All the details remain clear in Paul Nolan’s mind, 14 months after that terrifying day at Will Rogers Downs. How his horse stepped in a hole and buckled as he galloped past the finish line in the eighth race. How his body “went fuzzy” as he lay in the Oklahoma dirt, unable to move his limbs, after his mount rolled over on him twice.
And how, when the longtime Canterbury Park jockey realized the fate that awaited him, he considered that death might be his best option.
“I was scared,” Nolan said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I couldn’t breathe. At that moment, I thought, ‘If I just stick my face in the dirt real hard, I could finish it.’ I didn’t know if I could live like this.”
To Nolan, that meant relying on a wheelchair, spending days in painful physical therapy, learning how to walk again and regain full use of his arms and hands. That has been his life’s work since April 18, 2017, when his four-decade career in one of sports’ most perilous professions was halted by a deep contusion to his C3 vertebra.
Every jockey knows that every time they step onto the racetrack, their ride could end in death, paralysis, lengthy hospital stays or seven-figure medical bills. According to the Jockeys’ Guild, 157 riders have died on the track since 1940. Another 59 are being supported by the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which raised $259,000 for its mission in a benefit Saturday at Canterbury Park.
Racing’s inherent danger is compounded by a lack of uniform safety standards at U.S. tracks. Jockeys’ Guild national manager Terry Meyocks said American racing is “far behind” other countries in mandating minimum health and safety thresholds for riders, and even tracks accredited by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety & Integrity Alliance do not always follow the requirements.
“We’re in a dangerous industry, and jockeys realize that,” Meyocks said. “But the industry needs to do a better job, and it can.”
Nolan said the ambulance that picked him up at Will Rogers Downs was “a rickety old thing” that did not have oxygen on board, and it was delayed because the driver was getting a hamburger in the grandstand. While the Tulsa-area track did carry $1 million in accident insurance — the industry standard — Nolan said the track “was not set up” to respond to a serious injury. He also fears the insurance money is nearly tapped out, though the cost of his care continues to escalate.
A rider who guided his mounts to 1,662 victories and $19.2 million in purses now relies on payments of $400 per week — $200 each from the Jockeys’ Guild and the track’s insurance — to support him and his wife, Sherry. Doctors do not know how complete Nolan’s recovery might be, or how long it will take.
But the jovial, ginger-haired Englishman has not lost his fighting spirit, his good humor or his hope.
“When something like this happens, you have two choices,” said Nolan, who lives in Bloomington. “You can be miserable, or you can be happy and joyful. My choice is to be happy.
“But I still have a hard time with it. One day, I was in therapy, and I was picking up blocks. I broke down and started crying. I’ve gone from riding racehorses to picking up blocks. And that just breaks my heart.”
Three popular Canterbury jockeys — Nolan, Anne Von Rosen and Tad Leggett — have been disabled by serious racing accidents in the past eight years. Von Rosen’s T5 vertebra was crushed in 2014 when her mount collapsed and fell on her at Arizona’s Turf Paradise.
Leggett became a quadriplegic in 2010, as three vertebra in his neck were smashed in a similar accident at Fair Meadows in Oklahoma.
No jockeys have been killed or permanently disabled at Canterbury Park, but the Shakopee track has seen its share of frightening incidents. Scott Stevens was airlifted from the infield in 2010 after his mount broke down during a race and another horse ran over him, leaving him with punctured lungs, broken collarbones and ribs and a ruptured spleen.
“I really don’t think the public understands how dangerous it is,” said Stevens, a former Canterbury champion now riding in Arizona and Colorado. “When I had that accident, I didn’t know if I was going to make it off the track.
“When you’re out there on a horse, you don’t think about the risks. You can’t have any fear, or your career will be over. But you see Paul or Anne, and you realize just how fast your life can change.”
Nolan used to joke about the danger of being a jockey, noting it is the only profession in which an ambulance follows employees around their workplace. He has three plates in his face from a previous riding accident and has had dislocated shoulders, multiple concussions and fractures to his leg, foot, ankle, nose, shoulder and vertebrae.
Like most jockeys, Nolan does not have his own insurance. Their high-risk job makes it extremely expensive to get, if they can get it at all; Meyocks said premiums can run as high as $12,600 per year in a profession where the median income is about $30,000.
Jockeys are not eligible for workers’ compensation in Minnesota or 45 other states, leaving them covered only by the tracks’ insurance and the benefits some can receive through the Jockeys’ Guild.
Racing has no national governing body, nor are there any federal laws regulating jockey safety. The Association of Racing Commissioners International has a set of “model rules” it urges states to adopt, and the NTRA’s Safety & Integrity Alliance certifies tracks that institute a list of protective measures.
Those include examining horses for soundness before races, mandating proper helmets and vests, maintaining a properly equipped ambulance staffed by paramedics and carrying at least $1 million in accident insurance.
But few tracks are willing to pay for all that, and Meyocks alleged that even NTRA-certified tracks are not always following every rule. It’s a frustrating situation for the Jockeys’ Guild, which loudly advocates for change.
“We know accidents are going to happen,” Meyocks said. “Our industry needs to do everything we can to prevent them. We have to collaborate, and people need to do the right thing. Jockeys and exercise riders are human beings.”
Canterbury sound on safety
Though Meyocks said every track can do more, he praised Canterbury Park for its commitment to safety. An NTRA-certified venue, it has long required horses to pass soundness exams and was an early adopter of the $1 million insurance standard.
Canterbury also installed new, safer rails on its turf course last year and is a chief supporter of the Leg Up Fund, which provides short-term financial assistance to jockeys injured at Canterbury. President Randy Sampson said it was the first track to bring its medical response team in-house; Canterbury bought its own ambulance and hired its own paramedics to ensure jockeys get the best care as quickly as possible.
“Some of the little bush tracks, you see the equipment they have, and you say, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Sampson said. “You don’t know if they have the right insurance, or if they’re spending enough to take care of their track surface.
“This is an area we want to be a leader in. Yes, there’s a cost factor. But this isn’t an area where you want to compromise.”
Canterbury has held national jockey-assistance fundraisers before, but Sampson said the injuries to Nolan, Von Rosen and Leggett made Saturday’s event feel much more personal. Nolan was known as the “Sod Surgeon” for his precision in bringing home winners on the turf course, and the track’s 2006 riding champion has been among its most popular jockeys since he began riding in Shakopee in the 1990s.
After three months at Craig Hospital, Nolan returned to Minnesota and is continuing his therapy at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley. He quickly regained some movement in his legs and can walk short distances with assistance, wearing leg braces adorned with a war horse logo. In September, Nolan began moving his arms again, just before jockey Mario Chavez was killed at Will Rogers Downs when he fell after his horse slammed into the inside rail.
Nolan’s usually sunny disposition still encounters the occasional dark cloud. When that happens, he recalls the times when trainers or handicappers doubted his ability in the saddle. He never failed to prove them wrong, and he doesn’t intend to stop now.
“When I was at Craig Hospital, a doctor told me I should start thinking that this was how I was going to be for the rest of my life,” Nolan said. “I said, ‘Don’t you take away my hope. Don’t you tell me what I can do.’
“Jockeys have more guts in their little finger than most people have in their whole body. I’m telling you, don’t ever count me out.”