Donnally: The Story of ‘Electric Jockeys’ and How to Rid the Sport of Them
Rev. Eddie Donnally is a former jockey and now an ordained minister. He is author of “Ride the White Horse: A Checkered Jockey’s Story of Racing, Rage and Redemption” as well as a former racing writer for the Dallas Morning News.
It’s the day before Seattle Slew will win the Kentucky Derby and start his successful trek to a Triple Crown victory. At Churchill Downs, some 47,000 fans watch as an assistant starter leads my mount Jubilist Jude around and around behind the starting gate in what seems like endless circles. The gate is parked at the sixteenth pole directly in front of the grandstand. In my right hand are a rein and a machine.
Machines, joints, batteries, buzzers are tiny two-pronged hand-held electrical devices designed to deliver an attention-getting shock to a Thoroughbred in the midst of a race. In my book, Ride the White Horse: A Checkered Jockey’s Story of Racing, Rage and Redemption, I admit to using a machine in at least 50 races. It is not a fact of which I am proud. But it is a fact. In this era of allegations of wholesale horse abuse by PETA and a gaggle of misinformation regarding machines, I felt compelled to talk about their use, something I know first-hand.
On this day, I’d watched my horse spit out his tongue-tie as he approached the gate and realized I was being exposed to a five-year or more suspension. At the time in Kentucky, only a trainer could retie one, and the track announcer had asked the trainer to come to the starting gate. A tongue tie is designed to keep a horse from swallowing its tongue during a race and the lump swelling in my throat caused me to repeatedly swallow.
While the machine was hidden in my hand, I feared a fan’s “harmless” photo would show the small portion housing the prongs that stuck out of my hand’s bottom. I had a vision of the blown-up photo sitting on a table before a trio of track stewards as I explained that what they saw protruding from the bottom of my hand was an optical illusion. As machine horses go, this one was the real thing. He’s a grandson of the great Citation, with decent conformation and was healthy and fit. But he’s extremely lazy. Suspecting as much, I’d ridden him in a workout, and without the trainer knowing it, touched him once with the machine. He’d responded with a burst of new speed. His previous start came at lowly Beulah Park. I’d bet $800, believing his odds would be high.
I flash back to the Jockeys’ Room at the then Florida Downs a few years earlier. Two Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau agents approached my locker, and I realized I was about to be searched. I was about to use a machine on my next mount. They escorted me and another jockey I picked to be my witness—a legality in those days—upstairs to the sleeping room. There, I completely disrobed, proving I had no machine on my body. A search of my locker proved fruitless. Had they searched me 10 minutes later, they would have found my machine. By then, I would have retrieved it from between the springs of one of the sleeping room beds—a few feet from where I had been searched.
I’d considered swearing off machines that day and now fear again crawled up my spine with the subtlety of a desert scorpion. By the time the trainer showed up, my hair was sweat-wet, and I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. I’d ridden 16 years, broken a dozen bones, thrown up over 10,000 times and watched some five tons of my sweat run down the drains of some 54 Jockeys’ Room “hot boxes.” I wasn’t a top stakes race rider and knew I’d never be one. Five years on the ground and my riding career was as dead as Man O War. By this time, I’d sold articles to virtually every major newspaper east of the Mississippi. Go out this way and no newspaper was going to hire me as a writer. Instead, I’d support my kids throwing them on people’s porches.
I was never so happy to be loaded into a starting gate. The horse won. Though no one except my wife knew I carried a machine, Jubilist Jude payed only $10.80 for a $2 bet. My $400 win and $400 show bet earned me about $2,200, not counting the $260 I received for winning the $4,000 purse.
This time, I vowed to never again use a machine. A vow I kept.
Machines: Fact and Fiction
I was a strong left-handed rider, knew how to snap the whip at the end of the swing and could lay stripes. But some horses, probably less than one half of one percent, learn to ignore the whip and loaf. This made those few powerful betting tools. Leave off the machine and ride hard, use the whip even, and the horse still runs poorly. Light him up at the top of the stretch with a little electricity, and he finds new life.
Thus, the life of the rare “machine rider,” consists of meeting and testing many of those suspected under-achievers during morning workouts. Riders not first testing a horse and “hitting” him for the first time in a race are subject to their mounts sulking, bucking or even running into another horse or bolting over a rail. No rider without a death wish is going to habitually “hit” horses for the first time in their races. If a rider has not ridden a horse in a workout, it’s unlikely that rider will use a machine in a race. Every true machine horse I encountered was an older, well experienced, calm male. For me, two year olds, fillies, and very nervous horses weren’t even candidates for a morning test. Simply too unpredictable. This testing means a rider will often have a machine in his or her possession on the backstretch, a place where a body search is well within the purview of racing officials, so that rare animal automatically enhances the possibility of being caught.
I don’t want to cast trainers in a bad light because hundreds of them hired me. Almost that many fired me. Yet, I noted that many did not understand the basics of a machine and believed a lot of horses would improve with one. I actually knew one rider who had a fake machine, incapable ￼of shocking a horse. He would take it into the saddling paddock, stand close to the trainer and quickly pull back the top of his riding pant’s top, flashing it.
I agree with severe penalties for riders caught with a machine in their possession, but not because I agree with PETA’s assertion that machine use is inhuman. I simply know a true machine horse is a gambler’s dream, creating an opportunity to cheat the betting public.
Machines: My Best Practices
While writing for the Dallas Morning News in the 1980s, I penned the article, “Electric Jockeys and their Juice Machines.” In it, I quoted anonymously a rider who knew far more than me about machines and taught me much of what I had learned. Many readers thought this person was actually me, but it was not. I detail best practices here not as an incentive for other riders because I’ve already said, the reward does not justify the risk. Instead, I want racing authorities to know what to look for.
A machine administers a light but highly surprising shock. I used to practice on one of my arms or the heel of my palm so I wouldn’t be shy about handling one when it counted. If I knew it was coming, the shock was only mildly uncomfortable. Yet, it is something entirely foreign to a racehorse, and I am convinced it is the surprise and not the shock that causes the horse to react. When I used a machine in a race, I only touched their neck once or twice. Keep applying it, the surprise disappears, and it becomes useless. If I were a racehorse, I would much prefer to be touched with a machine than hit repeatedly with a whip.
I never stored a machine in my locker but found safe places where it was not likely to be detected and could be retrieved after weighing out and before leaving the Jockeys’ Room for the paddock. I never had anyone pass it to me, such as a pony rider in the post parade or a trainer in the paddock. Too risky and easy to fumble. I kept it in the top of my jockey strap, prongs out and took it out during the post parade. I could do this without an accompanying pony rider even noticing. I never dropped it to the track after a race. That too can be seen, and when track maintenance workers find it, it could contain my fingerprints.
When I stood in the saddle after a race I used the normal move to pull down my goggles but continued my hand movement to my pants, used my pinky finger to make a space at the top and deftly dropped it inside. If stewards want to look for an identifying move to store a machine in a safe place after a race, this is it. When dropped inside my pants it was safely out of sight. I stung the back of my thigh once in the winners’ circle and fought to not grimace. Once back in the Jockeys’ Room, I would go inside a bathroom stall and privately retrieve it, store it away from my locker and get it only when I was about to leave for the day. If anything looked suspicious, it stayed in the Jockeys’ Room that night. Rarely did anyone but my wife and I know I was going to use it. Too easy, as they say, to “drop a dime.”
Once at Keeneland, a rider forgot he’d put his machine in his helmet after a race. Disgusted at losing, he threw his helmet into his open locker space. The machine bounced off the locker’s back wall and slid across the Jockeys Room floor, stopping a few feet behind the Clerk of Scales who was weighing riders out for the next race. In retrieving it, the rider moved faster than his losing mount.
I’ve read in recent articles stories of riders hiding their machines in blinkers or under their saddle towels. This would not only be an unreliable place to plant one, it would also require a movement that would be far too obvious. A rider with a machine in his hand does not want to attract attention of any kind. Still, there was a case in the 1980s when a rider was searched behind the gate for a machine. When nothing was found, he supposedly chastised the agents searching him, causing a disgruntled assistant starter to tell the agents that the machine had been neatly wrapped inside the knot riders always tie to shorten the excess reins.
I had the opportunity to buy a whip with an electrical device imbedded inside the handle. During the post parade, the rider took two tiny metal cylinders from his mouth and stuck them into the handle where they made contact with the coil generating the shock. I wasn’t interested. I was so afraid of getting caught that the night before I used a machine was often sleepless. Knowing that laying inside my Jockeys’ Room locker was a device that if discovered would have removed my paycheck for at least five years would have made all nights sleepless.
Track Stewards: How Savvy are They?
I was amazed that stewards could seriously consider that Jose Santos used a machine in the 2003 Kentucky Derby aboard winner Funny Cide or Luis Saez used one on Will Take Charge in last year’s Travers Stakes. Jockeys are pretty handy on the backs of racing Thoroughbreds, but they are not magicians. In the latter race, I watched the tapes and was sure Saez was innocent and said so on Facebook. In the heat of the investigation, Bill Finley of ESPN.com called and asked why I was so sure.
First, it was reported that Saez had never been on the back of Will Take Charge before the race. For a jockey to “plug in” a horse he had never before ridden—even in a morning workout—in a $1 million race seemed ludicrous. The rider has no way of knowing how the horse will react or even if it will help. When I saw Saez switch sticks from his right to his left hand at the top of the stretch and then hand ride, (something Santos also did on Funny Cide), I was convinced he was innocent.
￼Virtually all riders switch whip hands the same way. When going from right to left— a common practice—the rider uses his left hand underhanded to lift the stick from the right hand holding the whip. This requires the rider hold the crossed reins with his right hand while using the left to lift the whip with the opposite hand. If a machine is in the rider’s right hand, he would also hold the crossed reins in his right hand, along with the stick. Conversely, if the machine is in the rider’s left hand when he switches the whip to that hand, he would have to reach for the stick underhanded with a machine in his palm.
If the rider then used the whip in his left hand, he would have to do it while holding the machine in the same hand, something I never came close to accomplishing. When the rider goes to a hand ride, as is typical during the finish, the rider with the whip and machine in his left hand would have to again grasp the left rein. Again, all three would be in the same hand. So in any scenario, the rider at some point would have to hold a rein, the whip and the machine in the same hand. A machine is at least the size of a roll of dimes and jockeys do not have giant hands. It is my considered opinion that to hold all three at the same time as well as change whip hands with a machine in either hand is virtually impossible.
And the question begs: If a rider risks using a machine, the rider must consider it a worthwhile source of motivation. So even if holding all three in the same hand while race riding were possible, why would the rider even go to the trouble of switching whip hands if using the machine would be easier and more effective? I, and all machine riders I encountered in nearly 20 years of race riding, always kept a machine in the same hand throughout the race and gently touched the horse’s neck with it, usually while whipping with the other hand to make any sudden acceleration seem caused by the whip. This, in itself, requires practice and dexterity.
I apologize in my book for my actions and I do the same here. Yet, I cannot change what happened. However, I can let racing officials know what I learned about machines in hopes that it will help keep racing free of machines. I am not opposed to a lifetime ban for riders caught with a machine on their person. And to riders, I ask them to compare the amount of money they will lose with a five-year or more suspension with what they may gain by using a machine. I believe that probably 98 or 99 percent of riders complete their careers without even seeing a machine.
How to Eliminate Machines
Perhaps I’m naive, but I think I have a simple way to forever rid the sport of machines. It’s my understanding that all license holders are subject to having their body, barn, and auto searched any time that person is on track property. While likely not invented when I rode, seeing a member of track security, either in the backsretch or the Jockeys Room, carrying a metal detecting wand—like those used by TSA agents inside airports—would have scared me straight.
Every machine I saw consisted of a battery, either triple AAA or several stacked hearing aid batteries, connected to a copper coil with two prongs at the bottom and generally wrapped with flesh colored tape. One prong is a ground and the other is built to retract when pressed against a solid object, such as a horse’s neck, completing contact between the coil and the actual battery, producing an electric current. I don’t think a shock can be administered without a metal coil, always copper in the machines I used. The battery itself contains metal. These, I am convinced, would be detectable with a metal detecting wand.
During a recent book signing at Tampa Bay Downs, a track security agent bought my book. I joked that the purchase price should be tax-deducible as a “Training Manual.” One book reviewer on Amazon, a vet at the New York tracks, wrote that my book should be required reading for aspiring jockeys. I made virtually all the mistakes and recorded them. Had I the opportunity for a do-over, I would never have touched a machine. But, alas I do not. However, through the grace of God I have changed. I have been in full time ministry for the past 17 years and am a professional hospital and hospice chaplain. Much of my life today is spent encouraging others to avoid the mistakes I made. That’s true of my use of machines.
Being outside racing has given me outside eyes. My training as a type of counselor (I hold a Doctorate in Ministry with a minor in counseling) has caused me to understand that a patient’s perception of their illness is their reality. Correct or incorrect in medical terms, perception has the power to affect their health. Right or wrong, good or bad, PETA has changed the world’s perception of Thoroughbred racing and that perception has damaged its health. Sadly, the perception of sickness will remain no matter how many racing writers insist the patient’s diagnosis is not so dim after all. I always said there is nothing worse than a reformed reformer, but here I go. I believe racing must return to the “Hay, Oats and Water” mentality of a past era if it is to return to its past glory or even survive into the next century.
I hope this article forever ends the use of machines. I acknowledged the mistakes I made. I changed for the better. I pray racing will also.