11/15/2013 3:12PM

Jay Hovdey: Jockeys endure brutal version of 'Survivor' daily

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Tom Keyser
Jockey Javier Castellano, who went down in a spill Wednesday but was back riding Friday, leads North American riders in wins and purse earnings.

In his capacity as national manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, Terry Meyocks was attending the opening session of the 13th International Symposium on Fatigue and Fracture Mechanics in Jacksonville, Fla., last Wednesday when he received word that Javier Castellano – not only North America’s leading rider but Meyocks’s son-in-law as well – had been taken to the hospital after a ninth-race accident at Aqueduct.

Meyocks’s first reaction was to seek further details, learning at some point that Castellano was taken to a Long Island hospital with chest pains. His second was to hope and pray that Javier would be the last jockey of any kind to go down in this tumultuous year of 2013, but Meyocks kind of knew he might as well be spitting into the wind.

“We deal with it every single day,” Meyocks said. “We know it’s not a matter of if, but when a jockey will get hurt. It’s our goal to minimize the severity of injuries as much as possible.”

To that end, Meyocks and regional manager Jeff Johnston were representing the Jockeys’ Guild at the Jacksonville conference presented by the American Society for Testing and Materials International and the European Structural Integrity Society. That’s a lot of typing, but you get the idea. Basically, they put protective gear through hell.

“We’re trying to find out what works and what doesn’t in the way of safety vests, helmets, safety reins,” Meyocks said. “Everything that has to do with protecting the riders.”

To review, Rajiv Maragh, Groupie Doll’s regular companion, began 2013 grounded by a fractured vertebrae sustained at Aqueduct on New Year’s Eve. Ramon Dominguez went down at Aqueduct on Jan. 18, suffering head injures that led to his retirement. On April 7, also at Aqueduct, John Velazquez fractured a rib and broke a bone in his wrist. On Aug. 23, Joel Rosario broke his foot in a fall on the Saratoga turf course. On Oct. 23, barely two months after he joined the Hall of Fame, Calvin Borel broke his leg at Keeneland. Then on Nov. 2 it was Velazquez again, kicked after falling from the fatally injured Secret Compass in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita and hospitalized with internal bleeding. His spleen was removed.

These are the riders everyone knows. But there are fans of their local racing all across the land who follow Matt Garcia, Junior Alvarado, Ronnie Allen, Joy Scott, Rohan Singh, Robert Cummings, Andria Terril, Macario Rodriguez, Malcolm Franklin, Pedro Terrero, Navin Mangalee, Luis Torres, and Quincy Welch. All of them were hurt in action in 2013, along with many more in the Guild’s membership of around 800 active riders.

“Last year and the year before, we’ve been averaging 18 to 19 percent of the jocks who were out at one time or another on temporary disability,” Meyocks said.

About every other sentence from Meyocks, a former racetrack executive, contains a reference to “working together.” There have been conflicts over television rights, sponsorships, racetrack safety, and insurance that soured relationships between jockeys and other industry groups, while the Guild suffered a self-inflicted wound with a management scandal that temporarily crippled its mission. Thankfully, there are signs the adversarial atmosphere is beginning to clear.

In recent years, the Jockey Club and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association have stepped up as reasonable arbiters and industry-wide advocates for the issues of concern to riders. The Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund does yeoman’s work in helping to support riders in need who have suffered career-ending damage, while the National Safety Alliance holds racetracks to certain standards of safety and maintenance. As Meyocks notes, such efforts help everyone in the industry.

“Everybody needs to buy into the idea that you can’t put a price on safety, for both horses and riders,” Meyocks said. “I think we’re making some real progress in working together.”

Awards don’t mend broken bones or feed families while the provider is healing from surgery or wrapped in plaster. But they do serve to spotlight work well done in a necessary cause and inspire others to do likewise. After this chilling season, when so many of the men and women riding Thoroughbreds made national headlines after being injured on the job, it would be fitting if the committee in charge of such things would decide that the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund should receive the Eclipse Award of Merit, and that Ramon Dominguez and Gary Stevens should be co-recipients of Special Eclipse Awards for what they represent as high-profile survivors of an unforgiving profession.

As for Javier Castellano, in the 42-year era of the Eclipse Awards there have been only three riders to lead North America in both wins and purse money the same season: Laffit Pincay in 1971, Steve Cauthen in 1977, and Chris McCarron in 1980. This is very tall cotton, and Castellano should enjoy the view. With six weeks left in the 2013 season, he is clearly ahead in both categories, which means he should cruise to his first Eclipse Award, at age 36.

Anyway, after taking a day off Thursday to deal with a few aches and pains, Castellano was back to work at Aqueduct on Friday. There was no fanfare, no fuss, just riders up. Because this is what they do.