Darrell Haire knows he's one lucky former jockey. Despite breaking both shoulders, both collarbones, a leg, a foot, a wrist, a thumb, and his jaw before hanging up his racing silks at 32, the only thing bothering his 54-year-old body is the left knee kicked by a horse. He'd like to boost the odds that jockeys in Saturday's 137th Kentucky Derby come through relatively unscathed, too, which is why he spent Thursday afternoon making sure none of the cameras on the inside fence at Churchill Downs was sticking out.
"It could cause a horse to trip," said Haire, West Coast regional manager of the Jockeys' Guild of America, and an advocate for jockey health and safety. "I'm always trying to make things safer for these guys."
Despite the considerable beauty associated with thoroughbred racing and the glory for winners of the storied Run for the Roses, Haire never loses sight of what can go terribly wrong when a 115-pound rider mounts a 1,100-pound horse moving at 40 mph.
"I've been in the room three different times when they took riders off life support. Two of them were close friends of mine," he said. "When a horse steps on you, when they hit you, it's like a train. They destroy you."
From 1992-2006, there were 26 fatalities among jockeys in the thoroughbred and standardbred industry – an average of 5.6 deaths each year, according to an April 2009 report compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The authors said the figure likely was an underestimate. The Jockeys' Guild reported that more than 100 jockeys were killed from 1950 through the mid-1980s.
Dr. James Tibone, an orthopedic surgeon with the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, who treats jockeys at Hollywood Park, called horseracing "probably the highest-risk sport for dying."
Yet, jockeys are a resilient bunch: "They're tough. They don't complain about stuff. They hurt and they ride," said Tibone, a specialist in repairing shoulders, elbows and knees.
Although jockeys are small, ranging from 4-foot-10 to 5-foot-7, "they're very fit," he said. "They have no body fat. They're toned and they're in great aerobic shape." Tibone recalled that the late sports medicine pioneer Dr. Robert Kerlan, team physician for the L.A. Rams, Dodgers, and Lakers, as well legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker, "used to say they were the best-conditioned athletes he took care of."
These men and women (this weekend, Rosie Napravnik hopes to become the first female Derby winner) endure years of fractures, concussions, bruises and sprains, always aware that they could become paralyzed or die. Said Haire: "Riders know that's the risk they take and they just go with it."
As for pain, "they just block it out," Haire said. Fueled by a combination of fitness and adrenaline, "they go on with it."