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Dangerous Game: Jockeys Risk Broken Bones, But Keep Coming Back

More than 150 jockeys have died in racing accidents since 1940

By Cathy Rainone
|  Thursday, May 1, 2014  |  Updated 3:16 PM EDT
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Union Rags, ridden by John Velazquez, narrowly beats Paynter, ridden by Mike Smith, during the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 2012.

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John Velazquez knew he was in trouble when his mount took a bad step during a Breeders' Cup race. The horse, Secret Compass, broke her leg, throwing Velazquez to the ground, where another horse ran over him.

“I ended up with an injured spleen, kidneys and pancreas,” Velazquez said. “I was in horrific pain in the hospital for eight days and then seven days hanging around the hotel. I couldn’t travel because of a drain in my pancreas.”

It's been nearly six months since that spill, which happened at the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juveniles Fillies on Nov. 2, 2013. But it didn't keep the 42-year-old Hall of Famer off the tracks for long. Three months after the accident, he competed in the $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida, and on Saturday, he will race in the Kentucky Derby atop Intense Holiday.

While millions watch the Derby on television, cheering on the country's top 3-year-old horses, the jockeys will be risking their lives.

Jockeys may have the most hazardous job of any professional athlete. One misstep in the crowded race can send a jockey, and perhaps his horse, tumbling to the ground, where he can be crushed by his own horse or another animal running behind.

Catastrophic on-track injuries or even death can happen at any race, big or small. Velasquez’s injury at the Breeders' Cup was his third in 18 months, and he's suffered many injuries in his 24-year career.

There is no official database of jockey injuries and fatalities, but according to a study published in the The Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine in 2013, a total of 152 jockeys died as a result of both flat and jump racing or training incidents in the U.S. between 1940 and 2012.

Even more jockeys are permanently crippled while racing. Most recently, Anne Von Rosen was pulling up her mount after a March 11 race at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz., when the horse stumbled, tossed her, and then fell over her. Von Rosen was paralyzed from the waist down and has undergone several surgeries.

About 60 riders who suffered brain or spinal-cord injuries receive financial support from the industry's Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.

Gary Birzer, 38, is one of them.

He was paralyzed when his mount went down in a race at Mountaineer Race Track in Chester, W.Va. in July 2004.

“I don’t recall too much about that day,” Birzer said. “I mean, it’s a big blur to me. All I know is that the horse’s leg broke.”

He didn't learn until after the spill that the Jockeys' Guild, the union that represents jockeys, had allowed a $1 million accident policy to lapse in 2002. He sued the Guild and its former chief executive, which led to a major shake-up in the organization.

But despite the devastating injury, Birzer said he doesn’t regret getting into the profession.

“I miss horse racing,” he said. “It’s in your blood all the time. For the first two years [after the accident] I didn’t miss it at all. But as time went by you start looking things up on it and seeing how everything is going.”

Many jockeys view injuries as an inherent part of their job.

Randy Meier, 59, was a leading jockey in the Chicago area who won more than 4,000 races before a traumatic brain injury forced him to retire.

Over the course of his 38-year-career, Meier broke 56 bones in his body. He once broke both of his legs, he had a total of 10 broken vertebrates, he needed a rod surgically installed in his upper leg after breaking it, and he had screws and plates surgically installed in his neck when he broke it the first time.

The second time Meier broke his neck, at age 55, he also suffered a brain injury that left him unable to speak clearly. His short-term memory was affected, and he couldn’t remember his kids. He spent five and half months at a rehab center for speech therapy, all along thinking he would be back racing soon.

“Every time I ever got hurt in those years there was a drive in me that wanted back,” Meier said. “I would sit and watch horses that would win and think it should’ve been me riding. I would work at therapy quicker and harder to get there.”

The last injury was different. His doctor said he couldn’t afford another blow to the head and Meier finally realized there’s no going back.

“I knew it was a dangerous sport,” Meier said. “I watched a young rider die at Sportsman’s Park. I watched my friends get paralyzed. It’s part of the game. Part of the game that we don’t like. It’s the risk we take, but it’s the love of the horse. I love the competition.”

Jockey’s Guild, which represents the majority of the roughly 900 riders racing today, is working on trying to improve safety on the racetrack to help minimize the injuries.

Jeff Johnston, the Guild’s regional manager, said that last year the organization started a database to document jockey injuries and conditions in which they occur, and it's working to get racetracks across the country to report the injuries. (There already exists a national database of equine injuries and fatalities. In March 2014, The Jockey Club released the fatality statistics collected from the Equine Injury Database for the five-year period from 2009 to 2013.)

The Guild eventually plans to use the database to spot trends and better understand what changes need to be made on the track as well as to the safety equipment jockeys wear, like vests and helmets.

The Guild is also spearheading efforts to set across-the-board minimum standards for on-track emergency medical care.

“We’re trying to get tracks to understand that it’s critical to have at least two paramedics during racing,” Johnston said. “Some tracks have a team of EMTs but they have a fraction of the training that paramedics get. We need someone who’s trained in traumatic injuries. Not all racetracks have that now.”

For most jockeys, the risk of serious injury is a fact of life but not something they think about -- if they did dwell on it, they wouldn't be able to do their job.

“If I start thinking about the risks every time I get on the horse,” Velazquez said, "I better retire."

Kyli Singh contributed to this story.

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