I marveled at pictures in January 2015 of rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson ascending the 3,000-foot wall in Yosemite National Park named El Capitan. Similarly, Nik Wallenda’s high-wire walk in October 2014 between Chicago skyscrapers was a captivating feat of daredevil.
What makes automobile race drivers tick has always intrigued me. The starts of the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 are especially dangerous and the possibility of accidents and fatalities are ever-present in car racing.
College and professional football players risk long-term damage and in particular irreversible injury to the brain. A recent study at Harvard found that the average life expectancy for a former National Football League player is 55 to 60 years old. Professional boxers are in the same category, with blows to the brain taking their toll, causing early death and/or dementia. I don’t know for sure whether Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson-like symptoms are a result of cumulative blows to the head over a long career in the ring, but it certainly has to be the leading suspect.
Jockeys who ride racehorses are not daredevils like the rock climbers or Nik Wallenda. Nor do they incur repeated trauma to the head like football players or boxers. Yet jockeys ply their hazardous trade on almost a daily basis with serious injury or worse a bad step by a horse away.
The motivation to be a jockey is partly monetary, for the best of them are high earners, but money does not come close to explaining why some people turn to riding horses for a living. In fact, the vast majority of jockeys never make it into the top echelon of race riding and labor for relatively small pay at secondary racetracks.
If you have ever ridden horses for show or pleasure, you can probably envision what it would be like to pilot a Thoroughbred racehorse in the Kentucky Derby, with 19 other jockeys trying to get position and racing room. Winter racing is even more hazardous because of weather-related track conditions. Many equestrians have seen for themselves what it is like to ride a horse with metal shoes on a treacherous surface.
Jockeys don’t draw nearly the same amount of attention as rock climbers or high-wire walkers. Yet these diminutive athletes are arguably more in peril because of the number of races they ride, day after day and year after year.
The courage it takes to ride in races is considerable. Given a choice, I’d rather take my chances as an NFL player than run the risks of becoming a paraplegic or quadriplegic in a horse-racing accident. Or pay the ultimate price. While jockeys have to be small in physical stature, they also have to be skilled and tough as nails.
I would like to see more innovation, experimentation, and regulation in horse racing pertaining to the safety of jockeys. This could include, for example, improved equipment, better track surfaces, and aggressive vetting and exclusion of horses that should not be running.
Trainers and track vets have a solemn ethical responsibility to make sure that the horses they ask jockeys to ride in races are sound. Racetrack executives have the same moral obligation to ensure the safest track surfaces possible, including cancelling races when conditions warrant. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
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