Down the lane.

Down the lane.

by Frank Vespe

The West Virginia Racing Commission will retain an outside consultant to investigate the events that led to a head-on collision between two horses during the running of a race December 13 at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, Commission executive director John Myers said today.

Meanwhile, the state stewards’ version of events — that their hands had been tied by a poorly designed track safety system and the failure of the outriders to position themselves properly — continued to come under increasing dispute.

“I want a clear picture and an impartial view of things,” Myers said.  “First, to make sure that we’ve got a good [safety] system there.  And second, what are the things that went wrong, and what needs to be changed.”

The incident occurred December 13 in a 1 1/16 mile race for $5,000 claiming fillies and mares.  As the field rounded the clubhouse turn — the second of three turns around the bullring track — Winningaswespeak fell and unseated rider Carlos Marrero.  Riderless, she turned and ran the wrong way up the track, back in the direction she’d just come.

The remainder of the field made its way up the backstretch and entered the turn for home, while Winningaswespeak entered the turn going the opposite way.  She slammed head-on into Frisky Dixie, ridden by Carlos Castro, and Fab Autumn Girl, with Ramon Maldonado up, fell over the stricken horses.

Remarkably, none of the jockeys was seriously injured.  Frisky Dixie had to be euthanized.

Myers said that the investigator, whom he declined to name, was expected to begin work at Charles Town January 2.  He said that the field work would probably take “two to three days.”

News of such an investigation generated cautious optimism from the Jockeys Guild, the national organization which advocates for the safety and well-being of riders.

“I think it’s important, but we need to be a part of the process,” said Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys Guild.  “Everybody needs to be aware that incidents like this happen during a race, and they need to know what their responsibility is to keep a tragedy like this from happening.”

Meyocks, who said that his organization has had “a lot of discussion over safety issues with Charles Town and other [Penn National Gaming, Inc.] tracks,” expressed frustration that neither Charles Town nor other tracks owned by parent company PNGI has sought safety accreditation from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance.

But others suggested that the fault for this specific incident had less to do with the actions of the racetrack and more to do with those of the stewards.

“It’s pretty much point blank,” said Larry Reynolds, a former Charles Town jockey who now serves as the agent to Carlos Castro, who was involved in the incident.  “The stewards dropped the ball.”

For one thing, Reynolds said, the stewards failed to follow basic protocol.

“They did admit to the jocks that they were not watching the race live,” Reynolds said.  Standard practice would have at least one steward watching the race live.  Instead, Reynolds said, all three were watching the video feed, which focuses on the main body of the field, and thus would not have seen a loose horse running the wrong way until it was much too late.

For another, Charles Town Vice President of Racing Operations Erich Zimny and Reynolds contend that outrider Lori Bourne radioed the stewards at least three times between the moment that Winningaswespeak went down and her collision with Frisky Dixie — but that the stewards did not respond to those pleas.

“As is protocol, she radioed that there was a rider down at the 5/8 pole,” Zimny said.  “Then she radioed a second time, and then a third time when the horse was near the finish line.  The first response she received was 10 seconds prior to the collision.”

In the aftermath of the incident, chief steward Danny Wright, who did not respond to several attempts to contact him for this article, pointed to two issues out of his control that contributed to the episode.

First, he said, the outriders had not been properly positioned.  Following the start of the race, which began midway up the backstretch, one of the outriders retreated towards 4 1/2 furlong chute on the backside, while the other remained in the vicinity of the starting gate.  Wright said that the second outrider should have followed the field around the turn and taken up a position at the head of the lane, thus giving the outriders a better chance to stop such an incident.

But Charles Town’s Zimny said that the outriders, who are employed by the track, specifically disputed that claim.

Outrider Lori Bourne “gave me a very firm account, which the other outrider corroborated,” Zimny said.  “At a meeting a couple of weeks earlier, the stewards had directed them to split up for 6 1/2 and 7-furlong races but not for 1 1/16 mile or 1 1/8 mile races.”

At Charles Town, 6 1/2 furlong and 7 furlong races are run around two turns; longer events are run around three turns.

Reynolds supported Zimny’s contention that the outriders were following the stewards’ directive.  “Were they in the wrong position?  Absolutely,” he said.  “But they were in the position they were told to be” [by the stewards].

Wright further suggested that the placement of the button to activate the track’s audio and visual warning system — in the clockers’ room rather than at the stewards’ positions — was too far away to allow them to take appropriate action in a timely manner.

But Zimny disputed that statement.  “That switch has been located at the clockers’ seats for almost 20 years,” he said.

Zimny pointed out that the distance from stewards to clockers is 21 feet — a short enough distance, given that, he said, just more than 50 seconds elapsed between Winningaswespeak’s initial fall and her subsequent collision with Frisky Dixie.

“PNGI [Charles Town’s parent company] should have put a second button in the stewards’ room,” said Reynolds.  “But I can’t say [the incident] was PNGI’s fault.”

Myers, the Commission’s executive director, said this his focus would not be on blame so much as on preventing another such incident.  “The whole goal in doing something like this is that we get better as an industry,” he said.

Reynolds said that the jockeys wholeheartedly agree that preventing such tragedies is paramount.  But it may not, by itself, be sufficient in this case.

“Somebody’s got to be penalized,” he said.  “Somebody’s got to be held accountable.”

Frank Vespe, the founder of The Racing Biz, has owned, bought, sold, claimed, and written about horses, in varying combinations, for a decade.