Brave face: Shelly Stone has needed round-the-clock attention, even for everyday tasks like brushing her teeth and dressing and undressing, since an awful accident seven years ago

It’s one the biggest challenges – if not the biggest – facing racing in the United States today: compensation for injured backstretch workers. Insuring they are provided for properly is an absolute need, but the cost is almost impossible to bear for the industry. This is the first of a major three-part report on the issue by Daniel Ross, during which he meets a wheelchair-bound former exercise rider whose ongoing plight will leave many lost for words …

In the early hours of February 18, 2011, Laurel Park racetrack was typically cold and overcast. And under the heavy gun-metal grey sky draped over the barns and the trees that ringed the track, exercise rider Shelly Stone was in a hurry.

The track was about to close for the renovation break, and Shelly needed to beat the clock with a strapping but bloody-minded young colt. Typically, she would take him out with another horse for company, but on this particular morning she was on her own. They did find another horse briefly at the start, but Shelly and the colt were too fast for their company, and quickly they were out alone.

When they reached the top of the turn not far from the inner rail, the colt propped and wheeled. Shelly’s left stirrup broke, and she was pitched over the rail onto the cold hard ground. Shelly landed on her knees, hunched forward, her head tucked up beneath her in a grim parody of an Ostrich.

“I knew something bad had happened because I couldn’t feel anything from the neck down,” she said. “I was fully awake the whole time, but I was trying to stay calm because I knew if I got upset then I wouldn’t be able to breathe.”

Agonizing cramps

Shelly suffered a broken neck, which has left her in a wheelchair with partial paralysis. Because her spinal cord wasn’t entirely severed, she suffered what is called quadriparesis, meaning that her body and all four limbs were severely weakened.

Shelly, 56, does have feeling in her limbs, but she still can’t stand unsupported, and, while she has use of her arms, her hands don’t function properly. The most painful vestige of the injury is the agonizing cramps she suffers daily due to spasticity – a condition where the atrophied muscles stiffen and contract.

“That’s how people end up bed-ridden with bed sores in an awful condition,” Shelly said. “It’s unbelievably painful.”

To this day, almost every day, Shelly endures hours of painful rehabilitative exercises just to stop her body from contracting into a ball. She describes the process as “a constant battle”. But this hasn’t been the only battle Shelly has been drawn into since her accident. For she was locked for years in a tug-of-war with Tower Insurance Co. of New York, the company responsible for covering her medical expenses.

Tower Insurance repeatedly threatened to curtail or cut completely some of Shelly’s vital therapy treatments and medical services, like her rehabilitative care, state records show. The company also repeatedly delayed payment, sometimes for weeks at a time, of these same medical treatments, prescriptions and services – sometimes refusing to pay them at all.