For jockeys, a most dangerous game
It was three years ago this week that Brad Cummings and I decided to try our hand at raising money for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. With the cooperation of numerous racetracks and their jockey colonies, and the incredible generosity of many people and organizations throughout this industry, Breeders' Cup or Bust was launched, the outline for which was drafted on a napkin at a Panera Bread restaurant near my house in Lexington, Ky.
In conjunction with Breeders' Cup Charities and with the help of a creative and talented staff at Breeders' Cup and several racetracks, we've had some fun doing our cross-country drive, our walk from Lexington to Louisville, and last year's one-day relay run between those two cities.
More importantly, your generosity has helped us raise money for not only the PDJF, but for Thoroughbred Charities of America and the V Foundation for Cancer Research. This year, the wonderful Children Mending Hearts organization has been added as a recipient, and Paulick Report editor-in-chief Scott Jagow will be joining Brad and I on the road from Keeneland to Santa Anita.
From my perspective, however, it's the jockeys and the dangerous occupation they take part in, that's at the heart of BC or Bust. Three years ago it was Michael Straight's paralyzing injury that motivated us to get involved. Meeting Michael and his family at a Chicago hospital during our cross-country drive en route to the 2009 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita is a day that neither Brad nor I will ever forget. Since then, a number of riders have been seriously injured, and, most recently, Jorge Herrera died from a racing accident at a Northern California county fair. It's a sad and inevitable part of the game.
I'm as guilty as anyone of criticizing a jockey for what I think is a bad ride. But all any one of them has to do is hand me the reins and say, “Here, you try it!” To that I'll quickly say, “No, thank you.”
If I needed any reminders about the dangers of a jockey's occupation, I got them in spades recently.
Jockey Harry Vega was on top of the world last Friday night when he scored the 4,000th victory of his career in a race at Penn National. The next day, the hard-working Vega had two mounts during the afternoon at Laurel Park, finishing second in a Maryland Million race, then returned for the Saturday night program at Penn National.
After a fourth-place finish in the first race, he scored career win No. 4,001 in the fourth. Then, at the start of the fifth race, the appropriately named Littlemissattitude stumbled badly coming out of the gate and threw Vega to the ground. Fortunately, he was OK, coming back later in the program to ride.
Incidents and accidents like that can happen in the flash of an eye, and not everyone is lucky enough to walk away. During the first BC or Bust at a Hawthorne racetrack stop in Chicago, Brad and I sat with Dennis Keehan, who had been in a wheelchair 47 years after a racing accident. As the three of us watched the races, a jockey went to the ground after his horse stumbled, and the look on Meehan's face as he waited to see if the rider was OK told us a great deal about what Meehan had gone through all those years. Dennis died last year.
Sandy Swanson, a photographer who spent the summer at Arapahoe Park in Colorado, recently sent some photos she took showing the occupational hazard of riding horses.
The first photo (click on the box, above right to view), captures both the power and the unpredictable nature of a Thoroughbred. The horse, Elegant Attitude (a name that doesn't seem to fit), had just been saddled for a July 7 race and was ready to have a jockey put on board when he decided he wanted no part of the activity.
As photographer Swanson said of the rider who soon was legged up aboard the gelding, “If I was jockey Mike Ziegler, you couldn't have paid me to get on Elegant Attitude that day.” But he did fulfill his engagement, riding Elegant Attitude for a ninth-place finish and collecting his modest mount fee.
A month later, on Aug. 17, Swanson caught jockey Adrian Ramos flying off a horse named Timeless Ruler after he reared straight into the air in the walking ring. As you can see from the photo (above, right), the groom did an outstanding job, maintaining his hold on the horse. Ramos rode Timeless Ruler to an eighth-place finish.
“I am often amazed at the sheer power and force of a horse,” Swanson said. “I have the utmost respect for the trainers and handlers working in the paddock on race day.”
Those are dangers that occur before a race even gets started.
Last Saturday, a photograph sent to the Paulick Report by Allison Pareis demonstrated how headstrong a horse can be once the gates are opened.
It was the Grade 2 Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park, and John Oxley's Stealcase, ridden by Jermaine Bridgmohan, was last going into the clubhouse turn.
There was no room along the rail, where Stealcase was racing, but that didn't stop the Mark Casse trainee from wanting to charge ahead. Bridgmohan, in order to avoid disaster, had to put on the brakes, and the accompanying photo (above, right) dramatically shows how difficult the struggle between man and beast can be.
No one was hurt in any of these incidents.
Unfortunately, that's not how it always plays out in this game. The PDJF provides an important safety net for those riders who are seriously injured and disabled to the point of never being able to return to the profession they love.
So as we soon begin our fourth annual pilgrimage to the Breeders' Cup and try to raise both awareness and vital funds for the PDJF and other Breeders' Cup Charities, we hope you'll both indulge us and support our efforts on their behalf.