UK launching three-year study of concussion in jockeys

Jockey Julien R. Leparoux was thrown from Here Comes Frazier during the Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland in 2011.
Jockey Julien R. Leparoux was thrown from Here Comes Frazier during the Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland in 2011.

In August, the University of Kentucky and the Jockeys’ Guild will kick off a three-year pilot study at the state’s Thoroughbred tracks designed to develop the first comprehensive concussion management protocol for jockeys.

Supported by major industry stakeholders, including the racetracks, owners groups and trainers groups, the study will conduct a baseline concussion assessment to test cognitive function for comparison to results after a fall.

Participating Kentucky racetracks include Turfway Park, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs.

The study will be overseen by Carl Mattacola, director of the Graduate Athletic Training Program in the UK College of Health Sciences. The three-year cost of $82,000 will be covered by national and state stakeholders, including the Jockeys’ Guild.

“We want to give the jockeys who suffer head injuries the best science has to offer, and an important first step toward that goal is to generate data from which an appropriate management protocol can be developed,” said Mattacola in a news release. “This project will leverage the full resources and knowledge base of UK’s Sports Medicine Research Institute and the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center to help create the first national protocol for concussion management in jockeys.”

Mattacola last year presented a report to the Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summit showing that 8.6 percent of falls by jockeys in races from 2012 to 2015 resulted in concussions, according to the Jockey Injury Database. But that doesn’t gauge the severity of the injuries.

The pre- and post-race testing will measure the severity of the injury and help determine when jockeys can be cleared to return to riding safely.

A doctoral student who is a licensed athletic trainer will conduct the testing, beginning with the meet at Turfway in August. If a jockey comes off a horse and shows signs or symptoms of a concussion, he or she will be required to undergo cognitive testing, Mattacola said. And they will not be able to return to riding until they are cleared.

The average time for a concussion to resolve is 3-7 days, Mattacola said. That could mean riders would be out of work, with very little financial safety net in Kentucky where they are not eligible for workers’ compensation, for at least a week.

But Mattacola said the jockeys seemed surprisingly OK with that circumstance.

“I presented this protocol and some of the data at the Jockeys’ Guild annual meeting in January and we had this discussion,” Mattacola said. “We were very careful to say this could mean someone could disqualify you from riding. I expected more push back … but they were supportive of putting their health and well-being first.”

The move for a concussion protocol for jockeys comes after other major sports including the British Horseracing Authority, Irish Turf Club, international show jumping, and the NFL, NBA, MLS, MLB, NCAA and NASCAR have moved to address the threat from head injuries that at one time seemed relatively minor.

“High school and middle school athletes have better concussion management than tracks do,” Mattacola said.

The goal of the study is to determine the efficiency of managing care, and how it could become a standard, to be incorporated at tracks throughout the country.

Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, said he welcomes racing finally getting involved in researching head injury.

“Our industry is 10 years behind everything,” he said. “Last year we finally started testing safety equipment, helmets and vests.”

Safety improvements over the years, including mandating vests and helmets, has resulted in fewer fatalities but more concussions, Meyocks said.

Jockeys have ridden in races they don’t remember afterward, presenting a possible danger to other riders and horses, he said. And he pointed to the case of jockey Gwen Jocson, a retired rider who has been diagnosed with brain injuries related to repeated head trauma.

“It’s not anybody’s best interest that this goes undiagnosed,” Meyocks said.

Asked which sport is more dangerous, football or racing, Mattacola said: “I think it’s different levels of potential contact. Repetitive contact, like in football, has potential for long-term damage,” he said. “But racing can be more catastrophic or severe.”

The next Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summit will be June 28 at Keeneland.