Chilling Spills - By Dan Liebman

The top three headlines in the news section of the morning of Oct. 19:

  • Kaenel Retires From Race Riding
  • Jockey Escobar Out 4-6 Weeks
  • Albarado Off Oct. 18 Mounts at Keeneland

Sadly, word was then received that at Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw, Okla., rider Mark Pace was killed Oct. 18 when he was thrown from his mount, Reep What You Sow, after she hit the rail.

Mark Pace was 58 years old and had just arrived at the racetrack from a farm in Texas. He picked up the mount on the maiden claimer after jockey Mike Bishop was injured the day before and took off his mounts. It was only Pace’s second mount in 2009. He was said to have previously ridden more than 10 years ago, but Equibase shows no wins at recognized tracks for Pace.

By contrast, Kyle Kaenel is only 21 but has been banged up enough already to call it quits. His riding career lasted five years.

Kaenel, son of former rider Cowboy Jack Kaenel—who was the youngest jockey to win a Triple Crown race when he guided Aloma’s Ruler home in the 1982 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at the age of 16—was injured in a spill Sept. 27 at Fairplex Park. Kaenel’s mount, maiden claimer Sheval Dom Sallay, clipped heels, tossing him to the dirt. He suffered a broken collarbone, shoulder blade, acromion (a bone at the top of the shoulder blade), and pinched a nerve in his back. In previous riding accidents he had broken his back and neck.

Having begun riding in the fall of 2004 at age 16, Kaenel had booted home 608 winners from 4,345 mounts; this year he had 47 winners, three in stakes races.

Martin Escobar, 41, has numbers very similar to Kaenel’s. He began riding in 2001 and has 687 winners to his credit from 6,420 mounts. This year he has visited the winner’s circle 55 times from 469 mounts, with eight wins from 93 mounts at the current Remington meeting.

Escobar had finished second in the last race at Remington Park Oct. 17 when his mount, Cuvee Blanc, fell just past the wire, unseating the rider. The jockey walked away under his own power but was later found to have a fractured hand and back and will be sidelined four to six weeks.

Then there is Robby Albarado, who is one of the top riders in North America; the man who guided Curlin to his two Horse of the Year campaigns.

Albarado, 36, has been aboard 4,067 winners from 24,668 mounts and is having an excellent 2009, with 166 victories from 929 races and three grade I wins. In the sixth race at Keeneland, Oct. 17, an allowance event on the turf, Albarado’s mount, My Baby Baby, stumbled at the start. In regaining her footing, My Baby Baby’s head came back and hit Albarado in the head, cutting the jockey near his right eye. He took off his mounts Oct. 18 but was expected to return to riding Oct. 21.

It is hard enough for a jockey to maintain weight by sitting in a sweat box or purging what he or she eats. But there is much more to it than that. Jockeys compete in a sport that is not only demanding physically and mentally, but full of peril at every turn. The Jockeys’ Guild reports that 150 jockeys have been killed in riding accidents since 1940.

Of course, accidents don’t just happen in the afternoons or evenings. The same dangers exist for jockeys and exercise riders who guide horses in their daily morning gallops and breezes.

Padded helmets, protective vests, safety rails, synethetic surfaces—all have been designed to help protect those who ride Thoroughbreds. But this week’s headlines are yet another reminder of how dangerous it is to be an athlete who rides Thoroughbred horses for a living.

The best thing you can wish a jockey as he or she is being legged up is simple: Have a safe trip.

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