Rider safety: The U.S. seems to be on the right track at last - but it can still learn a thing or two

Rider safety in the spotlight: Happily neither horse nor rider were badly hurt after this potentially disastrous exercise incident at Los Alamitos in California. But so often that is not the case. Photo: Michelle Yu

Not many people know I have a stalker. I first came across Jim Allen many years ago when we both took equine degrees. We talked and found our hometowns were just a couple of miles apart, then I discovered that nearly every racehorse trainer I had ever worked for, he had worked for shortly after.

After I finished college, I moved to Newmarket. After Jim finished college, he moved to Newmarket. 

I moved into racehorse training. He moved into racecourse management, rising to become director of racing for the Arena Racing Company (ARC), overseeing its 16 racecourses in the UK, hosting around 550 days’ racing annually. 

Jim knows a lot about running a racecourse.

Many years later, I moved to the States. A year after that, Jim moved to the States. He bought a farm, trained a winner at Presque Isle Downs, and has spent time recently in Maryland with Michael Dickinson.

I got together recently with Jim and my son, Jack - a jockey who was recuperating from a nasty racing accident – to discuss rider safety. I wanted to talk about this after I found out, by chance, while writing about another rider, that jockeys have been able to ride races on occasion, while probably suffering from the effects of concussion. 

I wanted to know how this could happen. The danger such a rider would pose to themselves and others riding a race without full mental faculty appalled me.

“There is a culture of safety in the sport in Britain that doesn’t seem to exist here,” said Jim, and that is undoubtedly true. Or, at least it was. 

When I took a look at the recently formed Thoroughbred Safety Coalition (TSC), right there, on the first page of its website, was the statement that it wants “to promote a culture of safety in our sport”.

There is some good stuff there, phasing out race-day medications, adopting voided claim rules, increased licensing requirements for trainers, standardizing protocols for ensuring jockey health and wellness, a proficiency system for exercise riders.

Then, centralization and sharing of information on veterinary matters, a safety steward to be established for each track, random out-of-competition testing, and mandated necropsies on all fatally injured horses.

The need for a governing body

Progress, and if they implement all those points, it would represent a big step forward. I asked Jim Allen to take a look at the website.

“It’s fine as far as it goes,” he said. “They are obviously aware that things have to be done. But these are not radical changes or improvements. Also, how many tracks have signed up to this coalition? A handful, and mostly these were the better-run tracks anyway. This has no impact on the vast majority of racetracks across the country. What it all really screams to me is how badly U.S. racing really needs a national governing body.”

Both Jack and Jim also thought there was another important safety factor that has been largely ignored up until now. Aluminum track rails. There was an incident last year in a turf race at Keeneland. A horse got forced on the rail. It was made of plastic. The horse broke through it, the jockey stayed on, the horse stayed up, everyone returned fine.

Jack was on a horse at Fair Grounds last year. It ran away from the whip and into the aluminum rail. It flipped over it at 40 miles an hour. Jack managed to throw himself clear, twisting through the air. He landed on his back, hit his head and was knocked out. By some miracle, he was okay in the end, but knocked out is never really okay, always dangerous. The horse got up and was okay too. Another miracle. You don’t need so many miracles with plastic railing.

Regarding the TSC, there are some major criticisms still. “Collect racing surface data and merge information with existing databases.” Well, that has been going on for years, affecting small improvement.

Public perception

There is also no mention of compulsory reporting and publishing of all catastrophic injuries during training and racing. Churchill Downs Incorporated is a founding member of the TSC. It does report its breakdown rates to the Equine Injury Database but does not authorize their publication. Perhaps it might reconsider its position in future, in order that the success of the TSC can be measured. Transparency and honesty should be required now. Even if the medicine doesn’t taste nice, it is probably necessary for the public perception of the sport to change.

Should a ban on toe grabs be considered? They are dangerous if horses catch heels, can bring a horse down in an instant. Studies also suggest they may predispose horses to injury. Are they even necessary? Or could they be tapered, so there is more chance of the horse’s foot sliding over it and not catching if they clip heels?

If every single point made here was adopted, and even if synthetic tracks were reintroduced, and if toe grabs were banned, my son’s mount would probably still have fallen last month, he still would have broken his collarbone, he still would have been kicked in the face and broken his nose and eye sockets. 

This is a dangerous sport, safety needs to be taken seriously, and now it seems, it is.

There have been major movements in the NFL and soccer regarding competitor safety. Formula One motor racing was the most dangerous of all sports. Drivers killed every year. Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart saw enough of his friends killed. He worked hard for safety in the 70s. The sport is safety focused now. If a driver a decade is killed in an incident now, it is a shock. The sport is bigger than ever, sponsors lining up to be associated with it. 

These are all massive sports. They know, if for no other reason than public perception, that competitor safety is paramount. 

Finally, when painkillers, both legal and illegal, are given to horses, and other illegal, ‘blood-building’ substances and potions are administered, the chance of a horse suffering a catastrophic injury and endangering the welfare of the rider on its back is significantly increased. Cheating being taken seriously, and drugs of all sorts eliminated for race-day use is vitally important for the safety and welfare of the competitors. 

Every other major racing jurisdiction in the world has known this for a very long time.

Culture of negligence

“We would have a much bigger medical crew on a raceday in the UK,” said Jim Allen. “Two to four physicians, as well as two to four, sometimes five, crewed ambulances, and nurses also. The BHA stipulates that any jockey falling on a British racecourse must be tended to by the emergency crew within 60 seconds of the incident. 

“Our medical rooms have to comply with the British Horseracing Authority’s medical guidance rules and regulations, and they will inspect all our facilities pre-season. They can be inspected randomly at any time, as can the physicians themselves. And, if you fail, they can fine the racecourse considerable sums of money.

The medical rooms for the jockeys have live feed of each race, which is recorded, so the physician can review, frame-by-frame, the incident to try to assess likely injuries before the rider even gets back to the medical room.”

Around 550 race days a year, over the 16 years Jim was with ARC, racing on turf, synthetics and jumps, they never lost a rider at any of their tracks. In some areas, there has been a culture of negligence in U.S. racing, but it seems to be heading in the right direction now, which is good news for the competitors, the exercise riders, the fans, and the sport. 

Maybe the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition should speak to Jim Allen. It might get him out of my hair for a while …

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