10/03/2013 4:19PM

A companion with danger: Early knowledge of concussions failed Bennie Marinelli

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When you fall off your horse, get right back up and ride. What jockey hasn’t heard this maxim hundreds of times before even making it into the starting gate for a real race?

Dealing with danger is an integral part of Thoroughbred racing. Jockeys who ride scared don’t ride for long. But when the compulsion to immediately get back in the saddle after a serious spill trumps long-term concerns about safety, no one wins.

The difficult decision over when – or if – to return to riding becomes even more clouded when injuries involve head trauma, because cognitive damage can linger long after physical wounds have healed.

Horse racing is hardly the only sport coping with the aftereffects of serious head injuries. Contact sports dominate the current headlines, but head injuries as a proportion of all injuries are astoundingly higher in equestrian sports. The British Journal of Sports Medicine estimated in 2011 that up to 48 percent of all horse riding injuries involve the head. Of seven different sports studied by the journal, only alpine and equestrian sports were rated as “high risk” for severe traumatic brain injury.

Head protection has come a long way since cardboard caps were introduced a century ago. While modern helmets are effective at absorbing blunt force, future generations of headgear must address the under-recognized threat of rotational force – the type of impact that poses the greatest risk because the brain twists within its skull, tearing nerve fibers and tiny veins.

But aside from technological advances, a major attitude shift is paving the way for a more enlightened era.

The case of Ramon Dominguez is a prime example. A world-class rider, Dominguez, 36, elected to call it quits in June after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a vicious spill. Although he initially expected to resume riding, Dominguez wisely heeded the advice of his physicians and has been widely lauded for taking the safer, smarter path.

But it wasn’t long ago that jockeys were disparaged for not being mentally “tough enough” to return if head injuries rendered them incapable of plying their trade. One star-crossed phenom from the 1920s epitomized this type of alienation more emphatically than any other jockey. The long-forgotten saga of Benny Marinelli is a tale about the most talented rider you’ve never heard of.

The 95-pound wisp of an apprentice had no business trying to slip through such a narrow, fast-closing gap as the tightly packed field careened off the Tijuana Jockey Club turn on a shimmering February afternoon in 1921. But with a decisive, all-or-nothing flick of his wrists, 17-year-old Benny Marinelli unleashed Cafeteria, hurtling fearlessly into a fast-moving wall of horseflesh in search of a seam that did not exist.

It had been barely four months since the teenager’s Italian immigrant parents in New Jersey signed off on a contract to allow their son to pursue his dream of riding racehorses, and for the fledgling jockey, a style based on pure nerve had been working well since shipping south of the border. When he followed a pair of three-win days with a flourishing four-bagger, the Daily Racing Form reported that Marinelli “has caused quite a furore at the Tijuana track by his sensational riding.” At least one prominent East Coast stable had already offered $15,000 – the equivalent of nearly $200,000 in today’s dollars – to buy out the contract to the rookie’s riding services.

When Benny wowed a packed holiday crowd by winning five races on Feb. 12, 1921, he was saluted by the governor and serenaded by the 20-piece Royal Mexican Band.

Now, a week later, in the first race on Feb. 19, Marinelli was committed to punching through the pack with Cafeteria when Sweet Tooth clipped heels directly in front of him. Mineral Jim crashed into the teetering Sweet Tooth, igniting a chain reaction that Benny could not avoid. When Cafeteria flipped, Marinelli was pitched head first out of the saddle, and the only thing between his skull and the onrushing loam was a sheer silk jockey’s cap. It was the first documented time that Benny would be knocked unconscious in a racing accident. It would not be the last.

When it came to safety precautions and medical assistance, Tijuana was on par with most early 20th century racing venues. In Marinelli’s case, this meant a patrol judge would scamper over and try to shake him awake. Failing that, someone would arrive on the scene with a pail of ice water to shock him back to his senses. If neither first-response actions got the jockey back on his feet, someone with a car could always be summoned to drive him to a nearby hospital. Most likely, this trip would have to wait until after the races were over and would be dependent on the injured rider being able to prove to doctors he had money to pay for treatment.

Despite his foggy state, a hospital visit was not necessary for Marinelli – at least not by 1920s standards. After regaining consciousness, he did what was expected of any respectable jockey of his era: Marinelli got right back in the irons and won the very next race aboard Aunt Annie in a six-horse blanket finish. Riding by instinct, he then won the third race with Goldie Rose. Benny’s “narrow escape from serious injury, if not a fatality” was summed up in the Racing Form as the highlight of “an afternoon of racing replete with thrills.”

A tremendous appetite for risk was the only aspect of Marinelli’s riding more prolific than his penchant for winning. But Benny’s chief attribute also would be his downfall. Before he turned 25, repeated spills, tramplings, and crashes would so badly batter his brain and cloud his judgment that Benny Marinelli – perhaps the most talented jockey you’ve never heard of – would be ostracized by his peers and forced out of the sport by officials. He cut off contact with friends and family who wanted to help him, and in the end, was as much a casualty of a less enlightened era as a victim of head trauma.

Eighty-six years after his death, Benny’s tale is all but forgotten at a time when professional sports like football, hockey, and boxing are having difficulty coming to grips with the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head. Every few weeks, we now read of another brain-impaired athlete who has committed suicide, succumbed to dementia, or mentally slid off the grid. Horse racing, too – while not at the same person-to-person, full-contact level – never has been immune to the ravages of brain trauma. In the pre-helmet era, when the sport was both wildly popular and frightfully dangerous, jockeys were too often treated like disposable components, and there never seemed to be a shortage of replacements.

Taking chances from the start

By age 15, it was evident that no serious growth spurt was on the horizon for Benny Marinelli. Despite his diminutive stature, Benny was tough enough to hook on as a shipyard laborer, and even though his coworkers kidded him about being as light as a cricket, they liked his spunkiness and cocky attitude. The guys on the job passed time chatting about horse racing, but Marinelli, raised in a crowded working-class section of Newark, had scarcely seen a horse in his life.

One afternoon, an older worker called Benny over to sit next to him with his lunch pail. He knew the kid aspired to be something other than a laborer and proposed a way out by introducing him to a friend who trained Thoroughbreds near Saratoga.

“You were made to be a jockey,” the coworker prodded. “Why don’t you ride ’em?”

Marinelli was interested but admitted his ignorance.

“You never saw a saddle, eh?” the bemused old-timer replied. “Well, maybe you better not ever see one, or it will give you a fright.”

For Benny, lack of knowledge was one thing. But fright? No way. It was not long before he was mucking stalls, filling water buckets, and working hands-on with horses. Eventually, he learned to ride, and by the fall of 1920 had graduated from morning gallops to afternoon races on longshots in New York. Marinelli was apprenticed under contract to the Crawford & Moody racing stable, and when the outfit decided to ship south for the winter, Benny was off to Mexico.

“You would not have expected this of the city-bred boy, but it was unmistakable,” the Miami News would report in a 1925 profile of how Benny got his start. “He took chances, risked falls, rode headlong on notoriously bad horses. Any one could have seen that he was going to encounter accidents. He did encounter accidents.”

The $20,000 Coffroth Handicap on April 12, 1921, was the premier race of the Tijuana meet, and on the morning of the big feature it was announced that Marinelli’s contract had been sold to the Edward Soule racing stable. Having ridden a remarkable 107 winners in 104 days, Benny would be returning to New York as the continent’s leading jockey. He had a good shot at going out a winner with his final Tijuana mount aboard Edwina in the Coffroth. Instead, as the Racing Form put it, “Death lurked at the turn soon after the start.”

The barrier sprung up for the 1 1/4-mile handicap and a crush of horses scrambled for position first time under the finish wire.

Nepperhan went down in a tangle, cutting the legs out from under Edwina, who was then trampled by The Desert. Marinelli was whipsawed over the inner rail. The largest crowd of the year shrieked while grooms and stablehands rushed to clear the ontrack carnage before the remainder of the field thundered for home.

For the second time in eight weeks, Marinelli was knocked unconscious. It was never documented whether he suffered a concussion on either occasion. But the racing press again lauded Benny for walking away without medical treatment.

Benny continued to win races back East, riding at Jamaica, Saratoga, and Bowie before wintering in New Orleans. The battle for top jockey of 1921 came down to the final week, with Marinelli third, bringing home $100,800 in purses. He was nine wins behind leader Chick Lang, but Benny had 71 fewer mounts.

After losing his apprentice status, Marinelli slumped. It is doubtful anyone would have attributed his tailspin to riding more cautiously after head injuries. If anything, Benny began horsebacking more aggressively than ever in 1922.

At Empire City on July 11, the stewards ruled off Marinelli and referred his case to the Jockey Club. When queried by a New York Times reporter about in which race the jockey had committed an infraction, steward W.C. Vosburgh testily replied, “In no race. He is suspended for general misconduct.”

The suspension lasted one month. On Aug. 11, 1922, Marinelli was leading the pack in a sprint at Saratoga when Belphrizonia stumbled and brought down nearly half the field. The Times reported a “considerable delay” before a vehicle with stretchers carted three injured jockeys back to the locker room. Benny insisted on sitting up front so the hundreds of spectators ringing the jockeys’ quarters could see he was okay. After getting “severely shaken up,” Marinelli was hazy in his recollection and couldn’t remember where he was in the field when his mount went down.

“It all happened so suddenly,” Marinelli told reporters. “And it was just such a mix-up that I just can’t say what did happen. I thought it was Lang on Pay Dear that went down first, but, as I say, I can’t tell how the mess occurred.”

Shortly thereafter, Marinelli was gunning for the front aboard a 2-year-old at Aqueduct when his left rein began to sink, plunging the saddle around his mount’s belly. “Twisting like an acrobat, the boy wrenched his foot free,” the Miami News reported. Riding bareback, Benny then concerned himself with leveraging his knee to make sure the weighted pads didn’t slip out of his inverted saddle, which would cause a disqualification. He drove his horse hard and finished second. “You may be sure that the crowd acclaimed the rider when he rode back to the judges’ stand.”

It was such bravado that made Marinelli a favorite of fans and in demand for top mounts. In 1923, he rode Vigil to victory in the Preakness Stakes and then to a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby (that year the Preakness preceded the Derby). He partnered with Wilderness to win the Travers Stakes. On a personal note, things also seemed to be looking up for Benny. He got married that year, wedding Helen Fennessey in a private ceremony at Newark City Hall.

One of the worst accidents

Helmets are among the oldest forms of personal protection, and the use of headgear while on horseback dates to ancient warriors who fashioned armor out of metals, wood, and leather as far back as the 23rd century B.C. It wasn’t until around 1906 that jockeys began riding regularly with cardboard-like caps in Australia. World War I brought a wave of industrialization, and by 1924, head protection molded from pressed fiberboard found its way to Bob Leighton, a British Columbia turf enthusiast. Leighton sent one such “skull cap” to leading owner-breeder Col. E.R. Bradley in Kentucky. Bradley was so impressed with the “peculiar” fiber that he commissioned 50 of them from a local hat maker to distribute to Kentucky jockeys.

The helmets were not an instant hit. Even though they only weighed 4 ounces and fit inside a traditional silk cap, some jockeys scoffed because they were too cumbersome. Other riders said they cut down on vision. Some claimed helmets were flat-out sissified. Even jockeys who appreciated the protection found things to criticize. There were no chin straps, so the skull caps usually flew off before riders hit the ground. Weight-conscious jockeys cut out the crowns and linings, and shaved down the already-thin fiberboard to trim an ounce or two. (Helmets initially were not excluded at weigh-out.)

In the spring of 1924, while Kentucky jockeys were experimenting with the headgear, Marinelli was riding in Maryland and Canada. This was also when the compounded effects of his first three accidents appeared to take a cognitive toll on him. No known medical records exist to prove or disprove whether Benny’s brain was actually impaired, but newspaper accounts that would run in the aftermath of his death pointed to roughly this time frame for the onset of bizarre behavior and “many mental problems.” Fellow jockeys began to treat him with diffidence. An article in the April 29 Washington Post criticized Marinelli even in victory for badly botching a ride on a heavy favorite at Havre de Grace. The horse won by a nose, no thanks to Benny, who nearly “tossed the race away by rank carelessness.”

Marinelli’s shocking disregard for safety was epitomized in an Aug. 5, 1924, incident at Saratoga that the New York Times called “one of the worst accidents in the history of the turf.” Barely 200 yards into a 5 1/2-furlong sprint, Marinelli sliced across the entire field from an outer post aboard a colt named Senor, cutting off every horse to his inside. Four riders, including Marinelli, crashed to the course. All were smacked unconscious except for the legendary Earl Sande, whose left thigh was so “cruelly crushed” that the Times (prematurely and incorrectly) speculated he would never ride again.

A “wave of horror” silenced the grandstand. Stablehands driving a crude ambulance rushed the riders to the racing secretary’s office, which was transformed into a triage ward. A rear admiral who was the U.S. president’s personal physician happened to be in attendance, and he assumed command. Emergency telegrams summoned surgeons from New York City, and thousands of racegoers encircled the makeshift hospital near the backyard paddock while the races were put on hold.

According to the Times, steward Joseph E. Widener, who had repeatedly warned against rough riding, laced into the Spa jockey colony once the unconscious riders came to. “He pointed to Earl Sande, who was being taken out of the room on a stretcher, saying, ‘There goes the star of your ranks, a victim to the practice.’ There were tears in the eyes of many of the boys as he told them that “caution and consideration for the other fellow was not only the fair thing, but the best sort of life insurance.”

The stewards promptly suspended Marinelli for 10 days. Upon thinking it over – and perhaps after getting an earful from rival riders – they increased the penalty to last through the end of the meet.

Marinelli was now out of work for one of the most lucrative stops on the circuit. But in the aftermath of what was likely his third concussion, he’d have to sort things out by himself: Benny and his wife were no longer getting along. Helen had left him, and Marinelli was distraught about losing her.

Alienating fellow riders to the end

At the Columbus, Ohio, races on May 8, 1925, jockey Frank Lux was killed when his mount in the opener got her legs crossed and was trampled by a trailing horse. At nearly the exact time, in the first race at Jamaica, Benny Marinelli got himself in a bad jam on the far turn and his mount, Upton, fell. Launched like a javelin, Benny hit the ground head first and was mowed down by Firearm, whose jockey never saw it coming.

Benny’s skull was fractured, and he slipped into a coma. The New York Times initially reported “little hope was held out for his recovery.” When Benny failed to wake up after four days, the paper downgraded its headline to “Hope For Marinelli Given Up By Doctors.” He came to for a few minutes on May 12 and was subsequently moved to two other hospitals after lapsing back into unconsciousness.

Eight days into his coma, Marinelli’s vital signs improved. Although still unconscious, his progress encouraged physicians at Mount Sinai Hospital, who called his case “one of the most remarkable they have ever come in contact with . . . The manner in which the boy clings to the slight thread of life has made the doctors marvel.”

On May 17, 1925, after 10 days in a coma, Benny woke up.

He vowed a comeback. But it’s not clear how much support Marinelli had at the track beyond his contract employer, Augustus “Sarge” Swenke. By now, fellow jockeys were leery about riding against him, and officials had grown weary of policing and suspending him. The zeal for living that the doctors had seen in Benny only seemed to pulse as long as he was connected to a racing saddle.

On April 13, 1926, Marinelli made it back to the races with little fanfare at Havre de Grace. His plan was to ride in Maryland before returning to the metropolitan circuit. Back in New York on May 3, Benny scored in the Cumberland Purse aboard Everglade at Jamaica, employing too-familiar tactics: He forced several rivals back at the start, darted to the lead, and then bore out sharply in the stretch when he knew Earl Sande was bearing down outside of him with Sepoy.

From then on, Marinelli might as well have been riding under a microscope.

On May 11, 1926, the New York stewards suspended him for not persevering on Clique. The matter of his licensure was again referred to the Jockey Club. The Atlanta Constitution cited “vague threats from the powers that be in racing of being ruled off the turf.” Benny drifted in and out of the racing world, trying to figure out if he belonged.

He spent the winter in Newark, learning a trade in a tailor’s shop. In the spring, he gave it up and returned to galloping horses at Bowie, again trying to gain a foothold.

By the fall of 1927, Marinelli had made it back to New York. Even though he had chances to ride, family members would later recall how his heart didn’t seem in it any longer.

At dawn on Saturday, Oct. 22, Marinelli worked horses for the Swenke outfit at Jamaica. That afternoon he was scheduled to ride Everglade – his big comeback winner from the year before – in the third race at Empire City. The horse had a good shot.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Benny returned to his rooming house at 216 Shelton Ave. in Jamaica. An acquaintance wished him luck with his mount, but Marinelli confided he was going to feign injury to get out of riding.

“I’m going to stall about my foot hurting,” he said.

Marinelli locked himself in his room. He meticulously stuffed the keyhole and all the window crevices with cotton. He took out a pencil and paper started to write a letter to his brother, Alfred. Then he attached a small rubber hose to the gas jet, placed the other end in his mouth, and finished the letter.

“My health is broken and I’m tired of living,” Benny wrote. He was 24 years old.

The obituaries for the fallen rider glowed with praise: One of the premier jockeys . . . One of the best money riders ever . . . One of the most daring jockeys the American turf ever knew.

But the funeral had awkward moments: Marinelli had specifically written that his estranged wife not be allowed to view his body. Only one fellow jockey, Joseph Pecoraro, stepped forward to serve as a pallbearer.

In the wake of Marinelli’s death, protective headgear gradually gained acceptance. Steel “crash helmets” came into vogue in the 1930s and were replaced by lighter plastic inserts in the 1940s. Eventually, the standard shifted to a laminated fiberglass version that could withstand 1,800 pounds of pressure per square inch, the forbearer of today’s compact, impact-absorbing designs. That lightweight, contoured model was introduced at Tijuana in April 1956 – 35 years to the very same week a sensational apprentice got pitched over the infield fence and walked away from the accident believing he was unscathed.

“Much of Marinelli’s success lay in his daring,” the Miami News wrote in retrospect. But “there was a thoughtlessness in it, too, a lack of nervous, imaginative vision of the thing that would befall him if he lost his seat.”