by Frank Vespe
At its meeting February 17, the West Virginia Racing Commission adopted a series of recommendations designed to improve safety at the state’s two Thoroughbred racetracks, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races and Mountaineer Park.[boxify cols_use =”3″ cols =”6″ position =”right” box_spacing =”5″ padding =”3″ background_color =”gray” background_opacity =”10″ border_width =”1″ border_color =”blue” border_style =”solid” height =”725″ ]WVRC NEW SAFETY PROTOCOLS
- Warning system activation buttons to be installed in stewards’ stand.
- Strict written protocols put in place for warning system activation, including pre-works and pre-racing system tests.
- Warning lights should be relocated to 1/16 poles.
- Daily radio check prior to first race.
- At least one steward to watch race live through binoculars, rather than on monitors.
- Put in place written protocols regarding the best and proper placement of outriders and monitor to ensure proper implementation.
- Stewards should observe outriders during each race to ensure they are following proper protocols.
- Stewards should at least weekly monitor morning works to ensure protocols are followed.
- Monthly meetings to ensure protocols are followed, including with jockeys, and meetings with ship-in jockeys to educate them about local procedures.
- When an accident occurs during morning works or live racing, the stewards should hold an all-hands meeting the next day to analyze what happened and determine whether proper safety protocols were followed.
- Anytime the warning system is activated, the stewards should submit a memo to the Commission regarding the incident and personnel’s response.
- Click for the full recommendations.[/boxify]
Those recommendations grew out of a report the Commission requested in the aftermath of a December 13 disaster at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races that could have been much worse. On that day, a horse fell, lost her rider, rose, turned and ran back the way she’d come — directly into the field as it turned for home — and ran headfirst into another horse.
“A good start,” Jockeys’ Guild National Manager Terry Meyocks called the new safety protocols.
If fully implemented — and assiduously maintained — the recommendations can ensure that the tracks never again see a scene like the one that occurred that night at Charles Town.
For nearly a minute, they tried frantically to warn the riders.
Starter Francis DiAmario and his assistants waved their hands and shouted at the passing field, but the riders couldn’t hear. State veterinarian Elizabeth Daniel tried to use the horn on her vehicle, but it didn’t work. Horse ambulance driver Jacob Binkley yelled and waved his hands.
Outrider Lori Bourne radioed the stewards once, then a second time. “Stewards, did you hear me?” she asked. “We have a horse head-on into the field, we need to alert the riders.”
Track announcer Jeff Cernik made two warning announcements.
And then it was over.
Winningaswespeak, a then-three-year-old filly, barreled head on into Frisky Dixie. Fab Autumn Girl fell over the stricken pair.
In the end, Frisky Dixie had to be euthanized. Remarkably, she was the only one. None of the three jockeys — Carlos Marrero aboard Winningaswespeak, Carlos Castro on Frisky Dixie, and Ramon Maldonado on Fab Autumn Girl — was seriously injured.
The report commissioned by the West Virginia Racing Commission into the December 13 incident portrays an agonizing, chaotic moment, in which many people at the racetrack could see that a disaster was imminent — and yet they were powerless to stop it.
Meanwhile, those who could have stopped it — the stewards — were unaware the drama was unfolding at all, until it was too late.
December 13 was a bit hazy with seasonal temperatures in Charles Town.
The fourth race was a $5,000 claiming race for fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles. Ten runners faced up to the starter.
In a race of that distance, the field breaks from midway on the backstretch, making it a three-turn race. Once the horses broke, outrider Lori Bourne headed towards the track’s 4 1/2 furlong chute, near the clubhouse turn.
Her colleague, Kevin Mouton remained relatively near the starting gate. Many observers pointed out, had Mouton moved down towards the furlong chute on the front side of the track, he might have been able to avert the disaster. But multiple sources have said that the outriders were specifically told not to do that.
The field rounded the first turn and headed up the backstretch. Nearing the clubhouse turn, jockey Jerry Villegas and his mount, Super Magic, clipped heels with Winningaswespeak and Marrero. Winningaswespeak tumbled to the track.
Thrown from his mount, Marrero scrambled beneath the rail to the safety of the infield. Disoriented, Winningaswespeak rose and began to run up the rail, back the way she’d come — towards the far turn, where the field would arrive in less than a minute.
Bourne said that as soon as she saw Winningaswespeak go down, she radioed the stewards that a horse and rider were down. When the filly took off, she realized what was about to happen but had no chance of catching the loose filly. She radioed again. “We need to alert the riders,” she said.
Mouton, the other outrider, said that he heard Bourne’s increasingly urgent pleas over his radio. He heard her say, “Sound the alarm.”
Then he heard her say, “Stop the race.” Then, “You need to do something.”
Daniel, the state veterinarian, and a pair of medical personnel, Fred Gansel and Paula Rideott, all said that they heard Bourne’s pleas for help over their radios.
None of the stewards, however, heard her.
Twenty-two seconds after Winningaswespeak fell, track announcer Jeff Cernik said, “We have a loose horse on the track, number 6 loose on the track, is running up through the stretch, running up through the stretch along the rail.”
As the field made its way up the back stretch, DiAmario, the starter, realized the danger. He said that he waved his hands in the air and yelled, “Heads up, guys. Heads up.”
Two riders, Antonio Lopez and Oscar Flores, said that they saw DiAmario and others waving their arms and yelling. Lopez, aboard Rock On Thelma, could not make out what they were saying and continued to ride.
Flores heard them yelling, “Loose horse.” He steered his mount, Mica, outside and pulled her up.
Like the stewards, DiAmario said that he did not hear the outriders’ warnings over the radio. He did hear chief state steward Danny Wright telling the outriders to pull the field up. But by that time, the outriders had no chance.[pullquote] Number 6 loose on the track, is running up through the stretch along the rail.” — Track announcer Jeff Cernik[/pullquote]Twenty-five seconds after his first announcement, Cernik tried it again. “Look out, loose horse on the track on the turn coming at the riders.”
Winningaswespeak entered the turn going the wrong way. With the exception of Flores and Mica, the rest of the field continued their journey.
As Winningaswespeak neared the field, still hugging the rail, Lopez pulled Rock On Thelma away, to the right and out of harm’s way. Jesus Sanchez, aboard the tiring My Girl Jules, did the same thing, as did Natasha Bracaloni aboard Nehow and Juan De La Cruz and his mount, Anagazandra.
Jerry Villegas, aboard Super Magic — the horse that clipped heels with Winningaswespeak in the first place — saw four horses in front of him pull out and was able to follow suit and avoid the collision.
Carlos Castro and Frisky Dixie weren’t so lucky. Castro said that as he saw the other horses duck out, he thought that they had all missed the turn. Once he saw Winningaswespeak barreling towards him, he realized his mistake, but it was too late; Winningaswespeak crashed into Frisky Dixie’s left shoulder, knocking them both to the ground. Ramon Maldonado and Fab Autumn Girl fell over the stricken pair.
All of the interviewed jockeys said that they had not heard Jeff Cernik’s announcements. All stated that the track’s warning system had not been activated during the race.
So what went wrong?
A little bit of everything, according to the report.
To start with, all three state stewards — Danny Wright, Larry Dupuy, and Robert Lotts, filling in for Ismael Trejo — were, according to the report, watching the race on television monitors; all agreed that they have a better view of the action that way.
But because of that — because the television feeds are focused on the horses in the race — none of them saw a horse out of the race running the wrong way, towards disaster.
Then there is the positioning of the outriders. At a previous meeting, sources have said, the stewards had directed the outriders to split up, with one positioned on the front side, for two-turn races. But, the sources said, the stewards made clear that was for two-turn races only and did not apply to three-turn races such as this one.
And then there’s the question of the radios. Outrider Lori Bourne reported making a series of urgent pleas over the radio for the stewards to intervene and stop the race, and some — among them the state veterinarian and an EMT on the grounds — heard those pleas.[pullquote]The watching of the race live is most certainly a very big step.” Charles Town’s Erich Zimny[/pullquote]But others, including the stewards, did not. All agreed that there was no requirement that the radios be tested prior to the evening’s races.
Finally, there was the question of the alert system itself. One activation button — for audio only — was located in the announcer’s booth. Another — for the audio warning and flashing lights — was located in the clocker’s stand. No button was located in the stewards’ room. Neither announcer Jeff Cernik nor clocker Henry Allen activated the system.
Cernik said that he had never activated the system or “been given protocol or instructions” as to when that would be appropriate. As for Allen, he indicated that, following an incident a couple of years previously, he had been warned never to activate the system without direction from the stewards — direction that, on December 13, came too late to be of use.
To its credit, the West Virginia Racing Commission has moved quickly to analyze the incident and make necessary changes. At its meeting February 17, the Commission moved to adopt a series of protocols recommended in the report.
- Requiring at least one steward to watch each race live and not on the monitors;
- Installing warning system buttons in the stewards’ room;
- Conducting daily radio checks prior to each evening’s racing; and
- Improving communications between the stewards, other on-track personnel, and the Commission itself.
Some of these — the moving of the buttons, for example– have already taken place. Racing Commission executive director John Myers did say of the placement of the buttons, however, “I don’t think that was the cause.”
“I think we’re all going to agree on the path we need to take,” Myers added. He characterized the approved changes as primarily “procedural, looking at the way we’ve done things.”
Charles Town’s Vice President of Racing Operations, Erich Zimny, particularly pointed to watching the races live as a key.
“The watching of the race live is most certainly a very big step,” he said.[pullquote] The one thing I want to see come out of this is to take this national.” — The Jockeys’ Guild’s Terry Meyocks[/pullquote]”I can’t say there’s anything in the report we didn’t already know,” he added. “We’re comfortable with the way our folks handled this.”
The Jockeys’ Guild’s Meyocks represents those at greatest risk, the riders. He said the incident reminded him of jockey Stacy Burton’s harrowing 1990 tragedy, when her mount was hit head-on by a loose horse, catapulting her into the air and leaving her in a three-week coma. Though doctors feared for her life, Burton survived; to this day she needs full-time assistance, according to the Guild. That’s something Meyocks hopes not to see happen again.
“The regulators need to step up and be accounted for,” he said. “The racetracks need to step up and be accounted for. The one thing I want to see come out of this is to take this safety program national.”
As for the horses, Fab Autumn Girl has not started since the incident but did recently post a half-mile breeze at Turfway Park.
Winningaswespeak ran in a race at Charles Town on January 17. She was never much involved in the race, running in last place at every call.
Rounding the turn for home for the final time — the place where all the trouble had occurred a month earlier — she bore far, far out from the rail.
Information in this article came from the incident report provided to the West Virginia Racing Commission, a copy of which The Racing Biz obtained, and additional interviews.