02/07/2018 3:16PM

Hovdey: Misery always has company on jockeys' injury list

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On Nov. 18, 2017, at Punchestown Race Course in Ireland, the heavily favored mare Let’s Dance went down at the fourth-from-last hurdle and tumbled along the ground with her jockey, Ruby Walsh. Let’s Dance emerged unscathed, but Walsh, 38, fractured the tibia of his right leg.

On Nov. 19, 2017, at Laurel Park in Maryland, Alex Cintron broke favored Leather Goods from the 2 post in the 1 1/16-mile third race of the afternoon but was down before they got to the first turn, squeezed from both sides. Cintron, 31, suffered injures to his face, shoulder blade, and knee, cutting short what was the best earning year of his career. Leather Goods broke a shoulder and was euthanized.

Neither Walsh nor Cintron has returned to action, and lately they’ve acquired painful company.

On the morning of Jan. 21, leading Maryland rider Jevian Toledo sustained two thoracic vertebrae fractures and a punctured lung when a horse he was working at Laurel Park for Jamie Ness fell. The horse was reported to be okay, and Toledo, 23, was released that evening from a local hospital, hoping for a return later this month.

On Jan. 27 at Belmont Park, Eric Cancel was thrown from a horse he was working for Todd Pletcher and sustained two fractured vertebrae. Cancel was the nation’s leading apprentice money-winner in 2015 and has been finding his way as a New York journeyman. He is also 21, so of course he tweeted selfies from the hospital while awaiting X-rays. Good for him.

The morning injuries suffered by Toledo and Cancel highlight the contradictory nature of a profession in which a jockey can be injured riding for free, while trying to promote business. Those injuries also add weight to the debate over the effectiveness of protective vests when it comes to cushioning the mid-spine from the impact of a fall.

“We do have concerns,” said Terry Meyocks, executive director of the Jockeys’ Guild. “There should be ongoing studies on the vests, funded by the industry in partnership with the Guild. We are way behind other racing countries on an important issue like this.”

Whether Chantal Sutherland’s protective vest did its job on the far turn of the third race at Fair Grounds on Jan. 25 is impossible to prove one way or another. When the first-time starter McFeeley tripped himself up and sent his jockey flying to the turf, Sutherland’s right knee and left shoulder took most of the impact. As a result, the two-time Sovereign Award winner suffered the first serious injuries of her 20-year career.

“I’d worked the horse and really liked him,” Sutherland said this week from New Orleans. “We were going into the turn – the grass was pretty dry that day – and I made him switch his lead early to help him negotiate the tight turn better. He’s a tall horse, still growing into himself and a little clumsy. When I asked him for a little more speed he over-reached, grabbed his front foot, and fell.

“I remember sliding off his head and sliding along the ground on my shoulder,” she continued. “Then I flipped over and hit my knee. I never really felt the collarbone until later, but the knee hurt like fire, right away.”

According to Sutherland, the colt did a flip of his own, crashed onto the rail, and then scrambled to his feet, apparently none the worse for wear. As for the jockey, she required surgery above and below.

“The crack in the tibia kind of spiraled down,” Sutherland said. “They put a cage around the bone and used a diagonal screw to stabilize the fracture, that was developed by a doctor in Seattle. I asked them what it was called.”

No, please, don’t …

“Yep,” Sutherland said. “The Seattle Screw.

“This was the first time I broke anything in racing,” Sutherland added. “When I was five, I broke my collarbone on the right side playing hockey when my brother pushed me.”

Since migrating from California, Sutherland had recorded 15 wins at the Fair Grounds and was beginning to ride for top stables. It will be at least two months before she can even think about getting back on a horse, and even that is ambitious, although jockeys are notorious for defying such predictions. She plans to spend some of her recovery time visiting her father, who has a winter home in the Dominican Republic.

“He uses a cane and I’ll be on crutches,” Sutherland said. “We’ll be quite a pair, but I know at some point someone will say, ‘Let’s race.’ ”

In the meantime, Ruby Walsh, the heir to the legendary Tony McCoy at the top of the Irish National Hunt world, is nearing a return from his own tibia fracture, which did not require surgery. He was hoping that doctors would give him the green light to get back aboard horses this weekend, which would put him on a recovery schedule to make the important Cheltenham Festival in England next month.

“You can only do what the doctors tell you and be as patient as you can,” Ruby Walsh told the media last year.

McCoy, now a television racing analyst, retired in 2015 after 20 championships and a staggering catalog of riding injuries. His praise for Walsh could not have been higher.

“He’s tougher than anyone I’ve ever seen,” McCoy said.

And he was right, except for all the rest.