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Jockeys blame new synthetic track for Arlington Park injuries
By Mike Spellman | Daily Herald Staff

Rene Douglas, here handing a pair of racing goggles to young fans on the rail after another victory, was paralyzed after he fell during a race on May 23 at Arlington Park.

 

John Starks | Staff Photographer

Michael Straight was seriously injured on Aug. 26 when he fell during a race at Arlington Park. After surgery, he was later transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

 

Arlington Park President Roy Arnold, who sits on the board of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, contends the artificial racing surface is safe and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/5/2009 12:29 AM

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Even though it has been two months since the close of the racing season at Arlington Park, it's still the talk among some of the jockeys who ride there on a regular basis.

They're now frightened of the Polytrack synthetic surface track officials installed to replace the dirt course after the summer of 2006 when 22 horses broke down during racing.

That summer, intense pressure from several groups helped lead to a switch in surfaces, a move that cost the track an estimated $10 million to complete.

Seeing two of their brethren - Rene Douglas, a six-time leading rider at Arlington, and apprentice jockey Michael Straight - fall to the synthetic surface and wind up paralyzed this summer still has the Arlington Park jockey colony on edge, even though they won't return there to ride until the spring of 2010, and even though they once supported the new surface.

"Where is PETA for people?" said one of the three jockeys who spoke to the Daily Herald on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution for themselves or the trainers and owners who employ them. "This is way beyond bad luck."

But Arlington Park continues to defend the Polytrack, saying jockey injuries have a variety of causes.

After undergoing surgery and rehab in Chicago after falling to the track and having his mount land on top of him, Douglas is now living with his family in Florida. Straight is still rehabbing in the Chicago area and will eventually relocate to Florida as well.

"The mood among the jockeys is if you fall, your career is probably over," said one veteran jockey. "Ninety percent of us are nervous."

The jockeys say falling on the Polytrack is like "hitting cement." Unlike dirt, they contend, there is no "give" to the artificial surface. One compared it to the way a yard dart sticks.

"You can see on (video replays) how over 1,000 pounds of horse and a jockey going 40 mph come to a complete stop in a matter of a few feet on Poly," one jockey said. "It's not like dirt where you slide and flip to dissipate the force over a distance. The worst fear of a jockey used to be getting run over by another horse. Now, it's hitting the ground."

"Every time someone's going down they're basically breaking their neck, and no one's willing to change it," another added. "How many times does a plane have to crash?"

Arlington Park President Roy Arnold, who in his previous life was responsible for investigating catastrophic aviation mishaps in the Marine Corps, rejects those claims as "anecdotal gossip."

"Usually what you find out is that there are a combination of factors," said Arnold, who pointed out the rotation of a body during an accident is a key factor. "You've got to step back and identify all the risk factors."

As for the jockeys' assertion that hitting the synthetic surface is more dangerous than hitting the dirt surface?

"I'm not buying it," said Arnold, who is on the board of the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund. "There are 60 jockeys injured in PDJF - not one of them from (falling) on synthetic tracks."

It is expected that once the two-year waiting period to receive help from PDJF is over, that list will expand with Douglas and Straight in the ranks.

"I don't know what to say to them on that," Arnold said of the jocks' claim that there is a big difference between landing on dirt and synthetics. "There is no factual evidence.

"What's it like when you hit the ground at Hawthorne (on the dirt course in the winter), when the rider hits a solid frozen surface? I can't answer someone's anecdotal explanation."

The jockeys say they can.

"When the track (at Hawthorne) gets too dangerous," one said, "we cancel."

"I'd like to take the colonel (Arnold) and drop him off a horse at 35 mph," another said. "It's absolutely absurd that they tell us we don't hit the ground hard."

On the everyday danger of being a jockey, though, Arnold says there is no argument.

"There is a recognition of what they do is dangerous," he said. "The danger point hasn't changed before synthetic and since synthetic. We've had two tragedies. No one wanted to see that. Both because (horses) clipped heels.

"This is an emotional issue. It's about resistance to change."

Arnold says the focus of Arlington and the racing industry as a whole should be on keeping accidents to a minimum via better safety equipment, including new helmet and vest designs for jockeys, ensuring sounder horses are competing and keeping stringent guidelines on who is allowed to ride.

"In my view, every time I prevent a horse from breaking down, I prevent a potential catastrophic injury involving a jockey," Arnold said.

As for the safety of synthetic tracks, he points to a recently released study by the California Horse Racing Board that concluded fatal breakdowns have been reduced by 40 percent since the state mandated tracks switch from dirt to synthetic three years ago.

"It is what it is, which is a pretty dramatic falloff, contrary to what some trainers think," said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California racing board, in a recent New York Times report. "When racehorses are at their best, I am absolutely convinced that they are safer on the synthetics then they are on the dirt."

But that doesn't appease the many horsemen - including some prominent trainers in Southern California - who have been complaining about synthetics since the day they were installed, specifically because of an increase in soft-tissue and hind-end injuries to horses thought to be caused by the surface.

It has reached the point in California where the racing board has hinted that if tracks there want to switch back to dirt, it won't stand in their way. Though the cost might.

"I feel clearly I was sold a bill of goods," former board Chairman Richard Shapiro told the Los Angeles Times. "In 20-20 hindsight, if it was today, I wouldn't have pushed toward the mandate. Am I disappointed? Absolutely."

Since Polytrack's installation at Arlington, fatal injuries for horses have remained in the average range, according to Daily Racing Form numbers. In 2007, there were 14 racing fatalities, two of those on turf, and three during training besides the 14. In 2008, there were 15 racing fatalities, four of those on turf, and seven in training. This year there were 12 racing and four training fatalities.

"I believe the track is safe," trainer Tony Mitchell told espn.com near the end of the Arlington meet. "But I've had a couple of (exercise) riders come off and the concussion just hits you. People are sustaining serious injuries and I couldn't blame a rider for riding a little more cautiously."

Terry Meyocks, president of the Jockeys Guild, says the Guild doesn't have a stance ­- pro or con - on synthetic surfaces.

"We've got to keep monitoring it," said Meyocks, who noted that three jockeys have died during racing over the last 15 months, none on synthetic surfaces. "We are going to be talking to tracks about a database on riders' injuries. It would be nice to get an idea on the impact of (different) surfaces.

"We need to look into everything."

Arnold welcomes that approach.

"We believe we're headed in the right direction and the statistics will show that in time," he said. "We have never said synthetics would be the silver bullet. We've said it was one step, among many, to move the sport forward."

Locally based jockeys applaud Arnold's effort in trying to prevent breakdowns, but wonder what happens to them when one eventually does occur.

"This is the first time since I've been riding that the trainers are actually worried for our safety," one said. "We're not afraid to ride. We're afraid to fall."

But they're not afraid to admit when the new synthetic surface was installed at Arlington before the 2007 meet, they were all for it.

"I was a fan of it the first year when we rode on it when it was brand new," one jockey said.

"It's true that some trainers thought they could run sore horses on Poly because it was thought to be a cure-all," another added. "Now, most of them don't want to come back.

"But for some of them - like me - this is home and we do love racing at Arlington. I just think they made an expensive mistake - but had good intentions."

So what is the answer then?

According to the jockeys, it's switching back from a synthetic surface to a dirt track.

"I think they tried to do something to better the sport but it didn't work," one said. "Everybody makes a mistake."