It was opening day at Turf Paradise, a racetrack surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges north of Phoenix. As the seventh race approached, a riderless lead pony sporting a saddle belonging to jockey Mark Anthony Villa led the field of thoroughbreds to the post.
As the starting gate opened and the runners galloped down the turf course, there was no race call, just a somber silence. It was a heart-wrenching moment that paid tribute to Villa, who died at age 44 from head and neck trauma on Sept. 25, at Zia Park in New Mexico. After his 2-year-old Separate Money broke down at the finish line while qualifying for the $300,000 Hobbs Quarter Horse Futurity, Villa was thrown to the ground, and trampled by a trailing horse.
Villa had notched 1,726 career winners, and was the second leading rider at the Ruidiso (New Mexico) meet in 2010. Villa’s death came on the heels of a horrific spill by jockey Michael Martinez who suffered a severed spinal cord and a major head injury at Golden Gate Fields (Calif.) on September 12th. The tragedies unfolded during the time of the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Lexington, Ky., where an inflatable air jacket was being spotlighted as a rider’s newest safety gear.
The Eventing world has been hit especially hard by serious injuries and deaths where riders and their mounts are required to negotiate large, technical fences at top speeds. The numbers are staggering with 37 riders being killed as a result of rotational falls since 1997.
Since 2008, Point Two air jackets have focused on protecting U. S. Olympians and casual equestrian riders with their innovative technologies, and the World Equestrian Games provided a forum to spread the word that the body's protection is as important as that of the rider's head. Seventy percent of the riders competing at WEG-- including team members of USA, UK, Sweden, Canada, and Australia-- were wearing the air vest, according to Point Two USA co-founder Craig Martin.
In addition, Point Two USA has signed up some of the country’s leading eventing riders including Chester County’s Boyd Martin and Buck Davidson Jr., who wore the air vest at the World Equestrian Games.
“Protecting a rider’s vital organs through the use of the Point Two Air Jacket is as important as protecting their heads with helmets,” related Martin, 37. “We have seen the world’s best riders bounce back into competition after a fall that previously would have prevented immediate competition and training. And it is great these world renowned athletes are taking the leadership to educate the casual and youth rider.”
In the Martinez spill, his mount clipped heels with another horse rounding a turn and the 24 year-old jockey was pitched from his horse that then fell on him. He suffered serious head trauma, six broken ribs and a severed spinal cord that left him paralyzed from the waist down. At the time Martinez was ranked No. 13 in the U. S. with 168 victories. His devastating injuries are considered a classic example of how air vests are intended to protect jockeys.
Air vests’ roots lie in other notoriously dangerous sports, motorcycle racing and motorcross. Originally introduced by the Japanese company Hit Air to motorcyclists in the 1990s, in recent years the technology has crept into the European horse world.
The English company Point Two adapted those air vests for use in the sport horse world and began distributing them at top Europeans competitions in 2009. The two-pound vest is worn over a traditional protective vest made of high-density foam. When a rider is tossed from a horse, the vest’s lanyard is pulled, puncturing a cartridge filled with carbon dioxide, thus inflating the vest. The vest can be reused after the cartridge is replaced.
Transport Research Laboratory, a non-profit group in Britain, independently tested the air vest and found it improved protection of the spine by 69 percent when worn over a protective vest, and reduced the risk of rib fractures and underlying organ damage by as much as 20 percent. FEI, the governing body of equestrian sports, recommends the use of the air vests but does not require them because the collection of safety data is still ongoing.
Point Two says it has sold about 10,000 air jackets in the last 18 months, including 6,000 sales to eventing riders. Its newest innovation is the Hybrid Racing jacket specifically designed for the racetrack. A combination of the Point Two Pro Air and a standard flak jacket, it sells for roughly $600. The cost of a traditional flak jacket jockeys wear is about $300.
Sole distribution rights for the Point Two air jacket in the U. S. were granted to a pair of former international show jumpers, Craig Martin and Sharn Wordley. They are founders of Wordley Martin Equestrian, located in Ocala, Fla., that provides equestrian arena architecture, construction, installation and footing products. They brought air jackets to the American equestrian market in 2009.
The air jackets have quickly gained popularity in the eventing community, but U. S. horseracing is quite another story. Consider that it took a span of 20 years (between the early 1900s and the 1920s) for jockey goggles to be considered standard equipment. Ever seen what goggles look like after a race on a muddy track? And, as jockeys switch lenses during sloppy races, they could be the last ones of five or six worn during the race. It was the mid-1950s before helmets were mandated for the sport. Prior to that era, jockeys donned what best could be called a leather beanie.
Race jockeys have strict weight requirements, thus may be resistant to added gear that could hinder the split-second body responses while riding in morning workouts or afternoon racing. And, then there is the starting gate, where some horses are known to turn suddenly rear up or turn fractious, potentially inflating the vest prematurely.
Sean Clancy rode steeplechase races professionally for 13 years. He won a total of 152 races and a national championship in 1998, before retiring in 2000. Clancy has been testing Point Two’s air vest since last spring while riding his wife’s hunters at his farm in Middleburg, Va.
“It’s less bulky than the eventing air vest; it’s almost like a fishing vest,” Clancy observed. “You’ve got very good body movement. I’ve gotten on a horse and clipped it to the saddle and I don’t even notice it is there. Sort of like wearing a chin strap.”
Clancy has yet to take a spill while wearing it, but he asked a friend to pull the ripcord on the air vest while he was standing on the ground.
“It’s a pretty good jolt, the same suddenness as an airbag striking you in a car,” Clancy explained. “For eventing, foxhunting and solo horse sports, the air vest would seem to be a no-brainer. But with flat racing, there is a time element so that’s a bit more pressure for the rider. And a dozen jockeys may be wearing it. What happens if it goes off while the minutes are ticking down in the post parade?
“Ideally, there might be some kind of sensor built into the vest that is activated when starting gates open which would prevent any deployments in the gate if your horse acted up.”
Clancy was one of a handful of jump jockeys in the late 1980s that were the first ones to wear a flak jacket at Saratoga galloping horses in the morning.
“The flat jockeys were laughing at us,” Clancy recalled with a laugh. “There has always been a macho thing in the sport. But with time, a lot of the safety equipment has been implemented.
“Point Two is taking a lot of positive steps and as they work the bugs out I could see it as a beneficial piece of equipment that saves lives and cuts back on injuries. It’s a safety product that is continuing to evolve, and that is always good for racing.”
A lifelong equestrian, avid fox hunter and amateur steeplechase rider, Lee Middleton founded the parent company Point Two in England in 2008. He is the son of Phil Middleton, a former jockey and racehorse trainer. The elder Middleton is also a founding partner of Equine America, the international nutraceutical company that manufactures and markets Cortaflex, a supplement that ensures that a horse gets adequate nutrition to drive it to perform better.
After testing several developmental air vests, Point Two produced a one-piece Hybrid Racing air vest where the airbag is incorporated into the jockey’s regular stiff protective vest, a flak jacket. It is sewn outside the normal vest with a light mesh. The lanyard, the neck support, and the volume of the airbag are the same as on the original vest, but the method of clipping the lanyard to the race saddle is slightly different.
When the rider comes off the saddle, the lanyard snaps from the cartridge, triggering the release of carbon dioxide, which inflates pockets inside the vest. It protects riders by inflating within 0.1 of a second after separation from their horse, providing body protection and helping cushion the impact to the vital organs, spine, base of the neck, ribs and back, according to Lee Middleton.
Point Two air jackets have already made strong inroads with the steeplechase racehorse community in Ireland and England. A. P. McCoy and Ruby Walsh, two top jump jockeys in the UK, have been riding out in the Hybrid Racing air jacket for last couple of months and have been quite pleased, according to Lee Middleton.
“Riders (eventing and steeplechase) who are wearing the Point Two Air Jackets are now walking away from potentially life altering accidents, so we must be on the right track,” Middleton maintained.
Since last summer, several U. S. flat racing jockeys have been wearing the air vest as they head to post, including Franciso Duran who rides at Golden Gate Fields, the home track of the seriously injured jockey Martinez. Point Two USA is gearing up production of the Hybrid Racing air jacket for a large push in early 2011.
The company is putting into production a “dump valve”, which will allow the jockeys to deflate the Point Two air jacket in the event of early triggering.
“We understand that in flat racing the jockeys are reluctant because if it goes off unnecessarily, they’ve lost the race,” due to the increased wind resistance the vest creates, said Martin, 37, whose grandfather was a race jockey. “Riders in the sport horse world have popped out of the saddle and into the air without activating the vest. With 10,000 riders in the eventing world, premature activation has never been an issue.”
A native of Tauranga, New Zealand, Martin has been a good friend of Point Two’s founder Lee Middleton for 15 years. He says Point Two is in the beginning phases of developing the new Acceleromator technology, which will employ the use of sensors to detect a horse or rider falling. The new technology’s goal is that eventually all jockeys will ride without a lanyard.
Martin Point Two USA promoted the new Hybrid Racing air vests to jockeys and trainers at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup championships in early November. “We’re doing this out of passion for the sport,” Martin related. “We’ve had friends in the sport horse world who have been killed or seriously injured in falls, so this is personal with us. The company is continually evolving the product as new technology comes forward. We’re not going anywhere. Our goal is to make racing safer for the jockeys.”
Email horseracing writer Terry Conway at email@example.com.