When I first started in this business, I wrote a column about how some fans heckle and verbally abuse jockeys after a losing race. I’m sure it’s probably the worst in New York or Philly (surprise, surprise, huh?), but there were some instances at Santa Anita that surprised me. I’ve heard retired riders like Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron bark back at hecklers on the way back to the jocks’ room, but most times the riders will just quietly walk away.
Racing’s most recent tragedy, the terrible spill involving veteran jockey Rene Douglas at the top of the stretch in last Saturday’s Matron Stakes at Arlington Park near Chicago, left Douglas with broken bones in his neck and damage to his spine that could render the 42-year-old rider paralyzed for the rest of his life. He currently has no feeling in his feet or his legs, but reports are that that does not necessarily mean he will remain paralyzed. Doctors won’t know for days until swelling goes down.
What this accident does is again point out how jockeys put their lives and good health on the line each and every time they ride in a race. Yes, they are paid well in many instances to perform their duties, but that doesn’t give us the racing public the right to just lay into these guys because we didn’t think they made the right riding decision during the course of a race.
I’ve heard people say their horse would have won if “Stevens had done this, or Bailey had done that!” but the fact of the matter is, these professional riders have to make split-second decisions on animals that weigh between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds and in many cases they have to make the decisions while in very tight quarters. Some times the decisions pan out, many times they don’t. But I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t want their job for all the money in the world. I admire the work they do, their strength in steering these powerful horses in one way or another. It’s a dangerous job, and oftentimes they take abuse that is not deserved.
When Rene Douglas rode in the Southland many years back, I’m sure I made some losing bets on him. But you know what? He was trying as hard to win on those horses as I was rooting for him to succeed. If he made a bad decision, oh well. He’s human, folks. And there’s no way most of us would have made a better decision or done half as well given the opportunity.
These athletes are well-conditioned, much more so than some of their baseball and football counterparts. They have to be. They don’t have the luxury of carrying around extra baggage like C C Sabathia, Bartolo Colon and many NFL linemen who are not nearly in the shape these riders are.
I admire their work and I’m glad I’m a fan of a sport that allows me the pleasure of watching them in action four or five days a week. It’s too bad it takes a tragic accident like the one Douglas was involved in to make us realize just how truly dangerous their job is.
Say a prayer for Rene Douglas tonight before you go to bed. Hopefully, he’ll walk again and give us all another example of just how courageous these jockeys are.
Here’s a link to a story on the Daily Racing Form’s Web site, detailing the updated condition of Douglas: