‘Something’s Wrong With My Brain’: The Lurking Danger Of Concussions For Jockeys

by | 12.30.2015 | 3:44pm

When Gwen Jocson retired from racing in 1999, she had ridden 763 winners to earnings of over $7 million. In 1991, still an apprentice, she finished the year with 376 wins, which remains the single-season record for a female jockey and which placed her third by victories that year behind Pat Day and Russell Baze. Jocson remembers telling people at the time that she walked away because she had grown tired of riding, but the reality was that she knew something was wrong.

“I kept losing my balance,” she recalled. “I had to quit the thing that I loved the most. For a while, I would tell people, ‘Something's wrong with my brain.' And people would laugh.

“Before I got on medication, the part of my brain that was working was working overtime. I'd walk into a store and if there were too many people around, I'd break into hysterical crying and have to leave the store. Sometimes it would be rage that I couldn't control. Sometimes I could push it towards crying, but sometimes I would just pick up a grocery cart and throw it across the parking lot.”

Jocson made a brief comeback to riding in 2010 for the Lady Legends charity race at Pimlico. She won, but when she watched video of the performance, she likened her own lack of balance and coordination to “a monkey screwing a football.” She realized a little more clearly then that she needed help. What she didn't know yet was that football would play a role in getting her the diagnosis she needed.

Even though the film Concussion debuted in sixth place at the box office over the holiday, it's safe to say the story has raised some uncomfortable questions for the National Football League. The movie follows pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) as he uncovers disturbing information about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and tries to raise awareness of the disorder, which is caused by repeated head trauma. The NFL is portrayed as an institution in stubborn denial that its sport can cause serious brain injury, a characterization likely deepened by a report last week that the league was pulling millions of dollars from a concussion research study at Boston University because of a contentious relationship with the lead researcher.

Some in the racing industry have been closely watching the media frenzy over sports-related concussion because jockeys might also be prone to developing CTE and other disorders from their injuries.

Seemingly in contrast to the NFL, the Jockeys' Guild and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund have no problem conceding that damage from concussions is a risk for riders. That sense of self-awareness doesn't mean CTE in jockeys is well-understood. Football has been the public face of sports concussion issues — as a result, it has received the most funding dollars. The racing world is still struggling to quantify the problem.

A report from the University of Kentucky's Dr. Carl Mattacola at this year's Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summit revealed that 8.6 percent of falls by jockeys during races from 2012 to 2015 resulted in concussions, per the Jockey Injury Database.

Beyond that figure, much remains unknown about the extent of the problem in jockeys. Mattacola noted during his presentation that reporting into the database is still poor. There's also no way to know how many retired riders could be suffering the effects of repeated concussions — the PDJF is only aware of on-track incidents since its foundation in 2006 and relies on retired riders to self-report injuries when applying for assistance.

To further complicate matters, CTE is still a relatively new and poorly-understood medical phenomenon. The disorder is characterized by atrophy in the brain and a loss of the tau protein that has been linked to Alzheimer's. Sufferers report dramatic mood shifts, cognition problems, and loss of coordination.

“Although it is clear that repetitive trauma can result in long-term neurological difficulty in athletes, the issue of why some athletes might experience difficulty while others do not is unknown,” said Dr. Mark Lovell, one of the early researchers of CTE. “Like most diseases (cancer, heart disease, etc.), multiple factors are involved, including a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. In other words, it is likely that factors other than the number of concussions are involved.”

Jocson in the Lady Legends race

Jocson in the Lady Legends race

It's unknown how many hits it takes to damage the brain enough to prompt CTE, although some research has suggested that a series of non-concussive blows to the head could mimic the disruption of a single, more violent trauma. Furthermore, CTE can only be confirmed absolutely after a patient has died. Some doctors have developed guidelines for diagnosing CTE and diseases like it with an MRI of the brain to look for changes in its activity centers or physical shape. Although that technology has yet to be widely accepted as an appropriate way to diagnose CTE, it did bring closure for Jocson.

In a 1992 feature, Sports Illustrated described the largely self-taught rider as a scrappy underdog, striking out on her own at 17 and working up the ranks while battling spinal injuries suffered in freak accidents during her first years on the track.

After growing up in a poor area of South Carolina, the biggest reward for Jocson was the independence her success gave her.

“I have my own furniture, my own TV, my own bed,” Jocson told SI's Stefanie Scheer. “I came from having nothing, and now I go home sometimes and just look at it and touch it. Sometimes I go in and say, ‘This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.' I'll never be poor again.”

Sixteen years after her retirement, Jocson has lost hearing in one of her ears. Her vision flickers constantly. She moves with the aid of a walker and cannot walk backwards without falling over. She stutters. She forgets words. Her short-term memory is fuzzy — she loses track of entire days. She puts chains on her doors at night because otherwise she sleepwalks out of her house. For a long time, doctors couldn't pin down the source of her symptoms, until someone thought to do an MRI of her brain. Jocson's doctors diagnosed her with superficial siderosis, a disease associated with blood leaked during repeated head trauma. Jocson said her doctors suspect she has CTE as well.

“I just started crying because I was so happy that someone knew that I wasn't going crazy, that something really was wrong,” Jocson said. “Nobody even thought about this until the football players. It was such a relief having somebody look at me and say, ‘I know what's wrong with you.'”

When she looks back, it makes sense. Jocson estimates she had about 20 concussions during her career, at least one of which splintered the helmet. Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild, has spoken to riders who have suffered concussions, insisted they were fine, and ridden the next race with no memory of the event. For many athletes, the focus is getting back in the game, and that may mean hiding the extent of their injuries after a fall.

Medical researchers believe that the brain is more vulnerable to further trauma while recovering from a concussion, which means it's especially important that riders not return to the saddle too soon. Using his research, Dr. Lovell helped develop the ImPACT system (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) to address this issue. The test, which can be taken on an iPad or laptop, measures an athlete's memory, reaction time, and processing speed to gauge neurological function. Lovell suggests all athletes take a baseline test before hitting the field or track to establish their ‘normal' performance on the test, and then be tested following a suspected concussion to determine when brain function has returned to normal.

According to Meyocks, a few tracks are offering the ImPACT system to riders for baseline testing, but he would like to see more interest in the system from track officials.

“I think our industry is susceptible to criticism and rightfully so. We've been trying to get something in place for the past three years,” said Meyocks.

Currently, Meyocks said there is no universal concussion protocol for evaluating riders before allowing them to take mounts after a fall. Track officials may not be aware of a rider's progress during recovery from a concussion, and that jockey's return to work is entirely at his or her own discretion. Without a central regulating authority governing racing, the best Meyocks can hope for is that individual tracks will create their own guidelines for dealing with jockeys' head injuries.

Jocson training for the 2010 Lady Legends race

Jocson training for the 2010 Lady Legends race

For jockeys, lightweight equipment is a prime concern for performance, maybe at the sacrifice of safety. Mattacola's research revealed that more than 25 percent of injured jockeys in the Injury Database were wearing the popular Caliente-style helmet, which is not approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Work in Mattacola's laboratory has shown the Caliente helmet to be significantly worse than its competitors at absorbing shock from a fall; Mattacola actually called for a ban on the helmets. Likewise, the Jockeys' Guild has publicly voiced its support for using only ASTM-approved helmets and has committed cash to a new study examining helmets and their role in concussions.

Ultimately, even the best helmet can't remove all ramifications from a fall off a 1,000 pound animal running at speeds of 35 miles per hour.

“Concussion occurs when the brain shifts within the skull. Since we cannot put a helmet on the brain itself, concussions will continue to occur regardless of the development of new helmets,” said Lovell. “This is why management of the injury is so crucial. No athlete should return to their sport until their brain has had time to recover.”

Jocson's doctors tell her the first injury that started her symptoms likely occurred as far back as 25 years ago, which would make it one of her first major falls on the track. They say that Jocson could learn to work around her symptoms, but only if she incurs no further injuries. This seems impossible, because her balance is so poor that she falls routinely. When I spoke to her for this story, she had just been released from the hospital after hitting her head on the sidewalk during a fall outside the pharmacy the week before.

Jocson's mother, Sadie Herndon, said Jocson has begun losing her hearing in her good ear. She has been declared disabled by Social Security and a family friend is helping Jocson apply for assistance from the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. Without her mother to help her through daily life, Jocson suspects she would have ended up homeless, sick, and still devoid of answers.

For now, all she can do is take each day as it comes.

“If you have any other questions, just call me back,” Jocson tells me at the end of our interview. “But I'll probably forget tomorrow that I talked to you.”

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