As Jockeys' Guild national manager Terry Meyocks sees it, fast-acting paramedics made key decisions that may have saved the life of Racing Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez when he suffered serious injuries after his mount broke down in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park.
While race riding always will have an element of danger, Meyocks has worked to make the sport as safe as possible for jockeys, whether it be Velazquez, who returned to racing Jan. 25 after recuperating from internal injuries that required removal of his spleen when Secret Compass broke down, or an apprentice rider cutting his teeth at one of the country's smaller tracks.
During the second day of the Jockeys' Guild Assembly Jan. 28 in Hollywood, Fla., Meyocks thanked Quarter Horse jockey Cody Jensen and Guild regional representative Darrell Haire for attending California Horse Racing Board safety committee meetings a few years ago that led to rule changes that require tracks like Santa Anita to have paramedics on-site, as opposed to emergency medical technicians.
The Guild prefers paramedics to be on-site because they are qualified to do more advanced emergency procedures and are required to complete about 10 times the amount of training compared with EMTs. It's an important detail for jockeys who risk their lives on the track.
For the Guild, sometimes changing such rules requires advocacy during long meetings with regulators.
"Those efforts may have saved a life on Breeders' Cup day," Meyocks said.
Noting that successful effort, Meyocks set the tone for several Jan. 28 Guild sessions that focused on safety.
Dr. Kenneth Perrine, a neuropsychologist who worked with jockey Ramon Dominguez who retired because of injuries that included a fractured skull suffered in a 2013 spill at Aqueduct Racetrack, talked about the importance of having medical staff in place at the track who can diagnose both traumatic brain injury as well as concussions while providing initial treatment.
"I was amazed once I started talking with Ramon and another jockey about how little oversight there is in terms of concussion management," Perrine said. "Unfortunately, you guys are kind of the last of the athletes that sustain concussions to not have some type of guidelines, management, and treatment; especially on knowing when you can return to ride.
"The way I put it to Ramon is that junior high school soccer girls have more in place for looking at, managing, and treating concussions."
Perrine said that because of the pressures to return to racing, it is especially important for riders to receive medical advice on when it is safe. He noted that most other sports at least continue to provide a paycheck when an athlete is injured but that jockeys lose their source of income when they're not riding.
"I know that for jockeys it's not like another sport where you have a contract," Perrine said. "You ride you get paid; you don't ride you don't get paid. That is different than any other sport."
But Perrine said returning too soon could risk their long-term health. He urged them to think about their families and their future well-being in making such decisions.
After Perrine outlined the importance of proper treatment of concussions, Michelle Penna, business support manager for Jockey Club subsidiary InCompass Solutions, outlined how new baseline testing for concussions as part of the Jockey Health Information System will work. The JHIS provides medical records of jockeys to medical personnel to allow the best treatment at a time of emergency.
About 450 riders already are involved in JHIS and can add baseline concussion testing, a program being funded by the Jockey Club, to their records. Riders who receive such testing will be added to JHIS.
The baseline testing will provide medical personnel an evaluation tool should a rider suffer a concussion to help determine when that rider may safely return to competition. Penna said the Guild and Jockey Club saw the importance of such testing when the National Steeplechase Association outlined its baseline testing of riders at the 2013 International Conference for the Health, Safety and Welfare of Jockeys at Monmouth Park.
Penna said the test takes less than a half-hour and will not preclude anyone from riding but will serve as a tool to help make medical decisions on when a rider can safely return following a future concussion.
"I think 25 minutes of your time is minimal when compared with your safety and the safety of those around you," Penna said. "We pre-race evaluate horses now; this is like a pre-race for all of you."
Following Penna's presentation, Dr. Carl Mattacola provided an update on the U.S. Jockey Injury Database.
Launched in 2012, the database aims to track jockey injuries in an effort to improve racetrack and rider equipment. The database is similar to the Equine Injury Database that tracks such injuries to horses.
Mattacola emphasized the need for more participation because at this point only 237 spills have been reported. Those spills do not have to result in injury. They aim to include any incident in which a rider is thrown from a horse from the time of saddling in the paddock, through the post parade, race, and gallop out.
While emphasizing there have not been enough reports to generate conclusions, Mattacola reported that 46% of the spills involved injury. Of those injuries, 31% saw riders miss more than a day and 15% of riders were able to return to riding that day.
The most common injuries were strains or sprains, at 33 reports; followed by 28 fractures and 11 concussions.
Only a few tracks currently are participating in the database with some riders, or Guild representatives, also contributing reports.
Earlier in the day the need for vigilence was on display when Perrine asked the approximately 150 riders in attendance if any of them had ever not been involved in a spill.
Not a single rider raised his or her hand.