and was transferred to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. He expects to return to the Courage Center on Monday.

So, after all of these weeks and months, Nolan’s return home didn’t even include a permanent hospital. As he discussed his return to Minnesota on Friday, he quickly assessed the idea that he was finally home. “It’s close,’’ he said. “It’s been a weird ride.’’

For anyone unfamiliar with the popular rider, Nolan is originally from England and emigrated to the United States in the late 1980s to pursue his trade as a race rider. After moving his tack to Canterbury Park he established a lasting mark as a rider who excelled on the grass, picking up the nickname “The Sod Surgeon, ” a rider who could perform wonders on the grass with surgical precision. He often brought in grass runners with long odds on them, mostly notably K Z Bay, who returned $67.80 in the 1997 Lady Canterbury.

For all of the difficulties he is undergoing, Nolan has not lost his sense of humor, a gift of his Irish heritage no doubt that he displays in unexpected flashes at unexpected times.

He acquired a large stuffed Barbie-like doll during his stay at the Craig Institute, a doll he took with him on a boating excursion on one occasion, astonishing nearly everyone around him.

“I call her midnight,’’ he later told a Craig aide. “Why that name,’’ he was asked. “Because,’’ Nolan said, “she comes alive at midnight and we have fun together.’’

The aide was flabbergasted and later asked a colleague if Nolan indeed had all of his marbles. “Why would you ask something like that,’’ he was asked. “Because,’’ the fellow said, “he thinks that doll he has comes alive at midnight.’’

“He’s messing’ with you,’’ the fellow said. “He’s pulling your chain.’’

Nolan has a reputation for his humor, an aspect of his personality that has served him well during his ongoing rehabilitation. He is still without a prognosis for the future, although there remains a basis for hope.

Nolan and former Minnesota Viking Cedric James

Nolan was injured when the horse he was riding fell while galloping out, throwing him forward and then rolling over the top of him. The horse was fine but Nolan immediately knew something was wrong as an inexplicable force surged through his body and left him helpless, his head in the dirt.

“I couldn’t get my breath,’’ he said. “I knew something was terribly wrong.’’ He recalls those terrifying moments and those that followed in the back of the emergency vehicle. As it happened, the ambulance driver was in the stands somewhere getting a hamburger when the incident took place, delaying the entire procedure.

Then, on the way to the hospital, the EMT aides kept “asking me questions,’’ he said. “I couldn’t breathe and they wanted answers to questions.’’

The good news in this tragic episode is that although Nolan’s spinal cord was severely swollen, nothing was broken. Nothing in his spinal column was severed. Nonetheless, he is still unable to move his arms or legs to any great extent and is restricted to a wheelchair for mobility.

His current chair doesn’t offer the same flexibility he enjoyed at the Craig Center. His wheelchair there had a straw-like apparatus that allowed him to move forward or backward, right or left, simply by applying less or more force when blowing into it.

“I crashed into more things with that chair than I ever did on a horse,’’ Nolan said.

Nolan appeared adjusted to his new surroundings on Friday, injecting his conversations with doctors and nurses with his incurable sense of humor, taking in all they conveyed at the same time.

He received a call from his mother, Ann, in England. Later, Sherry arrived.

The most unpleasant moment of the morning, it seemed, was that his hospital coffee was coming up short, not at all comparable with his favorite brand. As it happens, there is a Caribou outlet in Abbott-Northwestern so on this morning, at least, his wishes were satisfied. Although he has to drink his coffee through a straw, Nolan appreciated the taste of his favorite brand.

After all, Caribou is a Minnesota brand and on this particular day it brought the Sod Surgeon one step closer to home.




  1. Sherry Nolan says:

    Thanks Jim.

  2. Marian Miller says:

    I’ve been at Prairie Meadows so I didn’t hear that Paul was coming home. How exciting!!! It will be better for Sherry, too!!

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