Skip to main content

Horse Racing Has No Concussion Protocol. California Wants To Create One.

Cover image for podcast episode

Head injuries are common among jockeys. But unlike other sports horse racing has no plan to treat or prevent them.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Professional horse racing comes with huge risks. Dozens of horses have died in California this year. Drawing scrutiny from lawmakers in San Diego. A fourth horse died at the del Mar racetrack this week during training, but these incidents also cause injuries to riders, Capitol, Public Radio, Scott Rod reports, how California might become one of the first states with a concussion protocol for jockeys.

Speaker 2: 00:26 Huh?

Speaker 3: 00:29 The mid morning fog blankets, golden gate fields in Berkeley as the bugle player adds a little flair to the day's first call.

Speaker 2: 00:38 [inaudible]

Speaker 3: 00:38 inside the jockeys lounge before the first race, Frank Alvarado sits at a diner counter with the towel cinched around his waist.

Speaker 4: 00:45 I'd be writing for 37 years. The only thing I can do, just [inaudible]

Speaker 3: 00:52 Alvarado's frame is all seen you in muscle, not an ounce of fat to spare. Riding for that long means he's had his share of head injury

Speaker 4: 01:00 two times. I don't remember anything. Not really. I remember when I wake up in the hospital, what am I doing here? And they say, Oh, you fell. I said, oh wow.

Speaker 3: 01:10 Horseracing has grappled with the issue of concussions for years, but unlike other pro sports, it doesn't have a standard protocol for handling them. Now the California horse racing board wants to create one jockeys. Trainers and horse owners have opposed similar proposals in the past since it would pull riders off the track, but as the longterm consequences of concussions become clear, the protocol has gained support. This is one of those dangers of all professional sports if not the most changes. Dr. David Seftel is the trek physician at golden gate fields. He's seen numerous head injuries in the examination room below the grand stands.

Speaker 5: 01:46 We have been working for quite a long time to try and bring into effect concussion protocols that will help to protect our jockey community at the same time as preserved their capacity to work

Speaker 6: 02:00 outside on the track handlers. Corella field have six horses at the starting line

Speaker 2: 02:08 [inaudible]

Speaker 6: 02:08 they burst from the gate and fall into place around the first turn. Thoroughbreds like these weigh over a thousand pounds and can gallop it more than 40 miles per hour at those speeds. The slightest mistake can turn a 115 pound jockey into a human missile careening head first towards the track or other riders. California's concussion protocol would require jockeys to get a doctor's clearance to return after such a fall. Writers would also need to complete a baseline assessment every year

Speaker 3: 02:38 together around Jockey Flavian Prat after the race, he took home the prize at the sport's biggest event in May. You know, the one with the big hats in Missoula.

Speaker 5: 02:47 Hey Guy with the Kentucky Derby

Speaker 3: 02:51 pret says, jockeys understand the dangers of a head injury, but their drive to compete often affects their decision making.

Speaker 5: 02:57 You know, everybody tried to write as much you can and uh, especially if you have a good ride, you know, next. But I think we need people around us, you know, who can say, yes, you can, or no, we can not.

Speaker 3: 03:08 I hear this from several other writers. They know the risks, but they still try to race with concussion symptoms. Top jockeys, like Pratt often feel pressure from horse owners and trainers, but it's even worse for average writers. A survey from the jockeys guild found professional writers earn on average $29,000 per year for them. Missing a few races could mean losing their livelihood. Again, here's golden gate fields physician, Dr Seftel.

Speaker 5: 03:34 This is the most pay for performance related sport. If a jockey doesn't play, they don't get paid. The result is that there's an intense pressure for drug use to get back to work. Whether or not this is necessarily in their best medical interests,

Speaker 3: 03:48 he says the protocol would be a good start, but it needs to be strengthened. Here's one issue. This system would allow jockeys to get clearance from any physician trained in concussion management, which opens the possibility of doctor shopping to return sooner. That means jockeys may still find ways around the system, whether they're racing for a big purse to simply pay the bills or for pure love of the sport.

Speaker 1: 04:11 Joining me is capital public radio, Scott, rod and Scott, welcome. Thanks for having me on. Now, there was a death of a horse just yesterday at del Mar. During training. We do seem to hear more about these terrible accidents involving horses and not as much about the injuries to jockeys, about how frequent are injuries to riders.

Speaker 3: 04:31 You know, injuries are fairly frequent. And uh, if there's an accident involving a horse during a race, it is a very good chance that a, a jockey will suffer an injury. And you know, if you just think about the numbers, a jockey typically weighs between 115 pounds. They're hung the back of a very large animal over a thousand pounds and they're traveling at over 40 miles per hour. So, you know, all of those things combined means that if there's an accident is a pretty good chance that the jockey will suffer an injury. And often that means a head injury based on the positioning that they're in during the race. Leaning forward.

Speaker 1: 05:09 What happens now when a jockey has a bad fall and a possible concussion?

Speaker 3: 05:14 Pretty much all tracks have medical staff on hand, so that if there is an injury, uh, jockey will get treatment and advice from a physician. But as far as returning to ride, that's ultimately up to the jockeys at this point. Pretty much. Um, they can make the final call and if they've suffered a head injury, there's a good chance that they're not really of sound mind to be making that decision. Um, so as of right now, there's not much holding a Jackie back, uh, in terms of getting back onto the horse again.

Speaker 1: 05:44 Now you spoke with jockeys who say concussion protocols are really needed, but apparently some jockeys are against the idea.

Speaker 3: 05:53 That's right. You know, some jockeys feel as though this is, um, an important step forward for the sport. They feel as though that they do need someone who will say to them, look, it would be best if you sat on the sidelines for a race or two. Um, just to be safe. But there are a number of jockeys who also feel, um, strongly that they're in the best position to determine whether or not they should come back to race. Um, partly this comes down to if they have a big race coming up and they don't want to miss it. Uh, but also there's an economic side of it too. A lot of jockeys earn, uh, on average they earn about $30,000 per year. That's according to a recent study. So missing just a couple of races means that they, um, could miss out on an important paycheck to just make ends meet. Um, at the same time, some jockeys are kind of conflicted. They believe that they should have some say over when they come back, but they're starting to recognize just how severe significant, uh, head injuries can be, especially in the longterm.

Speaker 1: 06:51 Now you say after the protocols are finalized by the California horse racing board, they will have to go through a month's long approval process. Who needs to approve them. So it goes to the [inaudible]

Speaker 3: 07:02 standard, a regulatory process for California. So once they're finalized by the board, um, it goes to the, um, office of administrative law and it's a month long process, months long process because, uh, the public has an opportunity to weigh in and comment. Um, the office of Administrative Law. They review the regulation, make sure everything looks okay with it. So a lot of it's just sort of the process that it has to go through to get on the books. But there is an opportunity for the comment if for the public and the industry to weigh in to make sure that its the best step forward.

Speaker 1: 07:34 No, you know, it seems like the whole sport of horse racing is going through a re-evaluation. There are some animal activists who would like to see the end of it. Attendance has been down in recent years. How has the sport trying to save itself?

Speaker 3: 07:48 I, I think they're taking several steps to do this. I, you know, I, I've spoken to the head of the California horse racing board and they're not ignorant of the criticisms that they're facing. Uh, this year a big focus has been on the deaths of horses at tracks around the state, specifically Santa Anita Park in southern California. And they've made changes to, um, what sort of medications, uh, horses can have before the race. They're monitoring exercising more closely, um, in years past. They've also, um, reevaluate it and change rules about whips or crop use during, during the race. Um, and I think this concussion protocol is an additional step forward. So not only improving, um, the, uh, safety and you can say humane treatment of horses during and after the races, but also for jockeys. Um, I think recognizing that, you know, this is an extremely dangerous sport and these jockeys are risking a lot. And considering what we know now about the longterm consequences of concussions, I think the horse racing board is coming to terms with the fact that they need to reevaluate how they treat jockey safety. Um, and I think they see this as an effort to make the sport more palatable for a general audience showing that they take care and concern about the participants in the sport. I've been speaking with capital public radio, Scott, Rod, and Scott. Thank you. Thank you.

Speaker 2: 09:21 [inaudible].

KPBS Midday Edition Segments podcast branding

KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.