Nine days ago, on the first anniversary of Monarchos' victory in the Kentucky Derby, Yvonne Azeff struggled to get to Churchill Downs for a television interview. Then, before the 128th Derby was run, she went back to her Louisville home to watch the race on TV.
Azeff, an assistant to John Ward Jr., the trainer of Monarchos, has been getting about with a walker since her release from the hospital three weeks ago. At Gulfstream Park near Miami this winter, she suffered serious brain damage, among other injuries, when a stable pony inexplicably spooked, careened into a chain-link fence and fell on the 40-year-old career horsewoman. Azeff was in a coma for three weeks and didn't utter a word for four.
"I'm doing good, but I'm not much at covering a distance of ground," the good-humored Azeff said the other day, lapsing into the racetrack vernacular that she frequently uses. "Right now I think I'm more suited for a sprint rather than a route [race]. We didn't have a horse in this Derby, and the hassle of the crowd [more than 145,000] would have been too much."
On Saturday, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore will run the Preakness, the second race in the Triple Crown series, and Azeff thus far has resisted the temptation to travel to Maryland, where Booklet, a colt she and Ward have trained, will try to foil War Emblem, the Derby winner. Azeff is getting better after her serious accident. She remains, however, a paradox, an unkept statistic in a sport that otherwise thrives on minutiae.
The Jockeys' Guild, for instance, keeps accurate records that reflect how dangerous it is to ride in races--144 rider deaths since 1940--but the horse industry fails to catalog the deaths and crippling injuries that occur during the morning training hours at racetracks, where hundreds of horses, many inexperienced and high-strung, vie for space as their handlers prepare them for their racing assignments.
"I don't have any statistics--nobody does--but I'll grant you that there are just as many serious accidents in the mornings as there are during the races," said Charlie Woods, a Kentucky jockey who has been riding for more than 25 years. "I've seen [morning] riders killed. I've seen guys wind up in wheelchairs. This is because you've got so much going on at one time. Some horses are working [running against the stopwatch], others are just galloping, and with all these horses, there's no real traffic pattern. Many of these horses are galloping the wrong way [clockwise] around the track."
Woods, about to work a nervous filly out of the starting gate at Churchill Downs four years ago, was crushed when the horse fell on him.
"She had a history of not liking the gate, but I wasn't told that," said Woods, who has won more than 2,800 races since breaking his pelvis in four places in the 11th race he ever rode.
The nervous filly's name was Marty's Party. Another horse nearby kicked dirt as Marty's Party was ready to enter the gate. Frightened, she wheeled around, dumped Woods and fell on him, breaking his thumb and shattering his wrist. He underwent four operations in the next two years, with plates and screws inserted each time to reinforce the wrist, and finally a nerve was cut to alleviate lingering pain.
That accident happened on July 29, 1998.
On July 29, 2001, Woods was riding at Ellis Park in northern Kentucky when he went down in a race spill, breaking a knee and some ribs and injuring a shoulder.
"I think the message is clear," Woods said. "I shouldn't be anywhere near a horse this July 29."
Many states, California among them, have helmet rules for morning riders. In Florida, where Azeff was injured, the helmet is optional and she wasn't wearing one--but the average rider is outweighed 9 to 1 by a horse, which makes for a physical mismatch when the animal panics.
Sheri Garcia, 37, was killed on a drizzly morning at Pimlico in late March, less than two weeks from the day she'd hoped to ride in her first race. Garcia, aboard an unraced 3-year-old filly she and her husband, trainer Michael Garcia, had just bought, lost control and was slammed into the half-mile pole on the track's backstretch. She was wearing a safety vest as well as a helmet.
"It's funny about the helmet," said trainer Charles Frock, who employed Garcia and tried to revive her at the scene of the accident. "As hard as she hit, the helmet was intact. It wasn't broke or anything."
When Azeff was injured at Gulfstream Park, trainer Allen Jerkens instinctively recalled 1994, when one of his exercise riders was killed during the early morning hours at the same track. In New York, trainer Del Carroll II was reminded of how his father, a consummate horseman, had been killed while trying to control a runaway horse at Keeneland 20 years before.