By Ray Paulick
From the Paulick Report

Near Disaster“We’re lucky someone didn’t get killed.”

That’s what Jockeys’ Guild national manager Terry Meyocks said about the jockeys involved in an incident in Saturday’s fourth race at West Virginia’s Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races when a loose horse, going the wrong way up the stretch, ran into an oncoming horse in a contest that was not stopped by stewards until it was too late.

The mishap began after Winningaswespeak clipped heels and fell, throwing jockey Carlos Marrero, on the clubhouse turn of the 1 1/16-mile race run over the six-furlong bullring.

As the field made its way down the backstretch (about a minute and eight seconds into the race), track announcer Jeff Cernik picked up on what was happening. “We have a loose horse on the track, No. 6, loose on the track is running up through the stretch, running up through the stretch along the rail,” the track announcer said.

Then, as the horses were rounding the final turn, about 25 seconds after his first warning, Cernik tried to alert the riders again. “Look out,” he said, “loose horse on the track, on the turn, coming at the riders.”

The riders may or may not have heard the track announcer’s warning. Jockeys on the lead horses saw Winningaswespeak racing toward them on the turn and came off the rail. But Carlos Castro, aboard Frisky Dixie and directly behind other horses, was rallying up the inside. Castro could not get his mount out of the way in time and the two horses collided, both going down immediately. A trailing runner, Fab Autumn Girl, tripped over Frisky Dixie, throwing jockey Ramon Maldonado to the ground. Both jockeys scrambled quickly to their feet.

The head-on collision occurred 51 seconds after the first horse went down and 29 seconds after the track announcer’s initial warning.

None of the riders was seriously injured, according to Meyocks. (UPDATE) Frisky Dixie was euthanized as a result of a shoulder fracture.

Chris McErlean, vice president-racing for Penn National Gaming, the owner of Charles Town, said the track is equipped with a warning system for such incidents. McErlean was not at Charles Town (nor was the Charles Town vice president of racing operations, Erich Zimny, who was traveling) and said he could not confirm reports that the system was not put to use after Winningaswespeak fell and began running the wrong way. McErlean did not know if the warning system had lights, a siren, or both.

Danny Wright, chief steward at Charles Town for the West Virginia Racing Commission, did not respond to emails or phone messages left on his cell phone on Sunday.

The video of Saturday’s fourth race was removed from the Charles Town website and some other online replay services Sunday afternoon after Penn National officials were asked about the incident.

The NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance includes a warning system requirement in its Code of Standards. “We require that tracks have an early warning system – lights or siren, but preferably both,” said Mike Ziegler, executive director of the NTRA Safety Alliance.

None of the Penn National Gaming tracks, including Charles Town, have sought accreditation from the NTRA Safety Alliance.

The Racing Officials Accreditation Program states in its 2013 Points of Emphasis that “all tracks should be equipped with a siren and flashing lights that can be readily heard and seen by all participants on the racetrack.”

In the event of an incident similar to what happened at Charles Town, the Points of Emphasis go on to say, “The siren and lights should be immediately turned on; the outriders should be alerted by radio to make sure the jockeys pull up their horses, the announcer should also announce that the jockeys are to pull up their horses; and any on-track personnel such as assistant starters, patrol judges, track vets or ambulance crew should, without getting in the way, also assist in making sure the jockeys know to pull up their horses.”

These Points of Emphasis state that stewards should “err on the side of safety” in these instances and declare the race a “no contest.”

Outriders for the race were stationed at the top of the backstretch for the 1 1/16-mile start and not in position to prevent Winningaswespeak from running in the wrong direction up the stretch.

Two weeks earlier, some horseplayers complained when stewards at Charles Town declared a no contest when a jockey was thrown from his mount shortly after the start of a seven-furlong race, which begins at the top of the stretch. The fallen rider was moved to the inside rail before the horses circled the oval and reached the stretch a second time, but by then the race was stopped by the stewards.

Head-on collisions are rare in racing. One of the worst accidents ever seen, at Prescott Downs on Aug. 26, 2000, nearly killed jockey Stacy Burton, who is now permanently disabled as a result.

The video of Burton’s accident is painful to watch, but racing officials need to see what can happen if they don’t take swift and decisive action to call off a race when a loose horse is running the wrong way. Racetrack managers not willing to invest in potentially live-saving equipment also need to watch this video.

As Terry Meyocks said, “Everyone should prepare for a worst-case scenario. It could happen in any race at any time and every track needs to prepare for it.”