By Daniel Ross

This is the third part of a special report on one of the biggest challenges facing horse racing in the United States – workers’ compensation. In parts one and two, Daniel Ross told the story of Shelly Stone, a former exercise rider who, nearly seven years ago, was left wheelchair-bound after a riding accident during training at Laurel Park. Her story highlights some of the glaring cracks in America’s workers’ compensation system.

Here he explores the toll the accident has taken on Shelly and her family. He also looks at some of the self-insured programs implemented around the country, and asks the question: can and should these same programs be adopted in other states?

Shelly Stone wasn’t born into the sport. Her parents didn’t own horses. Her father, Stephen, was a doctor. Her mother was an administrative assistant at a local court house. But Shelly couldn’t have been engineered any better for the game.

Even at her adult riding weight, she clocked in at a feather-light 103 lbs. As Shelly’s brother, Andy, describes it, “she was a great athlete and she was a great rider. She had nerves of steel and she was really strong.”

Indeed, Shelly was a precocious athlete. At four, she could walk on her hands. “She was a phenomenon,” said Stephen, now an exercise physiologist who oversees his daughter’s therapy.

Racetrack life

The horse bug bit Shelly young – the racing fever settled in soon after. She started riding when she was ten. And, though Shelly enjoyed something of a nomadic childhood, the Stones settled in Maryland when she was 13, just down the street from the now defunct Bowie racetrack, where “everyday” she saw the racehorses on the merry-go-round of racetrack life.

“And so, for whatever reason,” she said, “I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

Shelly started as a hotwalker before veteran handler Roy Peacock taught her to ride racehorses. “Back then, you could do that – learn to ride on the racetrack,” she said. “Now, you’ve got to go to a farm.”

Pint-sized and tough as conkers, it was almost inevitable that Shelly’s thoughts would turn to race-riding, and, in her late 20s, she spent a couple of years riding at the weekend fair meets in Arizona. She rode a handful of winners. “And I was getting better,” she said. “Some guy once said to me, ‘I want to take you to Maryland [to ride].’ And I said, ‘I’ve just come from Maryland!’”

But this was a time when female jockeys were even less ubiquitous than they are now. “The only female jockey doing any good was Julie Krone. That was it. There weren’t any others around except at the cheap racetracks.”