05/14/2014 12:34PM

Hovdey: Tough year for the guys in white pants

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It wasn’t supposed to be played for dark comedy. That’s just how it turned out. The NBC broadcast of the 140th Kentucky Derby featured a brief scene from the Churchill Downs jockeys’ room in which Barbara Borden, chief state steward of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, urged the 19 riders in the upcoming race to, among other things, “take care of yourselves, your fellow riders, and those magnificent horses you’re on.”

It was a noble sentiment, and all 19 riders appeared to be listening. Then they went out and perpetrated one of the roughest Derby runnings since the 23-horse stampede of 1974. That one they should have run in Calgary. This one would have been right at home at Aintree. The comments in the official Equibase chart read like all the bloody parts of “War and Peace.”

Insiders shrugged and made little “tsk-tsk” noises, glibly explaining that it was the Kentucky Derby, so what do you expect with so very, very much on the line? Never mind that most of the trouble was caused by riders who made a conscious choice to cut things close, or change lanes without signaling, or go where there was no apparent room. It was, by traditional Derby standards, a rousing success, which is to say nobody died, and the show ended on time.

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Then, about 90 minutes later, after the Derby curtain had been pulled, Jon Court and Jose Ortiz went down in an awful heap on the Churchill Downs backstretch when Court’s horse, Canadian Winner, broke a leg. Ortiz was okay, but Court broke his hand, an injury that requires even the toughest jock to sit things out for a while. Court, 53, has surgery scheduled for Monday.

Court’s kind of misery always has company. Consider just a partial casualty list among jockeys this year.

The season began with injuries to veterans Junior Alvarado (broken ankle), David Cohen (broken right leg), and Martin Pedroza (broken left leg). Alvarado has returned to action, while Pedroza hopes to get a green light to compete in June.

The redoubtable T.D. Houghton, with more than 5,160 winners to his name, broke his collarbone and chipped three vertabrae in a fall during Mountaineer’s opening-day program March 1. Edgar Prado, with 6,700 winners and counting, was knocked out cold and fractured a vertebra at the base of his neck in a training accident at Keeneland on the morning of April 10. Jason Nguyen, riding at Atlantic City, broke two ribs and suffered a punctured lung when his horse, Cuban Devil, broke down April 27.

And so on.

Last Saturday at Santa Anita, in one of those helter-skelter races down the hillside turf course, Rafael Bejarano was in the clear and stalking the pacesetter when his mount, Gameboy Luke, broke a leg and sent his rider tumbling to the hard ground.

By the time the last horse cleared the fallen rider and the hoofbeats disappeared in the distance, all Bejarano could hear were the cries of alarm from the turf maintenance crew rushing to his aid. He was half-conscious, his collarbone was broken, two ribs were cracked, and both shoulder blades had been fractured. Gameboy Luke was nearby, fatally injured.

Bejarano underwent surgery Tuesday to secure the collarbone with a plate and screws. The rest of the damage will take time to heal, but he has family coming from Peru, so at least he’ll have company. As far as the game goes, horse racing will have to do without the leading California rider well into the summer. At the time of the accident, Bejarano ranked fifth nationally in terms of purses and 10th in number of wins.

None of those riders – Cohen, Prado, Court, Houghton, Pedroza, Alvarado, or Nguyen – needed a 19-horse Kentucky Derby field to put them out of action, which is exactly why a 19- or 20-horse Derby field remains racing’s greatest accident waiting to happen. And since it is clear that Churchill Downs officials have no intention of reducing the field to a more sensible number, it falls upon the stewards to replace their prerace platitudes with a few post-race suspensions for the kind of careless Kentucky Derby riding that defines the very nature of the transgression – riding without care.

The good news is that Prado, 46, and a hero in both Maryland and his native Peru, is back in action. He will be one of seven active Hall of Famers in a four-race competition Friday at Pimlico, where the card is topped by the Black-Eyed Susan.

Prado, Mike Smith, Russell Baze, Calvin Borel, Kent Desormeaux, John Velazquez, and the freshly minted Hall of Famer Alex Solis will mix it up with the local colony in search of a $20,000 prize and bragging rights, at least for the day. It’s supposed to rain, but they’ve all faced worse: There are 94 Derby mounts among them. Watching the seven of them walk shoulder to shoulder into the Pimlico paddock will be nothing less than magnificent.