Media focus will likely center on Bob Baffert—a super-successful trainer coming back from a heart attack barely a month ago. But rooting for a wealthy trainer, or his very wealthy owner, isn't as much fun as rooting for athletes. In this sport, though, at least if you believe the New York Times, athletes are getting hurt and killed at appalling rates—much higher than at equivalent racetracks overseas, for instance. Not. Cool.
It's one thing for jockeys to get hurt. It's awful, certainly, but at least those men and women choose to compete. Horses don't want to run until they snap a foreleg. They sure don't choose an instant on-track death because of it. Don't worry. I'm not going all PETA on you. But lately we've used this space to discuss athletes in hockey and football who get hurt after making a choice to play their dangerous game. For me, it makes more sense to worry about cleaning up a sport where the athletes don't get a choice.
With full apologies to the Cult of Barbaro—and partial apologies to animal-lovers everywhere, a cohort that includes me—I'm more concerned with the physical safety of humans than that of horses. And guess what?
That's another reason to view the Kentucky Derby with a jaundiced eye.
Last year, former jockey Darrell Haire told ABC News that he kept his kids away from following him into the sport. With good reason. After all, horse racing isn't just hell on competitive equines; it's brutal on the people who ride them. The typical jockey weighs less than 120 pounds. The average race horse weights over 1,000 pounds, reaches a top speed of 40 miles per hour, and does not include a built-in roll cage, even though spills and crashes are commonplace.
Do the math.
The good news? To my knowledge, no jockey ever has been euthanized trackside. The bad news? Riders still die. According to a 2009 report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, there were 26 jockey fatalities from 1992 to 2006, an average of 5.6 deaths per year—more fatalities than in NASCAR over the same time period (15), and a number the authors of the NIOSH study said was probably an underestimate.
The job isn't particularly safe for living riders, either. A University of North Carolina study found that between 1993-1996, a group of 2,500 American jockeys suffered 6,545 reported injuries. Nearly one in five of those injuries involved the head or neck; a Los Angeles-based orthopedic surgeon who treats jockeys at Hollywood Park last year told ABC News that the average jockey suffers five to 10 bone fractures over the course of his or her career. Moreover, riders often rely on unhealthy methods to create and maintain their emaciated racing physiques —diet pills; jogging in rubber suits; using cocaine and amphetamines as energy-boosting appetite suppressants; gorging on fast food hamburgers, followed by self-induced vomiting—with many developing full-blown eating disorders. Long-term consequences, of course, can include heart problems, esophagitis, osteoporosis, ruined teeth and organ and nerve damage. Not to mention the aforementioned death.