07/08/2016 2:06PM

Hovdey: For jockeys, the hits just keep on coming


By now, everyone has had a grim, dry laugh over the story of jump jockey Chris Meehan, who was run over by the ambulance that was supposed to remove him safely from an Italian racecourse last weekend.

“My father actually teaches most people in Northern Ireland and England how to drive the ambulance!” Meehan, 22, told the website BelfastLive. “It’s bizarre. You couldn’t make it up.”

The incident happened Saturday at a racecourse in the town of Merano. By Sunday, Meehan was on his way home to Northern Ireland with his facial lacerations from the fall and his broken leg from the “rescue.” No word yet on disciplinary action regarding the ambulance driver – if that’s what he was – although Meehan did tell Sporting Life that he would be back in the saddle as soon as he was healed and fit.

“I’m looking at the positives,” Meehan said. “If people didn’t know my name before this, they might now. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

The resilience of the professional jockey never fails to astound. Neither does their graveyard sense of humor, nor that they seem compelled to share the most grisly details of their physical trauma.

On the same day that a photo of a bandaged and bloodied Meehan giving a double thumbs-up was being circulated, Australian jockey Michelle Payne took to her Instagram account to share a close-up of the long, fresh scar on her abdomen, the result of emergency surgery in May to repair a torn pancreas suffered in a fall at Mildura Racecourse.

“Some scar!” was her accompanying remark.

In the wake of her victory in the Melbourne Cup last fall, Payne, 30, became a bona fide celebrity as the first woman to win her nation’s most famous sporting event. The win invigorated Payne’s flagging career, and she has made the most of her opportunities. She took last January’s $1 million Magic Millions Sprint, and just a few days before her accident at Mildura, she was reunited with her Cup hero, Prince of Penzance, for a solid second in his comeback.

In an interview last month with Australia’s Racing & Sport Network, not long after leaving the hospital, Payne described in detail her internal injuries.

“The way the doctor explained it to me, I must have been stood on in the abdominal area,” said Payne, who had no precise memory of the fall. “All the other organs can kind of get out of the way, but the pancreas is sort of stuck at the back, unable to move, and must have been pushed against the spine and split in two.”

Heard enough? Yeah, me, too. Anyway, saving Payne’s pancreas has prevented her from becoming a diabetic, for it is the pancreas that produces insulin, among other goodies. She has returned to light exercise but is still a ways off from any thoughts of a return. Her verdict was straight out of the jockey’s handbook:

“I guess I was lucky,” she said, “or unlucky, depending on how you look at it.”

Describing Eddie Martin Jr. as either lucky or unlucky after his fall at Canterbury Park last Monday seems pointless. Just be glad he is alive.

At 53, with more than 3,800 winners in a career that began in 1980, Martin is a Midwestern mainstay who is always a candidate to win a big one, like he did in 2012 with the 109-1 shot Hero of Order in the Louisiana Derby, with Best of Buddies in the 2006 Hawthorne Derby, or in his sweep of the Minnesota Oaks and Derby at Canterbury in 2010.

Martin fractured two cervical disks, his clavicle, and two bones in his foot when his horse was squeezed and fell in the stretch of a turf race last Monday. He was released from the hospital Friday.

All three wounded warriors are walking and talking, which in the world of racing are victories worth celebrating. At the same time, the hidden damage accumulates, and jockey athletes pay the price over time, just as their counterparts in other sports where the head comes into dangerous play.

At the recent Jockey Club-Grayson Research Foundation Welfare & Safety Summit in Lexington, Ky., it was announced that the state’s racetracks were entering into a study program with Dr. Carl Mattacola of the University of Kentucky that would formalize protocols regarding concussions suffered by jockeys.

Riders, when they can walk and talk, usually resist being benched. But at some point, they need an advocate to help with a better choice. The concussion study is good news that should spread far and wide, prevention always being the best part of the cure.

There is little doubt that Meehan, Payne, and Martin – along with just about every other rider who hits the deck hard enough – probably suffered concussions in addition to their various other injuries. But concussions do not get the same kind of coverage. They are not nearly as spectacular. They don’t get the same oohs and ahhs in graphic conversation. They are, however, the injury that keeps on giving in a very bad way if they are not allowed to mend.