10/14/2010 12:46PM

Could this jacket make racing safer for jockeys?

Point Two
A new safety jacket being used in equestrian events essentially acts as an airbag for riders. A carbon-dioxide cartridge inflates the jacket when a rider is dislodged from his saddle.

Walter Blum, Hall of Fame Thoroughbred jockey of the mid-20th century, once summed up the hazards of his chosen profession in succinct terms.

“Some people wonder which part of the racetrack is the most dangerous,” Blum said. “I can’t really say. You can get hurt anywhere.”

A horse in the starting gate can rear up and bounce you off unforgiving metal. That’s what killed jockey Alvaro Pineda at Santa Anita in 1975. Some horses get fired up in the post parade and flip over. Getting a horse to “whoa” after a race has ended can lead to trouble, too. In 1961, Sidney Cole died at Aqueduct when his mount propped while being pulled up, throwing Cole headfirst into the rail. And this does not even begin to account for the multitudinous dangers inherent in the actual running of a race.

What’s surprising, really, is that accidents that paralyze riders or kill them don’t happen more often. In horse racing, few technological features exist that can improve the safety of a jockey. You can count the major safety advances of the last 100 years on one hand: goggles, helmets, safety vests, safer rails, and starting gates. But something that might cut back on rare tragic outcomes has hit the sport’s horizon. The inflatable safety jacket, a jockey’s airbag, has taken off among riders in equestrian events and is in the process of making the jump to racing.

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Rumblings about an airbag for jockeys are timely, since the sport is only weeks removed from two racing tragedies. Michael Martinez incurred serious spinal injuries when his mount clipped heels and fell Sept. 12 at Golden Gate Fields. And on Sept. 25 at Zia Park in New Mexico, jockey Mark Anthony Villa was killed when his horse broke down after crossing the finish in a Quarter Horse futurity trial.

Martinez’s injury is just the sort of occurrence the air jackets are intended to protect against.

Air jackets appear to have been developed during the 1990s in Japan, and a Japanese company called Hit Air retains prominence in the marketplace. The jackets were marketed primarily to motorcycle racers up until a few years ago, at which point they began infiltrating the horse world.

Point Two is an English company that has taken the lead in supplying air jackets to horse riders. The company has sold about 10,000 air jackets in the last 18 months, including 6,000 sales to equestrian event riders, and Point Two supplies many national equestrian teams, including the one fielded by the United States, according to director Lee Middleton. Point Two sells the air jacket for $700, about $500 more than the cost of a traditional flak jacket.

The air jacket actually is a vest that fastens around the front of the torso. Attached to the vest is a lanyard, which clips to the rider’s saddle on one end and to a carbon-dioxide cartridge on the other. When the rider is dislodged from the saddle, the lanyard is unclipped from the cartridge, triggering the release of CO2, which inflates pockets inside the vest. The inflation rate has been engineered down to a tenth of a second, and the vest can deploy in time to help cushion a fall from as little as 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) off the ground.

The air pockets help cushion impact on the base of the neck, the spine, the chest, and the ribs. Research has shown that the inflatable vest can add close to 50 percent more spinal protection than the best safety vests in widespread use. The risk of rib fractures and organ damage also can be significantly decreased.

“It’s virtually eliminated life-threatening injuries in certain scenarios,” Middleton said.

VIDEO: A horse ridden by Karim Florent Laghouag hit a fence and landed on top of Laghouag last September at the European Championships in Fountainebleau. Laghouag was wearing the air jacket during the fall and walked away with only a dislocated elbow.

A little more than a year ago, Point Two began showing its air jacket to race jockeys. “We gave them the existing eventing jacket we had, and they said, ‘Look, we like the concept, but we can’t have it this way. It’s too baggy,’” Middleton said. So Point Two worked on an updated version. After several attempts, they settled on a design where the airbag is sewn outside the normal vest with a light mesh. “This zips up tight, and it can be worn tight. Before, it would rustle around,” Middleton said. The lanyard, the neck support, and the volume of the airbag are the same as on the original vest. But whereas the eventers clip their lanyard to the side of the saddle, racers are meant to sew a piece of leather onto their saddle, attach a ring to it, and clip the lanyard there.

Middleton said Ruby Walsh, one of the leading jump-race riders in the world, has tested the redesigned air jacket and has been pleased with the results. Doctors at the Irish Turf Club liked Point Two’s product enough that they ordered 12 jackets for riders to use. Middleton said he hopes that within a year, the inflatable air vest may be in widespread racing use.

But besides longer distances and barriers that horses must hurdle, jump-racing has a major divergence with flat racing: no starting gate. Adapting the air jacket to use in a starting gate may take some doing.

“The way they deploy is when you fall off the horse, and that can be very challenging in our sport,” said jockey John Velazquez, who is chairman of the Jockeys’ Guild.

“Unless someone can figure out a way to trigger the inflation other than coming off the horse, that’s not going to work very well in Thoroughbred racing,” said retired jockey Chris McCarron, a former Jockeys’ Guild chairman himself.

The technical challenges of the inflatable vests appear far more complex than those faced in earlier safety advances. In previous situations, it was sheer resistance – sometimes by the very participants who stood to benefit from the advances – that held up implementation of new technology.

It took some 20 years, between the early 1900s and the 1920s, for goggles to be phased into regular use. Ever see what the goggles of a jockey look like after the running of a dirt race on a wet day? Now try to imagine riding with nothing covering the eyes.

It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that helmets became part of a rider’s standard equipment. Before that, the head was protected by a little leather beanie. From a contemporary perspective, such a lack of protection seems crazy, but when the Caliente helmet – so called because it was introduced by once-prominent Caliente racetrack in Mexico – was offered up, the response from jockeys was mixed.

“I remember hearing stories from [Eddie] Arcaro and [Johnny] Longden about when the helmets came out,” McCarron said. “It was the same thing as with the vests.”

McCarron was involved in the initial introduction of those safety vests − commonly called flak jackets – currently in use by Thoroughbred riders. A study in the early 1990s, conducted by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, found that 60 percent of jockeys suffer multiple fractures. Of those fractures, 53 percent occur in the upper body and chest. No wonder. A shirt and a silk riding top do not provide a satisfactory level of padding during a fall.

Interestingly, the flak jacket traveled the same path of development that the inflatable air vest seems to be taking, going from eventing to jump races and finally into flat racing, and moving from initial acceptance in England, where they became mandatory in 1991, to use in the United States, which began requiring riders to wear them three years later.

“When jockeys first found out about them, nobody wanted to wear them,” McCarron said. “They were bulky, hot in the summertime. And it was different. Whenever something new is introduced, people are kind of slow to come around before it’s fully accepted.”

Horsemen also were concerned about the weight the vest would add to the jockey’s load. That concern was alleviated by including the vest’s weight in the weight a jockey was assigned in a race, but still: Trading two pounds for shattered ribs and a punctured lung? Less than 20 years later, the vests, made of high-density foam packed inside an outer shell, have become second nature for riders.

“Now you don’t even notice it,” Velazquez said.

Given the difficulties of putting into play equipment advances that were simple, will racing feel compelled to try to overcome the challenges of the inflatable jacket? It is not just the starting gate that is a problem, but all the time from the moment a jockey mounts the horse until he goes into the gate. Riders regularly get thrown in the paddock or during the post parade. If that happens while wearing an inflatable vest, as presently constructed, the CO2 cartridge is going to pop.

“Really, the history of intransigence in this industry is legendary,” Dr. David Seftel said.

Seftel serves as the track physician at Golden Gate fields, where Martinez suffered the fall that has left him partially paralyzed. Another rider at Golden Gate, Francisco Duran, had pointed out the air vests to Seftel a couple of weeks before Martinez’s accident, and Seftel quickly did some research.

“With Michael’s injury, I said this is not something, this is everything. This has to be made available, and not only for the jockeys, but for the exercise riders. As long as it works, it should be mandated.

“It would make a huge difference,” Seftel said. “The physics of it are so compelling. We know from our own understanding of airbags in automobiles just how valuable this technology is, and the fact they deploy so rapidly is so important.”

Seftel and Duran went to brainstorming, envisioning how air vests might be employed given flat-racing protocols. Seftel mentioned minor gate modifications, dedicated hooks attached to all riding saddles, and altered lanyard lengths to avoid gate triggering.

“Another issue is when you attach,” Seftel said. “Francisco suggested that once the horses were stable, the assistant starter could call out, ‘Attach,’ and riders would clip on.”

Duran is from Northern California, but he rode the Emerald Downs meeting that ended Sept. 26. Reached in Washington in late September, he continued musing about how unwanted jacket triggering might be overcome.

“The racetrack could have extra vests on standby at the starting gate – at least two – and if you had a false trigger, you’d take off that vest and put on another one,” Duran said. “I think that would be the fastest way to actually get around that problem.”

While in Washington, Duran made an online purchase of one of Point Two’s jockey-designed air vests. Eight hundred dollars got him the vest and an extra CO2 cartridge. The vest arrived just after Emerald’s meet ended, and the CO2 cartridges came the next day. Back in Northern California preparing for the start of the Fresno meeting Oct. 6, Duran had tried on the vest and saw directly how he would have to modify his saddle to attach the jacket.

“It feels comfortable. It’s not heavy, but it’s not that light,” said Duran, estimating the air jacket’s additional weight at less than a pound. “It just feels different. It doesn’t feel like a normal, padded vest, but like you have an extra vest on.”

Not long after trying his jacket for fit, Duran had a strap added to his saddle so the air-vest lanyard could be attached. On opening day at Fresno, Wednesday, Oct. 6, Duran quietly launched the air-jacket era in Thoroughbred racing. Duran rode four horses to a pair of second-place finishes, a fifth, and a seventh.

“I clipped on right before I go in the gate,” Duran said. “I just make sure horses are right and everything, and I’ll try to unclip it if I have to. All in all, everything was fine. When you tuck your colors into your pants, you notice it. It’s a little bulkier now, and it could be modified a little more to help with that.”

Duran’s fellow riders knew he was riding with an air jacket, but he said no one else has made a move to buy one. Racing authorities, at Fresno or anywhere else, haven’t done anything like establishing a framework for how the equipment might be used on a wider scale.

California requires riders to wear a vest that provides a minimum shock absorption rating of 5 as certified by the British Equestrian Trade Association, that covers the torso from the collarbone to a line level with the hip, and that weighs less than two pounds. There is nothing codified anywhere yet about a safety vest that fills with air, and to Duran, no one has a good reason to stop him from using one.

“I don’t care,” he said. “It just feels a little safer – and it’s my safety.”

A rider goes down; his jacket inflates

Paul Hart of the Republic of South Africa loses his seat as he jumps aboard Heartbreak Hill during the eventing competition at the World Equestrian Games earlier this month in Lexington, Ky. As Hart falls, the lanyard that connects his saddle to his air jacket’s CO2 cartridge pulls free, triggering the cartridge and inflating the jacket. A competition aid assists Hart with the detachable, inflated part of the jacket. Photos by Amy Dragoo.