Doctors don’t believe the tumor is cancerous, but the Hall of Fame trainer said he is in a lot of pain and is hoping to have the tumor removed this week by a world-renowned specialist at New York University.
by Dave Briggs
Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter will be in Delaware, OH on Tuesday to accept his induction into the Little Brown Jug Wall of Fame, but he’s hoping before the week is out that he will be on the operating table to have a tumor removed from his spinal cord.
“I don’t want to be away too long (in Ohio),” Takter said Saturday. “I want to get this s – – – out of me. I don’t want to walk around with this thing anymore.”
The Jug Wall of Fame will be the third Hall of Fame honor for Takter in a year filled with triumphs, travel and this one major tribulation since he officially retired from running his own stable in December of 2018.
In February, while visiting New Zealand and Australia with his wife Christina, Jimmy’s neck began to bother him.
“It was very minor. I’m used to pain, but gradually it got worse and worse,” Jimmy said.
On Sept. 5 at the Red Mile in Lexington, Jimmy drove three times, including piloting his former pupil Don’t Let’em to a second-place finish in a Kentucky Sires Stakes (KYSS) race for his daughter, Don’t Let’em’s new trainer Nancy Johansson. Jimmy said when he got off the race bike his neck was so painful he booked off a drive he had later in the night. He said he hasn’t sat behind a horse in the 10 days since.
“The last month, it’s been so painful it’s ridiculous,” Jimmy said.
Before another week was out, Jimmy was seen twice by a specialist at New York University (NYU). On Thursday (Sept. 12) he had his third MRI — this one a special 3D scan designed to help his surgeon plan for the operation.
“It’s a very complicated spot where the tumor is located because it’s right in the spine, inside the spinal cord. So, it’s a very complicated surgery to get around because you’ve got to go through the spinal cord and it could have complications out of the surgery,” Jimmy said.
“The problem is, if the tumor and spinal cord have grown together, like if the nerves come through the tumor, then it’s a big problem because then they can’t take it out. Then they’ve got to shrink it somehow, with either chemo or radiation. It could be cancer, but most likely it’s not, they say. It’s very unlikely cancer in that area… I’ve had two doctors look at it — one in Philadelphia and this one (at NYU). Both were in agreement, they say it’s very, very unlikely that it’s cancerous.”
Not one to be a big worrier, Jimmy said the tumor certainly has made him anxious.
“I’m a little bit worried, of course, about a surgery like this because you don’t know, you might wake up and can’t move your feet. That’s not that fun,” he said, “or, maybe you won’t feel 100 per cent down there and then you’ve got to do physical therapy to get the feet working… Even a successful surgery can leave some nerve damage.”
Coupled with a difficulty sleeping, Jimmy said the tumor is also starting to impact his mental health.
“Last night, I slept until 1 o’ clock and then I was up until 4 and I slept until 7:30 this morning,” he said. “I get better during the day when I get going a little bit, but as soon as you lie down or relax, you stiffen up everything down through your shoulders and I can’t move, basically. But after I get going, I get better.
“It gets on you after a while… With a lack of sleep and everything, you become very down… Hopefully they can get it done ASAP. I’m going to get the call, hopefully Monday, and get a meeting and they will take it out next week, hopefully.”
Jimmy said his doctor is one of the most skilled surgeons in the world at the procedure, which, “makes you actually feel a lot better going into it. It’s not something that you want to have somebody who doesn’t have the credentials. You don’t want to have a maiden guy, there.”
Working with horses may have put some wear and tear on his neck. Jimmy did have back surgery a few years ago, but doctors believe the tumor is unrelated to his career.
“Things like that can pop up and, they say it could’ve been there for years,” Jimmy said. “I feel like the tumor must’ve been growing because it put pressure on all the nerves and there’s so many nerves up there.”
While waiting for surgery, Jimmy said he’s looking forward to Tuesday’s induction to the Little Brown Jug Wall of Fame. In July, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Nordic Trot Museum in his native Sweden. In August, he was enshrined in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. The long-time New Jersey resident was inducted into the (U.S.) Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.
Jimmy said the Little Brown Jug is one of his favorite harness racing events.
“You feel a little bit like you’re going back in time when you had a lot of people going to races,” Jimmy said of the atmosphere in Delaware, OH. “We used to have it when we went out to DuQuoin and Springfield, but (the Jug) is a little more intense with more people.
“You go to a racetrack here, now, and it’s more about the gambler. There, it’s about the horse racing and that’s what makes the Jug, to me, so special.”
Apart from his health challenge, Jimmy said it’s been a tremendous 10 months since he stopped operating his own stable.
“Christina and I, we did a lot this winter. We were in New Zealand and Australia, then California. We spent all of June in Sweden, and that was wonderful,” Jimmy said. “I haven’t spent more than four days in Sweden in over 37 years. We drove about 2,000 miles in Sweden and met all our friends. We spent a couple of days with Per Eriksson and another couple of days with a good friend of mine in northern Sweden. That was a lot of fun. We spent time with Christina’s sister and my family in Malmo. It was great. Sweden is beautiful in June.”
Back at home in New Jersey, Jimmy — who dispenses daily inspirational quotes and messages via text to friends and family — said he started getting used to a slower pace.
“This morning for example, it’s a beautiful morning and we’ll sit outside and have a couple cups of coffee, I’ll do my quote — that’s a different pressure — and then I’ll go down to the barn for a little bit and just make sure that everything looks good, because no one is here in New Jersey right now because they are in Canada or Kentucky. There’s maybe 15 horses total in the barn right now, because both (trainer) Per (Engblom) and Nancy are in Canada or Kentucky.”
Given what he knows now, Jimmy said he’s thankful he took the time to enjoy life with Christina.
“Besides (the tumor), life is great,” he said. “If you ask me if I regret slacking off, I don’t.”