Back in stable condition: Don Richards, a Maine harness racing legend, is also a legendary survivor

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CUMBERLAND — Don Richards would rather not talk about the accident that nearly killed him.

“I don’t feel any pain, so I don’t want people feeling sorry for me,” he said.

Less than a year ago, 81-year-old Richards was lying on a barn floor in a pool of his own blood. He was surrounded by three longtime coworkers and friends who were certain Richards would die right there before their eyes.

But, to the surprise of everyone – friends, family, paramedics and doctors – Richards pulled through. And, just a few months after the accident, Richards returned to work at Don Richards Stables, a 50-year institution at the Cumberland Fairgrounds.

On Sunday, Sept. 21, Richards will be honored during the opening day of the annual Cumberland County Fair. Throughout the day, a series of fundraisers will benefit the Cumberland Fire Department, whose paramedics rushed Richards to the hospital, plus two other charities on Richards’ behalf.

The day will also feature the first-ever Don Richards Invitational Pace Race: a harness race with a purse of $15,000, which is the highest in the fair’s 143-year history, according to fair President Mike Timmons. Races begin at 1:30 p.m. The invitational will be the ninth race in a 10-race card.

Between each race, friends and relatives will step up to a microphone to offer their thoughts and anecdotes about Richards.

Timmons, who has known Richards for 50 years, said his friend is reluctant to be the center of attention for a day. Nonetheless, the fair is forging ahead with the plan.

“He’s alive,” Timmons said. “I have memorial services for people all the time that are dead. He’s lucky to be alive and I’d much rather have a full-day program to honor him while he’s alive.”

The accident

Richards might be uncomfortable with the attention he’ll receive Sunday, but he’s no stranger to the spotlight.

He is one of Maine’s winningest harness drivers: In a racing career that spans 65 years, the Yarmouth resident has won about 4,500 races, including his final race before retiring last year.

According to fellow harness driver Wallace Watson, Richards is a “living legend.”

“He’s one of the best guys who ever drove a horse in the state of Maine,” Watson said.

Richards began his stable services at the fairgrounds in 1963. He’s been working in the same barn since 1968.

But on Jan. 8, Richards nearly died in that barn, when he and three others were trying to break an energetic colt named Tommy Bar. 

Richards was holding Tommy Bar’s lead rope when the horse suddenly reared up and kicked him in the face with a front hoof.

The injuries were profound, according to Donna Fenderson, Richards’ assistant of 40 years.

“The whole side of his face was off and against his neck,” she recalled. “You just can’t describe it. It was just – horrific. There was nothing there.”

The hoof had cleaved the left side of Richards’ face, including his nose, jaw and part of his left eye, which he eventually lost altogether.

Fenderson’s husband, John Fenderson, was there, too.

“Truthfully, I thought he was going to die right in my arms. There was so much blood,” he said. “Almost nobody else would have survived that.”

Recovery

Cumberland EMTs stemmed the bleeding and rushed Richards to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he spent the next three months, Donna Fenderson said. For more than a month, Richards was in an induced coma while surgeons reattached his nose and face, reconstructed his jaw and attempted to save his left eye.

“I lost my eye,” Richards said this week, “but I see good out of the other one.” 

After the coma, Richards had to relearn how to walk, talk and swallow, and is still undergoing rehabilitation. Nonetheless, he returned to work at his stables three months earlier than anyone expected.

Despite the ordeal, Richards said he had no reservations about working with horses again and harbors no ill feelings toward the colt that injured him.

“It wasn’t the horse’s fault,” he said. “He got scared and he struck me.”

Donna Fenderson recalled a brief interaction between Richards and the colt shortly after Richards returned.

“When he came back,” she said, “he told (Tommy Bar) ‘You might have got the battle, but I won the war.'”

Ben McCanna can be reached at bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.

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Yarmouth resident Don Richards, 81, at the Cumberland Fairgrounds with his horse, The Fighter. Richards, a 65-year veteran of harness racing, was severely injured in January while breaking a colt. He will be honored Sunday, Sept. 21, on opening day of the annual Cumberland County Fair.

Opening-day events at the Cumberland County Fair in recognition of Don Richards

Cumberland County Fair President Mike Timmons said the week-long fair will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, with a family walk around the racetrack, featuring Girls on the Run, a nonprofit group that encourages girls to exercise and build self-confidence.

A buffet-style lunch begins at 11:30 a.m. for a suggested donation of $8. Proceeds from the lunch, plus a silent auction and a 50/50 raffle, will be split three ways, with a third going to the Cumberland Fire Department for its role in saving Don Richards, a third to Girls on the Run, and a third to the Make a Wish Foundation.

The day will also feature the first-ever Don Richards Invitational Pace Race, a harness race with a purse of $15,000, which is the largest in the fair’s 143-year history, Timmons said. Races begin at 1:30 p.m. The invitational will be the ninth race in a 10-race card.

Between each race, friends and relatives will step up to a microphone to offer their thoughts and anecdotes about Richards.

— Ben McCanna

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