Javier Castellano was mad. Not fighting with Calvin Borel mad, but the Hall of Fame jockey was mad enough as he recalled a story from a few years ago that bothers him to this day.
Castellano had been sitting quietly while a panel of jockeys and racetrack executives exchanged ideas about how the two groups could work together for the betterment of the industry. It was during a scheduled two-hour discussion Monday afternoon at the Jockeys' Guild Annual Assembly held in Las Vegas, Nev.
Eventually, after ideas were floated about media training for riders, putting a greater spotlight on these athletes as the human stars of the sport and taking advantage of prominent Hispanic jockeys to market to an expanding demographic, the subject of safety came up.
Terry Meyocks, the Guild's president and CEO, expressed disappointment that jockeys were not part of the conversation when the formation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition was recently announced and have not been included in other initiatives related to equine safety and welfare. Meyocks was assured by Robert Elliston, vice president of racing and sales at Keeneland – one of the Coalition's six founding members – that no slight was intended and that the Coalition will be more inclusive going forward.
It was when one of the panelists reminded the riders they were a “last line of defense” in horse safety – imploring them to say something to the track veterinarian if they feel a horse isn't warming up properly during the post parade – that Castellano decided to speak up. It sounded to him like lip service.
Castellano told the story from a few years ago at Gulfstream Park when a horse he was riding “didn't feel right” during the post parade and brought it to the attention of the veterinarian at the starting gate. The veterinarian, Castellano recalled, said she didn't see anything wrong with the horse.
“I argued with her for five minutes,” said Castellano, adding that he didn't want to put the horse, his fellow riders or himself at risk of injury.
The episode, which delayed the start of the race, played out on TVG. Meyocks, who is Castellano's father-in-law, was watching the racing network at home and said he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
“She (the veterinarian) called the stewards and said I REFUSED to ride the horse,” Castellano said.
The native of Venezuela said the implication was that he had done something wrong, when in fact, he said, he was trying to do the right thing for the horse, the other jockeys, and fans who were betting on the race.
The veterinarian, Dr. Patricia Marquis, an employee of Gulfstream Park for 15 years, told the Paulick Report she does not remember the incident. She did say Castellano “has brought a few horses to me over the years.”
The current policy in place at Gulfstream Park, Marquis said, is that “if a horse is brought to the regulatory veterinarian for a soundness concern, it is scratched. We do ask the rider to jog the horse for us so we can speak to the trainer (about what they may have seen). But the horse is always scratched.”
It goes without saying it should be done without an argument.
Riding Crop Reform
If jockeys indeed are a last line of defense for a horse's safety, they have to be involved in some capacity in many of the issues now facing this industry, issues that should have been addressed years ago.
On Thursday, the California Horse Racing Board is scheduled to vote on whether riding crops can be used for anything other than safety during a race. Last month, under pressure from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and a group of animal rights extremists whose sole mission is to end the sport, the CHRB voted that racing should not be conducted on a surface that isn't safe. But they didn't set any type of parameters or definitions for what constitutes a safe track. Are the regulators going to do the same thing regarding the riding crop?
The riding crop proposal was delayed by one month after CHRB vice chairman Oscar Gonzalez, a recent appointment to the board, made a very good suggestion: that the board wait to see what type of national recommendation is made by the aforementioned Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, which lists riding crop reform among issues it intends to address on a national basis.
The packet of information for the CHRB discussion on riding crop reform does not include materials or proposals sent to the board by the Jockeys' Guild, according to the Guild's counsel, Mindy Coleman. If true, that is insulting to the jockeys who risk their lives every time they get on a horse.
Jockeys are more than a last line of defense for horses. They are part of the solution to racing problems. They deserve to have a seat at the table on industry initiatives and their input is vital on the kinds of proposals the CHRB is now considering.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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