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Concerned with safety, jockeys delay racing at Arlington
By Mike Spellman | Daily Herald Staff

Gio Ponti, with Ramon A. Dominguez riding, took the 27th Arlington Million this year.

 

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Published: 8/27/2009 1:44 PM | Updated: 8/27/2009 8:19 PM

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Horse fatalities at Arlington Park

Here are the number of horse fatalities at Arlington's main track and turf course since 2001:

2009 - 14*

2008 - 15

2007 - 15

2006 - 22

2005 - 12

2004 - 11

2003 - 27

2002 - 12

2001 - 16

* Total through Aug. 26

Source: Illinois Racing Board

When officials at Arlington Park spent $10 million to install a Polytrack synthetic racing surface to replace the dirt course in 2007, it was hailed as a safer way to conduct thoroughbred racing.

That may be proving true for the horses, but some jockeys at Arlington Park, after watching apprentice jockey Michael Straight suffer a major spinal injury during a spill Wednesday, fear for their safety.

Falling on the track is akin to "hitting a brick wall," contend those jockeys.

Those fears prompted a meeting Thursday morning with Arlington officials and horsemen that delayed the start of Thursday's racing card.

"Every jock but one or two is scared to death that if they fall off, the track is unsafe," said an unnamed source who attended the private meeting in the jockeys' dressing room.

Officials at Arlington Park declined to comment on the meeting, but racing resumed after a half-hour delay with only a few jockeys opting not to race.

Straight was taken to Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge after the spill in Wednesday's final race. A statement released by his twin brother through Arlington Park said he was in stable condition and was scheduled to undergo surgery Thursday afternoon. Bloodhorse.com reported the surgery was to repair four fractured vertebrae.

Friends and fans have posted a Michael Straight "Get Well Card" at Facebook.com.

In May, rider Rene Douglas, one of the winningest jockeys in Arlington Park's history, was paralyzed after a fall on the track.

Although sources said all sides spoke freely at Thursday's meeting, which was attended by Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois, it was described as a respectful exchange.

"It was a great meeting," said trainer Frank Kirby, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Everything's going to be all right. The Polytrack is a learning experience.

"They're concerned," Kirby said of the jockeys, and some trainers also have voiced concerns over safety issues, he said.

Two months ago, the track's Web site featured a story about new equipment used to care for its artificial surface.

"I haven't heard any criticism at all," the article quoted Tony Petrillo, Arlington's vice president of facilities and operations, as saying. "So far, everyone seems to like it. (Trainer) Christine Janks told me that whatever we were doing to the track, keep doing it, and Chris Block said his horses were running truer to form, and that their times were more like what he was looking for."

The Polytrack surface was installed to replace the main track's dirt surface after a disastrous 2006 season in which 22 horses were euthanized after on-track falls.