11/15/2013 3:12PM

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

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.

Brenda Benavidez More than 1 year ago
If you think jockeys don't deserve it because they make "millions" or you think they make enough money, then you should watch this video by former jockey Frankie Lovato. I recommend it. Pay attention to every word he says. Name of the video on YouTube: Racing Term #168 "Jockey Fee" of Frankie Lovato's 365 Days of Terminology
Bill Kaup More than 1 year ago
It really amazes me what jockeys experience on a daily basis. I cannot think of any other occupation - save those of soldiers, policemen and firemen - who risk their lives constantly. After watching countless falls in more than 45 years of going to the races it is mind numbing how they get up most of the time and get right back on a horse in the next race. The falls look horrific and assuredly are as bad or worse than they appear. It's a testimony to their athleticism and levels of fitness that they are able to persevere in spite of the injuries. Most people would wind up in the hospital for awhile if they were involved in these spills. This is why I will always try to bite my tongue before criticizing a jockey for what I perceive is a bad ride. Walk a mile in their shoes, or better yet, ride a mile in their stirrups!
tdfull More than 1 year ago
Just a quick comment about my generation--before the Eclipse awards. Shoemaker won both titles four times. Thomas
Chris McCarron More than 1 year ago
Outstanding piece of journalism describing the trials and tribulations jockeys experience on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and career basis. Well done Jay!!!
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Thanks Jay for this great story about these amazing men and women who work in a dangerous profession, grant you some jocks were left off your story but if you did name them all we would still be reading this story. Once again write up about the people that make up the Sport Of Kings.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just to put into perspective how dangerous it is to be a jockey consider the following. I don't know how many of us who enjoy this great sport of horse racing realize that every time the gates open the jockeys are followed around the track by an ambulance. Most railbirds know this because they are at the track but the majority of the betting public and probably the entire general public is totally unaware. I was unaware for many years as I placed my wagers at an OTB parlor. The only other EMT's I'm aware of who follow someone during their workday are those in the presidential motorcade. I tip my hat to these extraordinary athletes who literally put their lives on the line every time they exercise a horse in the morning, load in the gate and more than ever when you hear the announcer say "They're Off".
Charley More than 1 year ago
Fans, owners and trainers please give to the Jockey's Disabled Fund.
Mark More than 1 year ago
Bettors and horse owners lose millions and millions of dollars every year on horse racing and that money gets TRANSFERRED TO the trainers, jockeys, race tracks and state/federal governments. In my opinion, the jockeys who ride at the major tracks with huge purses should be giving to the Jockey's Disabled Fund to help the riders who ride at smaller tracks with tiny purses. The fans and owners are already getting fleeced at the track and asking them to give even more doesn't really make any sense as those who make money off the industry should be the ones giving to the jockey's disabled fund and also to Thoroughbred Retirement Foundations.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
I am sorry Charley, I disagree with you. Jockeys should pay for fund and insurance from there earnings. Like every other job I have disability insurance, life insurance and health insurance and I pay for it. You make it mandatory for all riders base on purses earnings the bigger the purse more the take out is. Most owners Charlie are having a hard time paying there bills, everybody does not have G1 winner paying there whole barn bills. There is a reason why there are more Claiming races then Stakes. Most Fans are losing money betting on horses, I for one am having tough year, last year good this year bad. If they start making us pay they will start increasing the takeout, and then a percentage of fans will start moving strictly to sports I could be one of those. Racing does not need that. Sounds cruels,, but you cant donate to everything, people have there own priorities and other interest outside of this great sport.
Walter More than 1 year ago
David Ramirez More than 1 year ago
Raise the maximum weight limit to 122lbs for all jockeys. That would help keep them safe by being much healthier.
Jon More than 1 year ago
I have been saying that for years. We have PETA who do advocate the wellbeing of animals, but, nothing of that sort for the jockeys. What most of the jocks have to undergo just to make the weights is basically cruel.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
Why doesn't drf get into why so many horses break down during a race and cause these injuries or why egregious race riding only gets minor suspensions and small fines..if we condone race day medications that allow horses to race that should be off the track then we accept that some of these races are going to end in tragedy. Its hypocrisy to defend race day medication and pretend that it has nothing to do with he breakdowns that cause injuries to jockeys and horses.it would also help if dangerous riding was punished with more that a few days and miniscule fines.
John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
Excellent comment Ray. As a former owner, I witnessed first hand the struggle with weight,careless jockeys, and unsound horses. Strict enforcement of the rules, and more scrutiny on the health of the horse. A little Bute, and taped ankles, do not make the horse healthy and race day ready. You are looking at a complete overhaul, that I suspect may never happen.
Warren Eves More than 1 year ago
Because they are not going to bite the hand that feeds them. The DRF is a trade publication and in recent years has elected to dodge major stories such as the Baffert 7 sudden death issue. The other issue involves the lame organization known as the CHRB and it's weakly written mandates which they have not enforced for eons. There are only a few turf writers left that will address some hard core issues, especially on the west coast, and they are located a far cry from the west coast.
M More than 1 year ago
nice idea. like to see more on the lower body and back protections options, gear designed to help in falls and when getting stepped on. athletes like football and hockey still move and bend like crazy with knee, thigh, and hip pads. helmets could get face masks that don't obscure vision, but mud is the issue there. helmet could be more comprehensive all around. hard to say for back protection unless you have very flexible kevlar vests or something. of course, then you HAVE to let them weigh without some basic safety equipment (weight less standard helmet, vest , legs pads) other wise no one will wear it if it means cutting another 5-10 lbs.