06/01/2011 3:31PM

Sometimes, lightning actually strikes


At 2:30 last Sunday afternoon in Arlington Heights, after an hour-long delay while a ferocious storm front assaulted the area with lightning, wind, and rain, seven riders went postward for the second race at Arlington Park. They made it around and then, on their way back to the room, the Arlington paddock lit up with another flash of lightning.

The next thing the holiday crowd learned was that the rest of the afternoon’s races had been canceled. Statements coming from track officials indicated that the cancellation was necessary because the jockeys refused to ride. There was a suggestion that the riders acted precipitously because the weather was supposed to get better.

Let’s not be concerned for now about the idea of predicting the weather and making plans accordingly. It can be done, especially in the very short run, and there are sophisticated meteorological resources available at the touch of an app on anyone’s iPhone these days.

Let’s also set aside for the moment the idea that the cancellation of a horse racing card needs a scapegoat. This is horse racing, not a SEAL Team 6 operation, and the loss of a few races should be no big deal in the larger scheme of things.

There also is the issue of jockeys being afraid to ride under some conditions, which is laughable, given the fact that riders can die in the blink of an eye on cloudless, picture-postcard days. Their job is about minimizing, not eliminating, the ridiculous risks of their profession.

Let us instead turn to the effects of lightning strikes on living creatures, be they human, equine, or arboreal. In brief, the lightning always wins. Depending on the thickness of the bolt, estimates of voltage begin in the tens of millions and soar into the hundreds. You’ve heard the old saying about how lightning never strikes the same place twice? There’s good reason for that. It doesn’t need to.

In December 1998, the 22-year-old Australian jockey Damion Beckett was killed when he and his mount, Brave Buck, were struck by lightning during a workout at Ascot Race Course, near Perth. Trainer Graeme Webster was an eyewitness.

“We had some really big claps of thunder before it, and the heavens opened up like tropical rain, then a flash of lightning came as if from nowhere,” Webster said. “I actually saw the lightning hit Brave Buck and he went down like a stone.”

There are recorded instances of lightning fatalities at racetracks going back as far as August 1907, when jockey Henry Baudus was killed by a lightning strike in Mineral Wells, Texas, as he entered the racing enclosure at the local fair grounds with two other riders. Baudus, identified in reports as “colored,” was believed to be 35.

But the story that still sends chills through more recent generations is that of Nicanor Navarro. In 1978, three days after Christmas, the 25-year-old Navarro, a winner of 57 races that season, had weighed out after the second race at Calder Race Course in Miami when he was hit by lightning. He was killed instantly.

“I went to work for Calder in March of 1979, and they were still shaken about it,” said Terry Meyocks, a former racetrack executive and now executive director of the Jockeys’ Guild. “He was standing in a little puddle of water, just talking to his trainer after the race, right there near the winner’s circle.”

There are not too many riders who make it to the end of a career without a lightning story. Jeff Johnston, now the Midwestern Jockeys’ Guild representative, won’t be forgetting his closest call.

“I was riding at Turfway,” Johnston said. “A bolt hit the sixteenth pole just as we were going past it. The ground lit up like nothing you could believe.”

Midwesterners are a brave bunch, though, and this year they have lived through some terrible weather trauma. From floods to tornados, nature has shown very little mercy, proving once again how small we are when the climate becomes the enemy. Sometimes the tendency, after surviving a few disasters, is to flout Ma Nature and roll the dice, which apparently is what Arlington’s jockeys were asked to do last Sunday, even though there were reports that the storms had passed.

“We thought we had demonstrated that the weather was going to improve, and it did,“ said Tony Petrillo, Arlington’s general manager. “We were unable to convince the jocks otherwise.

“We’ve had a subsequent meeting, and we feel now the jockeys have been informed of the measures we use to gauge the weather and make determinations,” Petrillo said. “They will have access to the same resources we do, and we’ll have individuals from management responsible for communicating that information to the rest of the room that may not understand it.”

Meyocks is glad to hear it.

“I do think it’s important we establish some kind of guidelines when it comes to severe weather issues, like lightning in the area,” Meyocks said. “The precautions should not be any different than what they do for golf tournaments, or soccer games, or when you let your kids go back into the pool after you’ve seen lightning.”

All Meyocks asks is that decisions, when they are made, be couched in terms that do not lay blame upon any single group of participants.

“If safety is the number one issue of the racetrack, then there is no reason you can’t tell the public that the races had to be canceled for reasons of safety, no matter how that decision was reached,” Meyocks said.

As for the particular conditions faced last Sunday at Arlington, Meyocks was adamant about one thing.

“Jockeys aren’t afraid to ride, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it for a living,” Meyocks said. “But I can tell you one thing for sure – one hundred percent of jockeys are afraid to ride in lightning.”