Father's Day was winding down at Canterbury Park. There had been three stellar stakes that day as well as one of the strangest series of events in a race you'll see. The crowd was thinning as the ninth was getting ready to be sent off from the gate, positioned in front of the remaining fans for the one mile race. The odds on favorite was Malibu Max, out of leading trainer Mac Robertson's barn, owned by the powerful Novogratz Stables and ridden by one of Canterbury's perennial leading riders, Dean Butler.
The gates opened and the horses sprung out. Malibu Max, however, stumbled out of the gate, his nose hitting the ground. Butler's momentum carried him over the top of the horse and he found himself in the dirt, watching the field – including his mount – head off without him.
Butler wasn't hurt. This time. But he could have been.
“In this race, the first jump he went down to his knees and I was going over his head,” said Butler. ” In that case the next thing going through my head is get out of his way. Most of the time horses will try and avoid you on their own, but everything happens so fast, in a split second, and even a horse can only react so fast. It's a split second reaction and I look at that [the pictures below] and I think that I was really fortunate; somebody was looking out for me.”
Some jocks are not that fortunate.
A California study in the early part of this century pegged the accident rate for jockeys at a little more than 1 incident per 1000 rides and that 51% of all incidents result in injury to the jockey. Dozens are seriously injured every year and, sadly, deaths are not uncommon.
“You try to hit the ground the best you can,” said Butler. “Every fall is different. There are times that it happens so quick that if you're spread out you really don't stand a chance because you're hitting the ground fast. There are other times where you can see something happening or feel something happening that I can prepare myself.
“There really is nothing you can do except hope for the best. Being fit and good athletes help. When I came off, I was sore the next day, but not as much as I thought I would. As you get older, when you hit the ground it's harder to get up,” said the forty six year old veteran.
For those jocks that are seriously injured and miss significant time, life is hard.
“We don't ride, we don't get paid. And when you're out and hurt any source of help is great,” said Butler.
In 2014, The Leg-Up Fund was created with the express purpose of helping jockeys injured at Canterbury Park make ends meet.
“Years ago we had the Don McBeth Fund and we were always the top fund raising track in the country,” recalled Butler. “We'd raise 30, 40, $50,000 a year. I think that goes to show you what a close family we are here. The Leg Up Fund was set up to help our jockeys should something happen to them here, there would be something here that could help them out. And there certainly was a need for it. In this business the top 100 riders in the country make all of the money. The rest are just making a living or just getting by.
“The Leg Up Fund can get you some extra money to pay the bills and put food on the table,” continued Butler. “Some riders have disability policies but a lot of guys can't afford that. The Fund helps them. The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund doesn't help folks if you get hurt. If you're a member of the Jockey's Guild you can get a couple of hundred dollars a week. The racetrack policy is similar. But if you have a mortgage payment, that takes all of that. There are still bills to pay and the Leg Up Fund helps with that.”
On Sunday, Canterbury will be holding the annual Leg Up Day, a day of fun and fundraising at the track where horsemen and fans alike can pitch in to help. There will be a silent auction, the opportunity to sponsor a jockey for the day and other activities all day long on the Fund's primary fundraising day of the year. Butler's own daughters will be selling home made, tie dyed t-shirts, so be on the lookout for their stand on Sunday. They also combined for a beautiful tie dye quilt that will be part of the auction.
“In this circumstance when I went over he was so close to the ground that I didn't have far to go,” recalled Butler. “It wasn't like I was thrown way up in the air and then hit the ground. I hit hard, yeah, but not as hard as I could have. When you're in the middle of the race and they fall out from underneath you, that's a different story.”
After a traumatic experience, many people have trouble getting back to whatever activity generated the setback. That's not a luxury a jockey can afford. It takes a certain mindset to literally be able to get back on the horse.
“I've been on a respirator for 4 days,” said Butler. “You come back because it's in you. It's either in you or it's not. You just can't let that bother you. Something might happen, something could happen, something will happen; you can't let that get to you.
“It's like people that religiously go to the Boston marathon,” Butler opined. “When you go again after the bombing, it's in the back of your mind but you're not going to let that stop you. You're going to go and you're going to do it because you like to go and like to do it. You might take a few more precautions and be more aware of what's going on, but for the most part, if it's in your blood, it's in your blood.”
While it's estimated that 35% of incidents happen at the gate, most occur during a race. As the incident unfolds, riders draw on all their experience to try and stay safe.
“That's where your experience comes into effect.” said Butler. “Something happens in front of you that you've seen before you can say to yourself 'I've seen this before, something is going to happen' and you can position yourself, guide your horse, into a position that you can avoid it. It's important to pay attention to what's going on around you and ahead of you. Some guys ride with their heads down – no matter how long you've been riding for, if you're not paying attention you can get in trouble.”
While organizations exist for helping injured jocks, the pros in the room look inward before looking outward when a brother or sister goes down.
“Everywhere I've ever been the first thing we do is put up a sign up sheet in the jocks room for people who want to donate something, a mount fee, anything,” explained Butler. ” You help out because you know that if it were you, you'd want them to help you out as well. Especially here, we come together pretty good. The riders take care of each other and help each other the best we can.”
It can be a rough life – moving every few months, keeping weight down, staying in premium shape and riding on the edge of danger every day. One trainer summed up the dangers of being a jockey simply and effectively, “Show me another job in history where an ambulance follows you around all day.”
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