For those of you who might not know much about me yet, my off the track Standardbred Leo (West Point) and I are based in Alberta, Canada. While our focus is on eventing, we have been welcomed by the harness racing community here to learn more about the ins and outs of their sport. How they do things, why they do things, what works, what doesn’t, along with a number of tips and tricks that have been passed down, sometimes, through multiple generations of horsemen. Over the past year, I’ve come to know a number of members of this community and found great joy in watching their horses train and develop, talking to different trainers, drivers, and owners, and occasionally tagging along to the races.
This past Sunday (April 17, 2016) there was an accident during one of the races on Sunday afternoon at the harness racing track here in Alberta. A number of drivers were injured, and sadly one horse had to be humanely euthanized. Anyone who’s been in the horse industry long enough knows that being around horses can be quite dangerous given the wrong situation. We see it in harness racing, and we see it in eventing. They’re two very different sports, but both with their own sets of risks. While these moments are frequently outweighed by the amazing, breathtaking moments that everyone in the horse world strives and lives for, they still happen. And they suck. There’s no way around it. Sometimes it’s just a terrible situation, and you’re left wondering how exactly it happened, and what your next step should be.
Of course the severity of these incidents can be managed per se. Everyone goes through proper training – typically under the guidance of someone experienced in the industry like a coach, a parent, or a mentor of some sort. Drivers and riders are taught to pull up rather than jeopardize the safety of themselves, their horses, and others. There are rules and guidelines in place to try and prevent unfortunate things from happening, and make sure that riders/drivers are not faced with situations they can’t handle. Steps you have to follow in order to be allowed to drive in a race, or move up the levels in eventing. And there’s safety gear. Helmets are mandatory. Other pieces of equipment, like safety vests to protect the user from crush injuries, are being seen more and more regularly in harness racing, and are required for cross country in eventing. Harnesses and tack are checked before the horses go out to compete. During races or competitions, officials and medical professionals are on site, ready to jump in and assist if the need arises. All of these steps are implemented and reviewed regularly to make sure each horse and rider/driver pair is entering that race, or heading out for that round in their best case scenario. But sometimes, despite this, accidents still happen. Riders, drivers, and/or horses go down, and everyone’s left trying to sort out what went wrong and determine if everyone’s okay. Unavoidable, awful, tragic, accidents.
Every time I’ve seen this happen, both in eventing and harness racing, without fail, the community has been there to help. It’s incredible the compassion these athletes and their teams show for each other. Instantly, everyone jumps in to help, in some cases dropping what they’re doing and sprinting from the barns. Grooms, drivers, riders, coaches, trainers, parents, families. They’re all there, ready to help best they can. Whether it’s untangling horses from harness, dusting off a rider or driver, holding onto a horse, comforting a significant other, helping an injured horse onto a trailer or offering to look after someone’s entire string so that they can go get medical attention. (Granted, true to form, horsemen never go anywhere until they know their horses are looked after.)
Recently, in the harness racing world there have been a number of online fundraiser pages set up to help support those who can’t support themselves, and the response to those pages has been global. When a fellow horseman is injured there is a lineup of people waiting to jump in and assist. Owners and trainers will offer what services they can, donate equipment or offer to house displaced horses. Drivers will donate their cut of the purse to another horseman in need. People will jog horses, ship horses, and racehorses for someone who can’t. Sunday was no exception to this remarkable aspect of the harness racing community.
Despite all this, there was an accident. No one was at fault. It was truly an accident. Sadly, this accident had an unfortunate outcome with someone in the community losing their four-legged teammate, and three drivers falling from their race bikes. But, even though they all compete against each other, they were all there for each other as well. They were there to help load the passed horse’s equipment into his owners trailer and offer condolences. They were there to visit the drivers being treated in the ambulance. And they were there to help those affected by the accident race their remaining horses and finish the day together.
The support in this industry goes past the formal, polite, obligatory handshakes seen in other sports at the end of game. Usually accompanied by a rather reluctant murmur of ‘good game’. Unfortunately, most people’s knowledge of the racehorse industry is only what they can see on television. The horses come onto the track, run around as fast as they can to make some money, and go back to the barns. Because of this the race industry so often gets slammed with the stigma of being dog-eat-dog, and drivers and trainers ruthlessly pushing their horses, and battling each other just to take home a paycheque. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, and those who would rather cheat the game than play fair. But by and large, it’s not like that. Not at all.
What you’ll find is an astonishing community of horsemen who care for each other and their horses. Being successful in the harness horse industry often requires long, hard hours. It’s not an easy job, and many of them wouldn’t even call it a job. It’s a lifestyle. But if there is a member of the community in need, they’re happy to help. Even if it means an 18 hour day turns into a 20 hour one. If you ask them why they do it – the extended hours and the tough and arduous work – many of the people in the racing industry would tell you it’s because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else, and they wouldn’t want to. This underlying care that extends from the individual barns to the other people and their horses is one of the gems of the harness racing world. Notwithstanding they are competitors, they are a community first, and like in all communities there are good times, and bad times, emotional joy and passing despair. All this only serves to strengthen the bond within the community.
Does this mean we should just accept these accidents as they are and not endeavor to decrease the frequency with which they occur? No, of course not. One crash is too many. Can we continue to improve safety measures for both horses and their handlers? Absolutely! And we should.
As always, I’m ever so impressed by the horsemen of this industry and how they choose to respond to events such as this. I give my sincere condolences to all those connected to Pass the Port following the accident at Century Downs. I wish all the drivers and horses who were involved a swift and full recovery.