JOCKEYS: LIFE ON THE EDGE

On a recent Sunday evening I set my DVR to record an upcoming TVG interview with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Shortly thereafter, while I was channel surfing I coincidentally came across a segment on cable television that was showing a horrible racetrack accident involving Lafitt Pincay Jr. Pincay was also interviewed about the incident.

These programs triggered one of those ridiculous and inexplicable dreams that all of us occasionally have. I dreamt that I was about to ride the Lukas-trained Charismatic in the Kentucky Derby. The colt was highly agitated and rank in the paddock, all lathered up, and I was viewing the situation with a great deal of trepidation (I am certain that Lukas was, as well). This lifelike illusion provoked me to write this article.

Riding racehorses is not only a dangerous occupation, with paralysis as one possible outcome and death another, but most jockeys make a very modest living and many barely scratch out a subsistence. Even the highest paid elite jockeys are subject to the peril that money cannot compensate for. To illustrate, during Pincay’s esteemed riding career, he suffered a broken neck, 10 broken ribs, two punctured lungs, two spinal fractures, 11 breaks of his collarbone, and two broken thumbs, plus various sprains. Imagine the time he has spent in rehabilitation.

Jockeys’ legal status as independent contractors means that they, rather than the owners they ride for, must try to find health care and disability insurance. This is a complex subject and, in the view of some in the racing industry, is a moral hazard for horse owners and racetracks.

Unless one has actually been on the back of a horse in full flight in a race (dreams don’t count), it is no doubt difficult to empathize with what it is like to have a spill. Jockeys are as brave and courageous as athletes get. Perhaps only automobile racing carries the same magnitude of danger.

The attitude that “injuries are just part of the game,” is too dismissive for me. Racing, football, boxing, and rugby cannot be played risk free, but all of these sports can be made safer. The National Football League, for instance, is doing a lot of research on helmets and the League is also tightening its rules on when players with concussions can return to play. The objective of a risk-free sport is unattainable, but should be pursued as though it is.

I do not claim to be an expert in the causes of horse-racing accidents, but I am a researcher and would pose several questions that need to be looked at scientifically. For example, among others:

  • What role does permissive medication rules in the United States have in contributing to accidents? In order to get at this answer, a comparison could be made between racing in the United States and Europe (track surfaces and other variables would need to be controlled for).
  • Are some track surfaces more dangerous than others?
  • How does the weather affect the findings?
  • What correlation is there between large fields and accidents? I have never believed, for instance, that the Kentucky Derby should have 20 entries. A cursory look at tapes of some of the Derbies past, especially as the horses enter the first turn, indicates that this stampede is a recipe for a pile-up.

The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database is a major step forward in being able to address these kinds of queries. According to the Blood-Horse, this repository “has compiled statistics over a 12-month period for 84% of all flat racing in North America, but now comes the process of analyzing the data in an attempt to quantify the results.”

As 2009 enters its final days and 2010 quickly approaches, those of us who appreciate and enjoy the sport and diversion of Thoroughbred horse racing can thank the women and men who risk life and limb by riding. Jockeys are small in physical stature but their bodies are resilient and their psyches are strong.

The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund is a registered 501 C 3 public charity.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business

Comments

  1. Thanks! I’ve been thinking this weekend of Rene Douglas and Michael Straight. I’d like to see your questions answered, and think improving safety is long overdue.

  2. No one I know who works riding thoroughbreds doesn’t have a list of broken bones and other injuries to recount (myself included). But there are ways to minimize the risk, and eliminating race-day medication for horses is at the top of it. I don’t know how you would compare accidents in the United States and Europe, since no one seems to want to be interested in keeping – and disclosing – accurate numbers. But anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers are far fewer in areas where race-day medication is banned. Track surface also plays a role – turf is much more forgiving than dirt or synthetic tracks. But I would argue that large fields are less of a factor – again, based on anecdotal evidence from Europe, where we routinely run fields of 18 to 20 horses and see few accidents. Jockeys here, though, are experienced in riding these kinds of full races, which makes a big difference.

  3. As you point out, most jockeys are woefully underpaid. New York moved the basic losing-mount fee to $100 a ride last year. Of that, the jock’s agent gets $25 and the valet gets $10, so the net fee is $65. Not much considering the risk.

    A few jockeys — we all know who they are — make most of the money. The average journeyman on the major US racing circuits makes a decent, though not extravagant, living. The guys and gals who ride at minor league tracks may make more than minimum wage, considering all the hours they put in both in the mornings and during the race day, but not much more. Of course, no one else in racing, other than a small elite, makes much money either. Grooms and hot walkers are very poorly paid, most trainers live hand-to-mouth, and most horse owners use their day jobs, or their inherited wealth, to subsidize what is clearly a money-losing proposition.

    I’m sure Gina’s right about the salutary effects of banning race-day meds and racing on turf. Better educated jockeys would also help, as she points out. Most other countries have jockey schools; the US, with Chris McCarron’s school in Kentucky, is just starting down that road.

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