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Risk jockeys

Riding a horse at 40 mph is not only thrilling--it's crazy dangerous

April 17, 2013|By Ryan Smith | For RedEye

Jockey Brandon Meier glances at a race program and doesn't blink at the prospect of riding the beast that had recently buried its hooves into his chest.

The last time Meier rode Bedroom Eyes was two weeks ago, when the racehorse clipped heels with Beauty of Scarlet during a race. The collision launched him out of the saddle and into the dirt at Hawthorne Race Course. The half-ton thoroughbred ran over the reed-thin, 112-pound jockey, dislocating his shoulder and puncturing both his lungs. He spent a single night at Loyola hospital and returned to the job a few days later.

"Shit happens. You gotta keep moving on," said Meier, 24, of Wheeling.

It's race time, and Meier now hovers over the top of Bedroom Eyes' back but does not sit in the saddle exactly. Instead, he stands in the stirrups—the rest of his form crouched precariously over the horse with back arched. As the race starts and the horse bolts out of the gate, only the insides of Meier's feet and ankles are in contact with the animal as everything else is balanced in midair. It's a task best described in Laura Hillenbrand's book "Seabiscuit" as "much like perching on the grill of a car while it speeds down a twisting, potholed freeway in traffic."

Bedroom Eyes is a little slow to hit the gas in this race—she's dead last out of nine horses by several lengths. Thirty seconds later, however, Meier's mount takes the outside part of the track and stages a comeback. Meier wears four pairs of goggles, which are necessary because the dirt kicked up from the horses ahead keeps flying into his face and obscuring his vision—forcing him to switch pairs one at a time. With one hand gripping the reins, he whips the horse steadily to direct it forward while also concentrating on the position of his horse and those nearby.

One misstep could become the difference between victory and disaster.

"Lots of things are happening at the same time," said Meier. "The races are like a minute and a half, but you're trying to steer, use your whip and trying to make split second decisions. You react before you think. If you see a hole, you gotta go or not. The more you think, the more you get in trouble."

"Bedroom Eyes closing ground between horses," intones the public address announcer as Meier's horse zips past several competitors. Suddenly, he's a few yards out of first. But the race is over in just 80 seconds and Bedroom Eyes earns a third place finish behind winner Beauty of Scarlet—the same horse involved in the accident earlier in the month.

"It's a tough game and a tough life," Meier later says.


Tough is an understatement. To summarize a jockey's job as "riding a horse" is like saying that all a football player does is play catch.

"That's what a lot of people think, 'Well, you're just sitting in a saddle and riding,' " said jockey Timmy Thornton, 25, of Bridgeview. "But most people couldn't do what we do—go 40 miles an hour on a 1,200-pound animal trying to run off with you with 10 other horses all around you doing the same thing. There's a lot more to it than what most people think."

Among the uninitiated, horse racing is often saddled with the reputation as a boring old pastime for mint julep-sipping gentlemen or cigar-chomping gamblers and likewise, jockeys aren't often taken seriously as real athletes. But the young, 20-something riders at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero describe it as America's oldest extreme sport.

"It's like X-Games Horses," said apprentice rider Stephanie Slinger, 26, of Arlington Heights. "I'm an adrenaline junkie and I love intense sports, and that's exactly what this is."

Believe it or not, riding a horse in a race is considered more dangerous than any X Games event. A Medical Journal of Australia study from 2009 found that being a jockey is the second-riskiest career in the U.S. after offshore fisherman. They're more likely to be killed than skydivers, motorbike racers, boxers, loggers and pilots.

"I don't envy them. One fall could be a career-ending injury for them," said Chris Dorris, a horse owner and trainer at Hawthorne. "I know if I'd had the kind of accidents these kids have had, I'd be a little timid to be out there."

But the minute you start getting scared of what can happen is when you should retire, Thornton said.

"If you've got fear, you should get out of the game and get off the track. If you're worried and too cautious, that's when you make more mistakes and you're more dangerous to yourself and everyone around you."

With his long, shaggy dark hair, bright orange shirt with the word "California" scrawled across it, and laid-back attitude, Thornton looks like horse racing's answer to San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum.

"It's true, most people don't think I'm a jockey by looking at me," said Thornton. "They're like 'Yeah, sure you are, guy.' "

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