Head Injuries to Jockeys

By Edward S. Bonnie
Why do I care what riders wear on their heads, whether jockeys, exercise riders, or just people who ride horses for pay or pleasure? I was, and am, one of them. And, it finally happened to me.

On Aug. 21, 2005, I was seriously injured when I was bucked off a green horse I was training at my farm in Oldham County, Ky. I broke eight ribs, punctured a lung, and broke my scapula and collarbone. I was wearing an ASTM/SEI approved helmet when the accident occurred. The plastic helmet cover and polystyrene liner were split through in two places. I was unconscious and remained so for a substantial period of time. Fortunately, I had taken a page from my own book and survived to write this article.

How many more deaths and insurance claims, which the jockeys would like the industry to underwrite, are we going to have to suffer before the racing commissions, Jockeys' Guild, and others come to their senses? When will some rules be written requiring jockeys and exercise riders to wear helmets that would protect them, not from all injuries, but substantially reduce the injuries and deaths from head injuries that we see on a regular basis?

In the early 1990s, I was appointed to a National Steeplechase and Hunt Association (now NSA) safety helmet committee. This committee did an exhaustive survey of helmet construction for riders and reviewed standards established by independent experts. We concluded the existing Caliente helmets and others were unsafe and that all helmets should be approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), a nonprofit standards-setting organization, and the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) of Rosslyn, Va., an industry and union-supported nonprofit organization that tests and certifies industrial safety equipment.

The principal safety feature of the ASTM/SEI helmet is the use of high-quality, dense polystyrene as a liner inside the outer shell. This material is very effective in absorbing energy and dramatically reduces the level of energy transmitted to the semi-fluid, vulnerable brain by a violent external blow. In addition, the ASTM standard also set high strength levels for the retention system (chin strap) for penetration by a sharp object and for other lesser aspects. The ASTM helmets were approximately one inch larger in diameter in order to accommodate the shock-absorbing polystyrene liner.

After reading about Robby Albarado's fall and fractured skull in a race at Churchill Downs June 17, 1998, I wrote Bernie Hettel, then the executive director of the Kentucky Racing Commission, and called his attention to 810 KAR 1:009 (Section 14) requiring jockeys and apprentice jockeys to wear a "safety helmet approved by the commission."

There being no Kentucky commission standards for safety helmets, I requested the chairman of the commission to appoint an ad hoc committee immediately to study helmets and recommend the same type of protective helmet as is the case in many other equine sports. It did not take long for the committee to recommend to the Kentucky Racing Commission and for it to pass a rule in 1999 requiring riders to wear a "safety helmet that meets the standards of the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) F-1163-00."

Sadly, enforcement of the rule in Kentucky has been spotty at best, and a group of Kentucky jockeys in 2004 represented by the Jockeys' Guild attempted to have the rule rescinded. Strangely, on the one hand, the Jockeys' Guild demands safety features from the racetracks, and insurance for their members, but has made no effort to write and support rules that would make its riders safer. The hypocrisy of this position is mind-boggling. Fortunately, the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority refused to rescind the rule until the Jockeys' Guild demonstrated the rule was not in the jockeys' best interests. The rule is still in place.

Can you believe Kentucky is the only state in United States Thoroughbred racing which requires an ASTM/SEI-approved helmet? This is astounding. While the industry is cleaning up the Jockeys' Guild, perhaps the Jockeys' Guild and the industry should take a more thoughtful look at these safety issues.