08/10/2011 2:14PM

Hastings: Paddock guard back at post a year after accident

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Dave Dahl is happy to be back at his regular post as the security guard at the Hastings winner’s enclosure. Everyone at Hastings is thrilled, relieved and somewhat amazed to see the 65-year-old Dahl back at work.

It was just over a year ago, July 31, when he was run over by a loose horse, and it had to be one of the most horrifying things that anyone is ever going to see at a racetrack.

Dahl was at his post when Private Mombo stumbled and lost her rider leaving the gate. When she stumbled, the blinkers came over her eyes and she was blinded. After bumping into the inner rail she appeared to be frightened and took off completely out of control. For a moment it looked like she might go over the outer rail into the crowd. Instead she veered into the winner’s enclosure, where she slipped before she hit Dahl head-on at full speed.

Dahl could see what was developing and he was busy getting as many people out of the way as he could.

“I just reacted,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly where the horse was going but I knew it was a dangerous situation. I started yelling at people to get out of the way and the next think I know I see him right before he runs over me.”

What probably saved Dahl was his size. He was a robust 6-foot-1 1/2 and weighed in at 250 pounds. After eight surgeries he is down to 220 pounds. Actually, back up to 220 pounds would be more accurate considering how much weight he lost in the first few weeks following the accident.

“I am pretty sure a smaller person wouldn’t have survived,” said Dahl. “I remember the horse hitting me chest to chest. I remember all the air being knocked out of me. The next think I recall is being on the tarmac and Jennifer telling me to ‘breathe, Dave, breathe.’”

Dahl was referring to Jennifer Mason who had recently moved from first aid to human resources at Hastings. Dahl credits Mason for her quick reactions in saving his life.

“I don’t think I would be here today without Jennifer,” said Dahl. “Hearing her voice was like hearing an angel above me. I couldn’t see anything but I could hear her voice and that is the last thing I remember before I woke up in the ambulance.”

Knowing Mason, it wasn’t surprising that she said Dahl was overstating her contribution, and that many people, including Hastings general manager Raj Mutti, helped Dahl.

“It was a real team effort,” she said. “The first-aid team, the gate crew and security department all did a great job of controlling a chaotic situation. I was on the roof watching the race and my instincts just took over. Raj was up there too, and we both ran as fast as we could to get to the scene. All I did was hold his hand and make sure he was still alert and breathing. It was touch and go, but when he responded to me I knew he was going to be okay. It is incredible anyone would be able to take that kind of force and survive. He is a big, healthy guy and his size really saved him.”

Dahl was in the hospital for two months and underwent seven surgeries the first few weeks and a final one a couple of months ago to tie it all together. Most of the problems were related to his stomach and bowel.

“I wouldn’t have been in the hospital as long, but during one of the surgeries I caught an infection,” said Dahl.

It is remarkable how well Dahl looks considering his age and everything he went through.

Dahl spent 20 years as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. His worst injury on that job came when he fell into a coma when he was involved in a head-on collision during a high-speed chase. He retired from the force 20 years ago and has worked at Hastings since. It was a natural fit for someone that had spent a lot of his life at the track. His parents, Ralph and Beatrice Dahl, owned and trained horses, most notably multiple stakes winner Okan Dee Select, who won the 1983 Grade 3 Ballerina and was the champion mare in the province. Dahl took out his own trainer’s license in 1992. He has a few horses in training but so far he hasn’t been able to take an active hand in their training.

“I have good help with Harry Engley, who is also a trainer,” he said. “We talk just about every day. I am not really up to working with the horses yet.”

Dahl considers himself lucky to have a fulfilling life at the track. His spouse, Merrilee Elliott, has worked at Hastings for 40 years, most of it as the horsemen’s bookkeeper.

“I enjoy being at the track,” said Dahl. “I remember my grandmother bringing me here in 1954 and I’ve been coming here ever since. What more could you ask for?”

Dahl said he was going to work only five-hour shifts a couple of days a week until he got his full strength back.

“The doctors want me to take it easy for a while,” he said. “I do get a little tired but I really feel great and it shouldn’t be too long before I’m back to full speed.”

Maybe it is because Dahl is usually found at the winner’s circle greeting the winning connections of the horse that just won a race, but he always seems to have a smile on his face. The smiles of the people who saw him back on the job the first day were a lot wider than his.