Education needed to cut risks

Sue Montgomery on how good schooling can reduce dangers for jump jockeys

Sue Montgomery
Sunday 21 July 1996 23:02

There cannot be many professions in which an ambulance routinely follows the practitioners around as they do their job, but that of a jockey is one. And the death of 26-year-old Richard Davis at Southwell on Friday brought unwelcome focus on the inherent dangers of race-riding, far and away the most dangerous of sports.

Davis, who died from massive internal injuries sustained when his mount fell and crashed on to him, is the ninth jockey (on the Flat, in jumping and point-to-pointing) to be killed in action in Britain since 1974.

No fewer than 24 riders are currently sidelined because of injury and statistics have shown that the risk of dying in a Flat race is twice as high as in motor-racing. Davis was not a household name, but accidents with horses are no respecters of ability; Frankie Dettori and Walter Swinburn are on the list of injured, and Declan Murphy and Paul Cook were forced into retirement after horrifyingly near-misses.

Thanks to the untiring work of past and present Jockey Club medical officers, safety standards in racing have improved out of all recognition in recent decades. External hazards, such as concrete posts, have been eradicated as far as possible, and the riders' own clothing, such as crash helmets and body protectors, meet as high specifications as possible.

But it is impossible to guard against the unpredictability of horses themselves. Horses are huge, powerful creatures, half a ton of bone and muscle governed by a brain the size of an apple, a brain which can be guided but which in extremis reverts to its basic instincts of panic, confusion and flight.

For anyone who gets on a horse, falls are inevitable, and riders are usually fully aware of the risks they take. It is accepted by jump jockeys that they will be on the floor in one ride in 10, and, in a fall like Davis's, where the falling weight of the horse landed on top of him, no protective clothing could have saved him.

But it would be insulting to say the young man's death was just one of those things. There is a huge difference between acceptable and unacceptable risks in a sport fraught with hazards, and it is welcome news that the Jockey Club are to look into the circumstances of this particular accident.

Jumping is not a natural activity for horses. Left to its own devices, a horse will generally go round something in its path rather than over it. Rather like children learning to swim, jumping is an acquired, rather than an inherited, skill, involving balance, suppleness and concentration. Some undoubtedly take to it better than others, a minority seem to actively revel in it once they understand what is required, but all have to be instructed in the technique. The inherent racing ability of the horse does not necessarily reflect its jumping capability; some top-class chasers - Dawn Run immediately springs to mind - have been bad jumpers, and a moderate horse can be a good, safe jumper. Under stress or through distraction (because of the way a horse's vision works, a horse cannot see what it is jumping in the last moment before take-off), any horse, no matter how well-taught, can fall.

But there are a lot of horses who are sent out into a high-risk arena with inadequate education and preparation, no brakes or steering and only a hazy knowledge of how to get from one side of an obstacle to the other. Mostly, their trainers get away with it, and the problem is glossed over, but irresponsible would not be too strong a word to use when lives are at risk.

Bad, ill-educated jumpers are generally found in the lower echelons of the training profession, and the opening of the summer jumping season, with its demands for extra horses to fill races, has brought more of them out of the woodwork. Not every thoroughbred has the potential to be a racehorse, and the Jockey Club, so quick to penalise jockeys for misdemeanours, must look seriously at standards of preparation. Then, perhaps, Davis's death may not have been in vain.

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