Racing for safety to prevent jockey falls
BEING a jockey is one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, with higher rates of injuries and deaths than skydivers, boxers or professional motorcycle riders. There's very little margin for error with 55-kilo jockeys atop horses that weigh more than half a tonne each, galloping in a pack at 60 kilometres an hour.
In April this year jockey Darren Jones died in a horrific three-horse fall at Warialda in NSW.
Since racing began in Australia at Hyde Park in 1810, an estimated 900 jockeys have died in racing accidents. Thankfully, an increased focus on safety in recent years has seen the rate slow dramatically to an average of just over one jockey each year.
It’s statistics like these that reinforce why LUCRF Super supports the National Jockeys Trust.
Racing historian Dr Andrew Lemon says that in the early days of the colony, horse racing held similar appeal to modern drag racing. "The fastest, most dangerous thing you could do in colonial Australia was ride horses," he says.
Many of today's safety improvements are simply evolutions of earlier ones. As far back as the 1880s horse-drawn ambulances were in attendance at race meetings, and by the end of the First World War, motor ambulances were following the horses around the track at larger meets. In the modern era, private companies provide the highest standard of race-day medical care at all race meetings.
When racing began, jockeys wore cloth caps. The Victoria Racing Club made 'stiff skull caps' compulsory for jumps races in Victoria in 1906, and, following a coroner’s inquest, for flat races in 1919. Helmets were made out of everything from rubber to cork.
Former jockey Ian Duckling recalls being one of just three jumps riders in Victoria in 1960 who wore a modern (but heavy) fiberglass helmet. He says the other jockeys wore skull caps made of “compressed cardboard”.
Today's helmets are lighter and made from fibreglass and foam. There is an ongoing debate about how best to improve them without adding too much weight or bulk.
Officials began filming every race in the mid-20th century, allowing stewards to easily identify dangerous riding.
Duckling says that as late as the 1960s, the running rails were still made from solid timber and extremely dangerous in a collision. Aluminium rails with more 'give' became widespread in the 1970s and 1980s. The biggest improvement, however, came in 2006 when Dan Mawby, a plumber at the Cranbourne Turf Club, began developing the Mawsafe plastic running rail, with uprights designed to break away in a fall.
"That’s probably been the biggest lifesaving product ever created for horse racing," says Mornington jockey Chris Symons.
By contrast, jockeys have mixed feelings about safety vests, mandatory since the late 1990s. Early versions were stiff and unwieldy.
Before he retired, champion jockey Greg Childs began developing a softer and more flexible vest called the VIPA Body Protector. "(A vest) will give you some protection from rib fractures and severe bruising,” he explains. “It does not give spinal protection."
Dr Lemon says today the focus has shifted to preventing falls before they happen. Better track maintenance reduces falls by making the surface as uniform as possible, and the jockey apprenticeship system has "a lot more emphasis now on safety to reduce the risk of a fall”.
And what of the future? Some equestrian riders already use inflatable vests attached by a cord to the saddle, which blow up airbag-style before a rider hits the ground. US jockeys have already trialled them in racing.
“I'm sure that (an inflatable) vest worn in a race would offer a lot more protection than just a body protector," says Childs.
Photo credit – Racing Photos