Racing Commentary: Keeping sense in quest for safety: The death of jockey Steve Wood could prompt hasty changes which do more harm than good

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The Independent Online
THE SHOW went on at Lingfield on Saturday, but both riders and spectators were shaken and subdued after the accident there the previous day which claimed the life of Steve Wood.

Mercifully, the card passed without incident, but at Beverley there were two further reminders of the dangers which jockeys face each day. Brian Russell, an apprentice rider, was unhurt after a similar fall to the one which killed Wood, while John Lowe was unseated as his mount left the stalls in the fifth race. He, too, was unscathed.

Had it not been for Wood's fatal fall, these incidents would probably have passed almost unnoticed. Racing is dangerous, accidents happen, but the riders, usually, walk away. With the sport in mourning, however, it might be easy to see a pattern, a cause for concern. And a need for something to be done.

Despite hitting the turf 24 hours earlier, however, John Lowe was satisfied yesterday that riders' safety standards are improving rather than declining. 'I think that safety is very good,' Lowe, who is also a vice-president of the Jockeys' Association, said. 'Steve's accident was a million-to-one chance. Nothing could have been done to prevent it. There was nothing but open fields to his right, he could easily have rolled clear under the rails. Years ago there were concrete uprights and mesh fencing, and you had no chance.'

Nonetheless, Lowe believes that the Jockey Club will feel required to make changes in the wake of Wood's death. The most likely course of action is to install a pole about 140 yards from the stalls before which the riders must keep straight, in the same way that 400 metres runners stick to lanes for the first bend. A similar system operates in many European countries, and might soon make redundant the phrase 'jockeying for position'.

But such a rule would not have saved Steve Wood, who fell after two furlongs of a sprint handicap. It would also make it all but impossible at some courses for a horse to win from a bad draw.

If the Jockey Club's long history tells us anything, it is that most of its daftest decisions have been taken to satisfy ill-informed public concern. It is a tragic fact that as long as racing continues, riders will, on very rare occasions, be killed or seriously injured. The jockeys, however, are all too aware of the dangers, and make great efforts to look after themselves, and each other.

'People see it on TV and they don't realise how dangerous it can be,' Lowe said. 'But I always think about the danger, the more you think about it the less likely you are to have an accident. The Jockeys' Association is quite strong, and I don't believe there's anything wrong with racecourses now, they've done everything that we asked for. When you ride in a race, the minutest mistake can mean you clipping a horse's heels. It's a fine art, and you've got to get it right.'

Lowe, in his official capacity, laid flowers in Wood's memory at Beverley on Saturday, and as he did so echoed the thoughts of all followers of racing. 'I said to Kevin Darley and Mark Birch, I've only got maybe another six or seven years of riding. I just hope I don't have to do this again.'

Obituary, page 14