O.J. Waddell, the paraplegic who is trying to earn a license to drive in parimutuel harness races in California, finished fourth in a non-betting qualifying race Wednesday night at Los Alamitos, then suggested afterward that the state stewards should soften their rules and accredit him immediately.
Driving Hutt Girl, a 7-year-old mare he claimed for $4,500 last month, Waddell was sitting behind a horse, Road Nuke, that broke stride going into the first turn. Waddell was able to avoid trouble before tucking his horse into a position on the rail going down the backstretch. He then brought Hutt Girl to the outside for the stretch drive and was overhauled by Too Wild To Care for third place in the final strides. Smart Offer, driven by Rod Hennessy, was first in 2:01 1/5 and Fax The Facts finished second. Hutt Girl was beaten by 10 lengths.
"I think I drove like an experienced driver," Waddell said after driving in his first qualifier. "A young driver and there could have been a pileup [when Road Nuke broke stride]. Maybe everybody didn't expect me to be that sharp, but I was."
Fledgling drivers are expected to drive in 12 qualifying races during a six-month span, and the Los Alamitos stewards indicated they would not make an exception for Waddell.
"We'll use the same criteria that we use for everybody else," said Peter Tommila, one of the stewards. "It's up to [Waddell]. If he had other horses to drive [in the qualifiers], it would speed up the process. In this race, he handled himself very well. There were no violations. He was two horses behind the horse that broke, and he handled that well."
Waddell, 36, has been confined to a wheelchair since 1979, when he was shot in the back at a college party. He has been around horses since he was 6, when his father, Jim Waddell, bought him his first horse.
Among other drivers, there's been a mixed reaction to Waddell.
"I give him all the credit in the world," said Jim Lackey, a leading driver who was in the buggy with Too Wild To Care. "He's got a lot of heart and courage. But if he continues with this, eventually he will get hurt. He lacks the maneuverability. Legs are an integral part of driving and he doesn't have that."