By John McMurray
Mike Luzzi, a veteran jockey, knows about injuries.
During the first race at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens this year, Luzzi fell to the track when his horse, Land Mine, stumbled and threw him. Luzzi lay on the brown, slightly wet dirt for about a minute before he got up and went to seek medical attention inside. He had been there before.
That time, Luzzi escaped serious injury, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“Once after a horse stepped on my ankle and broke it in Florida,” Luzzi said, “the doctor looked at it and said to me, ‘Are you a motorcycle rider?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m a professional jockey.’ And he just looked at me and said, ‘Oh!’
In a sport that is built on speed and uncertainty, injuries to jockeys in professional horse racing are inevitable if they race long enough. As in professional football, the question is not if a jockey will be injured, but when. Because jockeys are small and wear little protective equipment, their injuries are often severe.
Luzzi, who stands 5 foot 3 and weighs 112 pounds, has won more than 2,000 races during his 18-year career. He also has shattered his ankle, had eight screws placed into his right foot, broken his wrist and his femur, and, as he put it, “had a 12-inch rod put inside my bone marrow.”
In spite of his injuries, Luzzi, 36, says that he does not suffer from chronic pain.
“All of my injuries were freak accidents,” he said with a wry smile. “Like when I broke my leg after the starting gate got stuck. Yes, there are risks of getting crushed in there under a thousand-pound horse or being pinned against the metal gate, but most of the time, there aren’t any problems.”
“I just don’t think about it,” Samyn said. “What I’m worried about are things like my cholesterol.”
But the dangers for jockeys are always there.
Jockey injuries are not necessarily limited to the track.
After a 1983 race in Arkansas, Randy Romero had already covered his body in rubbing alcohol to go into a sweatbox to try to lose weight when he accidentally brushed against a light bulb, which set him on fire and left him with second- and third-degree burns on more than two-thirds his body.
Seven months later, he was racing again.
“It’s like a football player who breaks his leg and wants to get back out there as fast as possible,” said Channing Hill, a teenage jockey. “It’s our job. Luckily for me, the only major injury I’ve had is a fractured vertebra.”
Steve Hirck, an outrider at Aqueduct who calls for help whenever a horse is injured, estimates that two or three injuries occur at the track each week.
“When you’re going 40 miles per hour, and you land on your head, anything can happen,” Hirck said. “The jocks have helmets and vests, but anything else would be too much weight.”
Youth can be a real advantage. “These young kids, they hit the track and they bounce,” Hirck said. “Most of the time, it turns out OK.”
Many jockeys chalk up safety to the luck of the draw. A horse, for instance, can fall in front of a jockey on the track, causing a chain reaction that is out of the jockey’s control.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” said Luzzi. “It happens to everybody.”