The recent death of a harness driver and lingering concerns over jockey safety have led a Delaware legislator to propose omnibus safety legislation for horse racing in the state.
Rep. Bill Oberle, a longtime supporter of racing and a horse owner, convened a committee of industry stakeholders to discuss safety issues and develop recommendations for the legislation. The group discussed requiring that paramedics be based at all tracks, mandating that an ambulance follow fields during races, setting minimum standards for helmets, and requiring use of flak vests, among other things.
The legislation would pertain to Thoroughbred racing at Delaware Park and Standardbred racing at Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway. Oberle said the death of driver Hal Belote in a late May racing accident at Harrington brought the issue to a head.
"It prompted, quite honestly, a lot of us to take a macro view of the safety situation," Oberle said. "We convened a committee, and just about every issue we brought up, we're going to address legislatively."
The stakeholders that have input include jockeys, harness drivers, racetrack representatives, horsemen's and owners' groups, and the Thoroughbred and harness racing commissions in the state. Oberle said the legislation, called the "Hal Belote Racing Safety Act," could be ready by the end of June.
"I tried to get all the interested parties with a stake in this, and we're pretty much coming to a consensus," Oberle said. "We're in the discussion phase, but everyone really came together after the Belote tragedy. Sometimes, it takes something like this to look at standard operating procedures. There doesn't seem to be much disagreement among the stakeholders."
When Belote was thrown to the track after his horse took a bad step and fell, the emergency medical technicians were in the Harrington clubhouse having dinner and arrived about four minutes later. The driver had suffered extensive injuries, however, and died en route to a local hospital. Oberle said he's not sure it would have a made a difference had the EMTs been trackside, but in any event, the incident drove home the point that Delaware needs safety standards.
Oberle indicated he hopes the legislation serves as a model for other states.
"Legislative bodies tend to be reactive, not proactive," he said.