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In an effort to make sense of a series of events that ranged from strange to downright rotten, the following incidents were tossed in a hat and shaken to see how they bounced off one another:
--At Arlington Park, on Aug. 26, apprentice jockey Michael Straight, 23, fractured four vertabrae in a one-horse crash. He underwent surgery to stabilize the damage. A prognosis is pending.
--At Presque Isle Downs, on Aug. 28, former Eclipse Award winning apprentice Dale Beckner, 37, suffered multiple facial fractures when his mount broke down and he was kicked by a trailing horse.
--That same afternoon at Del Mar, Jordan Springer, 31, appeared to have a bottom-of-the-barrel claiming race won aboard Engine Sixty Nine and was nursing him to the wire when she was caught in the final jump to lose by a nose.
--The next day at Saratoga, Alan Garcia, 23, was disqualified from victory in the Grade 1 King's Bishop Stakes for allowing his mount, Vineyard Haven, to drift right from a left-handed whip and interfere with Capt. Candyman Can.
Straight is a graduate of Chris McCarron's North American Riding Academy in Lexington. When he heard of the accident, McCarron headed north to be at Straight's side.
"He's not regained consciousness yet, but that's not unusual, since they had him in an induced coma," McCarron said Monday morning before returning to his teaching duties. "They cut back on that medication early Sunday morning, and now they let him slowly wake up on his own. They're pretty confident from all indications that there's no evidence of brain damage. He's exhibited some response with his hands, but they won't be able to do any tests with his lower extremities until he awakens."
It has been reported that Straight's horse collapsed and died from some kind of cardiac event, while Beckner's had to be euthanized.
"Before a student even enrolls with us, when they go through the interview process, I drill into their head the fact that they will get hurt," McCarron said. "It's not a matter of if, it's a question of when. Jackie Davis, another of my students, got very lucky at Monmouth two Sundays ago when she got dropped about 50 yards out of the gate and landed right on her face. She spent two nights in the hospital and went back to riding Wednesday, but her back was bothering her so she decided to take a week off."
Jackie Davis, 22, is the daughter of former top New York rider Robbie Davis. It was Robbie's horse who trampled Mike Venezia to death at Belmont Park in 1988. (Everyone needs to read Bill Nack's Sports Illustrated story about Robbie Davis once, but only once: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1126643/1/index.htm.)
If Beckner's condition sounds familiar, it's because Rafael Bejarano just returned from facial fractures suffered on July 22 at Del Mar. After extensive surgery, Bejarano was back to work last Friday and rode three winners over the weekend.
Beckner and Straight paid the price of their chosen profession. The contract is simple--for a chance at a good living you will be required from time to time to surrender health and the use of certain body parts. In the case of Springer and Garcia, though, the only damage done was to their pride...and the pocketbooks of those who backed their horses.
Springer makes her living as an exercise rider. She rides races when she can, and so far she has won 79, officially. Number 80 looked to be in the bag last Friday, but she did nothing to overtly enhance the chances of Engine Sixty Nine as the wire approached, and hustlin' Joe Talamo caught her on the line.
Springer confessed she "messed up." The stewards agreed and gave her a 10-day suspension for an unsatisfactory ride. Essentially, she was cited for poor public relations, because it looked very bad, especially to those who took 13-1 on her horse. Stewards require jockeys to make every effort to win a race when a horse is in contention. They feel the wagering public is owed nothing less. At the same time, jockeys are told they can't hit the horse too much with the whip, because this does not look good either.
The rational mind might wonder at the evident contradiction. Try...but don't try too hard, or in the wrong way. In the heat of the battle, Alan Garcia tried too hard to win the King's Bishop when it was clear Vineyard Haven was getting tired. Dangerous contact was made--it even appeared legs got tangled--as Garcia forced Javier Castellano to ride for survival instead of the win. There are not many riders who would come to Garcia's defense, and he was hit with a seven-day suspension. Springer, on the other hand, got sympathetic comments from several veterans in the Del Mar room, who saw her trying to keep a tired horse afloat just long enough, and missing by a nose. The stewards want her to work on her skill set and take these next 10 racing days to think about it before she rides in the afternoon again. Or, as Danny Sorenson put it, "She needs to learn how to hit the brake pedal and the accelerator at the same time."
How about some good news? Tyler Baze vows he will be back in action at Del Mar this Friday after that freaky fall from a first-time starter on Aug. 22 snapped the little finger of his left hand like a fresh green bean. (It was originally reported here as his right hand...50-50 chance and I blew it.) Wearing a splint for support, Baze is able to flex the joint nearest the break, which means the muscles and ligaments escaped serious damage.
"I thought about cutting it off, if I couldn't get back right away," Baze said over the weekend. "Sew it up, let it heal a little, and tape it up. No big deal. But my wife didn't like that idea. So I'm doing red light laser therapy to speed up the healing. It's supposed to work."
A big weekend awaits Baze, beginning on Friday with the fast filly Carlsbad in the $200,000 Rancho Bernardo Handicap, and then on Sunday with Battle of Hastings in the $350,000 Del Mar Derby and Informed in the $1 million Pacific Classic. The finger is on notice.
If Zenyatta had run in the Woodward she would have won.
Terrific story, and the first time I've ever had a chance to read it. This is a dangerous sport, both for the rider and the horse. The recent rash of serious injuries on the track, and the problems with drugs and alchohol abuse that many jockeys endure shows what a demanding occupation this is. God speed to all involved.
Tom pav -- Unfortunately, well, here is the latest on Arroyo from the wires: http://www.timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=835608
Keith -- Don't know why that did not get a separate story. The suspension and Garcia's appeal were referred to in Dave Grenig's informative follow-up story on the Godolphin runners.
I was in Saratoga Springs in August of 1988 as I have been every year for the past 40 years. I was walking up Phila Street on a beautiful, sunny morning when I saw Mike Venezia come out of Mrs. London's Bakery/Cafe. In one hand he carried a bag of pastries and with the other he held hands with his young daughter as they walked up the street. I thought at the time how lucky he was to be spending time with his child but how unlucky he was that, with a jockey's diet, he would probably have to forego the pastries. A couple of months later Mike was dead. Riding horses for a living is, indeed, a dangerous profession.
Jay: I was surprized to learn of the Garcia suspension from your posting...would have thought that would have made front page news on the DRF?
Hey Jay, no need to be so explicit with the tragic death of Mike Venezia back in 1988! I am sure Robbie still lives with that nightmare, but your words to descibe the incident seem to me to be a little harsh if you know what I mean?
I was attending college just up the parkway from the city in '88 when Venezia was killed, and I remember that SI article. It cemented me as a Bill Nack fan. I cannot even imagine the courage it must take for Robbie Davis to have his daughter riding.
what happen to noberto arroya he just disappeared from the saratoga scene. i hope it's not drugs again
In order to pace a prized racehorse one must become a skilled jockey. Your posting touches on a sensitive spot and Danny Sorenson comments hits the nail on the head when he says todays jockey "needs to learn how to hit the brake pedal and the accelerator at the same time" without using the whip and running afoul of stewards who are no longer able to ride or have never ridden but are quick to criticize and suspend jockeys from earning a living in a dangerous profession. They are not skydivers, mountain climbers, shuttle astronauts or racehorse trainers who are virtually unsanctioned from most infractions they commit.