05/14/2014 1:34PM

Hovdey: Tough year for the guys in white pants


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.

Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
Interesting article. As a follow up, how about a DRF writer asking for an interview with the stewards to discuss their inaction? Some investigative journalism is in order, assuming DRF is not fearful of rocking the boat. I know, a foolish assumption.
Just Watch More than 1 year ago
In 1951, ten U.S. jockeys died in about 4 months time
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
Once again a self inflicted problem in racing. If the rules were enforced rigorously and though penalties applied for dangerous riding some of these rodeos would be avoided. But of course nothing is done. Can any one explain how JOE BRAVO can swerve out in the stretch and impede and cut off 3 horses to his outside and not even an inquiry. Im guessing DANZA being trained by pletcher is what kept the stewards from looking at him. So careless and overly aggressive ridding is together with excessive use of pain numbing medication on the horses the reason for the injuries.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Well said, Ray. What struck me most was when you said, "Not even an Inquiry"...
Hail No More than 1 year ago
It certainly was a roughly run race, and IF rules were enforced for the Derby, a few horses numbers could've come down and some jocks would get days. Like I said, though, it is the Derby. I thought that "speech" might have contributed to the slow pace, it surely did not lend itself to a "cleanly run" race.. Don't you have a lot of dusting to do? :-)
jttf More than 1 year ago
20 horses with dangerous jockeys should be unacceptable. but churchill doesnt care. 15 horses have problems in our top 3 year old championship. the oaks is much better.
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
Unacceptable? its a daily occurrence in England and Japan.
Patrick More than 1 year ago
I think you guys missed the most dangerous move in the Derby. Bravo wrecklessly wheeled out right in front of Robby Albarado right past the 1/8th pole, should have warranted a dq and days!!
Jim More than 1 year ago
Thank you. Never even looked at. On an average thursday card, he gets days
Hail No More than 1 year ago
I thought some other's rides. besides Jersey Joe, could be viewed as reckless, and I don't like to say that about any jock, but geez, was that the Derby or a Rodeo?
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
They oughta rip out that downhill deathtrap and put a water-slide in it's place. Any stats on how many injuries have been caused there?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Being a Canadian I have always thought if you could put 2 feet of snow on that hill it would make a great hill to toboggan on.
Walter More than 1 year ago
What are you talking about? The downhill course is one of the best in North America. How do you figure it's so dangerous?
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
No turf course in California is top 5. Settle down. belmont and woodbine are 3 of the best turf courses. Then you can look to Saratoga or Kentucky Downs. The fatality rates support this
Walter More than 1 year ago
The downhill course does not offer any more danger than any flat course in NA. Its a unique race and almost always produces exciting finishes and great payoff potential. However, I did like it more when CA had its most talented jockey colony abt. 20 years ago.
Gary Peacock More than 1 year ago
Agreed. Post-race suspensions were in order. I'd have liked to been a fly on the wall in the jockey's room following the Derby. Rajiv Maragh should probably be thankful that he was facing a wise, veteran rider, instead of a twenty-something Gary Stevens.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Good thing he didn't bother Borel, fists would've been flying :)