Thursday, January 24, 2013


Danger Is Their Co-Pilot


HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA, January 22, 2013—It can happen just like that, an accident on the race track that can leave a jockey permanently disabled, or worse. Race riders are’ after all, the only professional athletes that have an ambulance trailing them on the field of play. Serious danger is the reality that the practitioners never speak about.

What happened to Ramon Dominguez last weekend was an accident in the true sense of the term, his mount clipping the heels of the horse he was trailing, unseating Dominguez and throwing him down heavily.

Of course, the fact that thousand-pound beasts racing 40 miles per hour in the closest quarters imaginable is at once a testament to seamless skill and an accident waiting to happen.

It’s the love of the horse that first draws these men and women to the competition. Then it becomes about the adrenaline rush, the thrill of victory, fame and fortune and, at the end, always bringing you and your horse home safely.

Dominguez is a man’s man, not only for what he does athletically but because his family comes first. There were all those years in Maryland when his talent screamed New York but his soul remained free. Dad and mom didn’t want to pull their children out of school, choosing family life over a brass ring.

Of course, fame and fortune has come. Tireless, caring, and as quiet on a horse as you can be with great touch and timing, he stands at the very top of his professional, as a third Eclipse Award as America’s top rider can attest.

Last year Dominguez also earned the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award at Santa Anita Park for “demonstrating high standards of personal and professional conduct, on and off the racetrack.” He is, as is said, the complete package.

But now he has been moved to New York-Presbyterian Hospital with a displaced skull fracture, a result of being unlucky on the job. The reports say that he has been showing improvement, a little each day. What that means in this scenario one can only guess.

To say that I admire the courage and skill of jockeys who perform their athletic feats without benefit of the occasional time out is to understate the case. Even if I weren’t 150 pounds over, you couldn’t pay me enough to do what they do. Ramon Dominguez is a man who must truly love his work, otherwise he wouldn’t accept as many mounts as he does.

As an owner for a short time, I experienced what everyone says about him, that he’s classy, accommodating and doesn’t like to disappoint his customers, of whom Dominguez has more than his share, riding for outfits big and small alike.

To his credit, Dominguez has remained a home body. Even after moving family and tack to New York, he doesn’t leave home except for the stakes mount that takes him to Anytrack, USA. So he puts up with the New York winters, rides six, seven or more horses a day. And he doesn’t just win; he dominates.

Dominguez will be 37 in November, Given his lifestyle; he could easily ride at the highest level for another decade or longer. Mike Smith, single and living in Southern California, is still going strong and will celebrate his 48th birthday in August. Bill Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby at 54.

But while Dominguez has won his share of Derby preps, America’s Race has eluded him. While, like Shoemaker, he may be only a phone call away, he hasn’t yet found many serious Derby prospects in South Ozone Park, and that will be especially true these days now that the safety of Aqueduct’s winter track has come into question.

The “inner track” could be considered one of racing’s first synthetic surfaces, a special blend of sand and freeze-retardant chemicals. However, last year’s alarming number of breakdowns resulted in state intervention, but it was determined that is was overly aggressive horse placement in races with disproportionately large purses, not the surface.

While nowhere near the number of catastrophic injuries as last year, there has been a spate of breakdowns recently, and over-racing is no longer considered the major culprit. In fact, a recent study indicates the opposite is true, that the number of starters is down.

Since the first of the year, in fact, Aqueduct has had the fewest number of starters per race in the Northeast, an unacceptable 6.98 runners per race compared to more than nine at Penn National and eight at Charles Town and Parx.

Like Aqueduct, purses at these tracks are fueled by mandated shares of casino revenue. And despite the disparity in number of starters between New York and Pennsylvania, New York’s purses are more than double those at Penn National.

Like people, racetrack surfaces grow old and tired. The winter track has been in existence for more than three decades and has withstood long, hard winters admirably.

But the constant adding of chemicals, known by horsemen to be very abrasive to a horse's lower extremities, especially when dirt wedges beneath bandages meant to protect and support. The inner dirt surface has become a painful irritant.

If Aqueduct Race Track has any future in the current political and economic climate, time has come to bite the bullet and invest in a synthetic surface, notably Tapeta, which has a reputation for translating form better to dirt tracks more than any other synthetic blend. Horseplayers appreciate that.

As a handicapper who takes betting the races seriously, I abhor synthetic tracks. Racing on it is not what most gamblers, trainers, breeders and jockeys want, but the time might have come for New York; winter time.

(I wager with a small degree of confidence on Tapeta at Presque Isle Downs and at Betfair Hollywood Park with its Cushion Track surface, the closest of any of the synthetics to dirt racing. However, I generally avoid top tracks such as Arlington, Woodbine, and even the mighty Keeneland, where my play is limited mostly to turf racing. I am not alone in this).

As for winter racing in New York, synthetic tracks--as opposed to chemically altered dirt--might be the only alternative to curtailing the winter season significantly or eliminating it entirely. And it serves the health interests of both horses and riders.

According to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, horses racing on synthetic surfaces are nearly 28 percent less likely to break down than horses racing on dirt.

And the current inner track, be it the chemicals or atmospherics, is greasy, the ground cupping out beneath the hooves while racing. Having difficulty gaining traction often results in that “bad step” that leads to injury, and worse.

Considering the data produced by more than three-quarters of a million starters, consideration must be given to synthetics for the winter track. Further, the surface allows for safer training in inclement weather. The only isue is that synthetics must be maintained diligently to insure uniformity.

Unlike what happened to Dominguez, not all spills are accidental. Most are the result of injuries, fatal or otherwise. The Deity has been sending Dominguez signs in the past year; a neck injury, followed by a foot injury, now a displaced skull fracture, the result of getting struck in the head by a trailing horse.

According to the most recent Jockeys Guild data, there are 1,700 riders in North America, of which 1,200 are active. Every year on average, two will die as a result of what happens between the fences and two more will become permanently disabled. Over 2,500 injuries are reported each year, making the chances of accidental injury odds-on.

So maybe it’s time for Dominguez and his agent, Steve Rushing, to lower the quantity and up the quality and commute weekly like the movie stars do, making dark day trips between JFK and FLL. Chances are better he’ll find his Derby colt at the good-horse meet in South Florida. But first he needs to recover fully. Godspeed, Ramon.

Written by John Pricci

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