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    Photos by Mickie Winters

    Only a jockey can metabolize the risk of injury with such soft, agreeable ease. “It’s the only job where an ambulance follows you while you work,” a longtime jockey once said to me with a slight smile. Bruises and shattered bones are certain, if riders stick with the sport. Sometimes the injuries are far worse, paralyzing. What cradles the fear? Keeping it hushed, hidden from the forethought of dire possibilities, no lever to grasp at but confidence.

    Gary Birzer knew the risk. His father was a jockey in the 1960s, then a trainer. His older brother, Alex, still races. His mom briefly worked as Alex’s agent in the ’90s. Helping his dad in the barns as a teenager, cleaning buckets and rolling leg wraps, that ignited Gary Birzer’s interest. Fully grown at five feet tall and 110 pounds, nature notarized his future.

    Birzer knew the risk at about 10 p.m. on July 20, 2004, mounting his horse Lil Bit of Rouge for the seventh race of the night at Mountaineer Park in Northern West Virginia. His wife, Amy, was in the crowd only because it was pay night and Birzer had forgotten his checkbook. She brought it to him so he could pay his valet (who helps prep horse and jockey for a race) and agent after his last race. Birzer, a Kansas native, and his wife, whom he met when she worked as a groom at a track in Ohio, settled in West Virginia after time spent on racing circuits in the Midwest. They thought it would be a good place to raise a family and make a decent living racing year-round.

    The gate burst open. Birzer liked getting out fast. For him, racing thrilled “like a rollercoaster.” Still, he knew the danger, so he had his good luck rituals: rolling a quarter on his knuckles, tightening his wrist guard on his left more than his right, reading over a bible passage or saying a prayer: “Our Father, keep your angels watching over us.”

    Going into the first turn, Lil Bit of Rouge was four wide and making her move. This was Birzer’s 6,870th start. Maybe he’d tally win number 766 if all went well. But the 27-year-old who had only suffered a broken foot in his seven years as a jockey was now in the final moments of his career, right there in third place at the three-eighths pole.

    Lil Bit of Rouge buckled. She was up, then down, quicker than a light switch. Birzer flew head first onto the track. Watching the fall on replay, some in the jocks’ room didn’t think it was that bad. No fall is good at 40 miles per hour, but they’d seen uglier. And Birzer had a history of falling. As an exercise rider at River Downs in Cincinnati (now Belterra Park), the rule was if Birzer fell three times, he was done for the day. He maxed out a few times on that rule. Folks used to tease him, “You bounce well, I’ll give you that!”

    This was different. Another jockey’s wife hurried to tell Amy that her husband was down and hadn’t popped up. That was unusual. Lying in dry dirt, under a cool, dark summer sky, paramedics collecting around him, Birzer sensed he might not shake this one off. He couldn’t feel his legs.

     

    That night in 2004, Birzer crushed his fifth and sixth vertebrae and severed his spine. From his mid-chest down, he has no feeling. His lungs are partially paralyzed as well, which means mild colds can escalate to pneumonia easily. The 42-year-old with clear blue eyes has no sensation on the outside edges of his hands, from pinky to wrist. But with his light grip he can maneuver his motorized wheelchair and drive a minivan outfitted with hand controls that operate the brake and gas. He slides his hand into a handle with three horizontal pegs that’s attached to the steering wheel. This steadies his grip as he drives.

    Birzer’s handshake is delicate. We meet one cold March morning outside Cincinnati, where he now lives. An icy wind glides across flat farmland only to smack flags and branches. But Birzer’s small ranch home is warm. “My nurses call it the hot box,” he says with a laugh. He’s always cold, he says, pulling the hood on his sweatshirt over his short brown hair. As a kid, that hair was thick and a dark blond, the color of straw.

    Birzer is one of 58 jockeys currently supported by the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, a nonprofit that provides a monthly stipend of $1,000 to jockeys who have been hurt so severely that employment is not a reality. Since forming in 2006, the PDJF has served 80 jockeys. In addition to financial assistance, the PDJF continually advocates for medical research that can reduce catastrophic injuries on racetracks.

    A few of the disabled jockeys are well known, like Hall of Fame rider Ron Turcotte, who rode the legendary Secretariat to a Triple Crown victory in 1973 and, in 1978, was paralyzed in a riding accident at Belmont Park. Some jockeys supported by the PDJF were barely into their riding careers, like Jack Fires. In 1977, when he was 21, his horse fell head over heels during a morning gallop. “Where my legs at?” Fires remembers asking the paramedics who crouched nearby. His cousin, Perry Outzs, who is still racing at 63, was with Fires that morning. He rode with him in an ambulance. Fires looked at Outzs, saying, “You better call Mom. I think this one is bad.”

    Birzer, like other permanently disabled jockeys, feels incredible gratitude for the monthly check. “Without (PDJF), I’d be lost. They help out with everything,” Birzer says as he lifts his arm and waves it around, motioning wall to wall. As we talk, he often arches or wiggles from side to side — muscle spasms in his back, a constant since the accident. The stipend surely hasn’t made him rich. He says he must “watch every penny.” But the monthly check is vital. His Medicare coverage doesn’t pay for a nurse’s aide to come to his home three times a week, and Birzer needs these visits to assist with getting in and out of the shower and for household chores like mopping. He pays out of pocket.

    Birzer’s only other monthly income comes from the federal Social Security Disability Insurance program. About 10 of the 58 jockeys involved in the PDJF don’t even get that, either because they were too young and did not work long enough to qualify for SSDI or they’re a native of another country. New York, California, Maryland and New Jersey offer workers’ compensation for injured riders, according to Terry Meyocks, national manager for the advocacy group the Jockeys’ Guild. Kentucky does not.

    Jockeys are independent contractors. The cushion that comes with full-time work — insurance and benefits — are left up to the jockey to secure. That’s a big hurdle for many, as the median salary for jockeys is $28,000, according to the Jockeys’ Guild. Riders must pay to travel from track to track, and for equipment. “Everybody thinks jocks make a lot of money. The top 10 to 15 percent do, the next, say, 25 percent make a decent salary,” Meyocks says. “But the next 50 percent or so barely make it.”

    The Jockeys’ Guild was established as a social-welfare and advocacy organization. Riders who choose to join the Guild (like Birzer) pay annual dues of $100 and have $4 shaved off their mount fees up until 1,000 mounts per year. (Depending on the track, mount fees range from $50 to $110 for jockeys who don’t finish in the money.) Formed in 1940, the Jockeys’ Guild, now based in Lexington, was a response to jockeys who were fed up with owners and track managers unconcerned with the plight of disabled and injured jockeys. Over the decades, the Guild has offered both health and on-track accident insurance, but that ended in the early 2000s. (More on that later.) The organization now assumes more of an advocacy role, pushing for safety measures and legislation that helps jockeys obtain health insurance. The Guild also financially assists jockeys who are temporarily disabled. If injury or illness strikes, the jockey must rely on a patchwork of charities to help. “It’s a shame” Meyocks says. “It’s a travesty our industry doesn’t take care of disabled jocks.”

    Photo: Gary Birzer at his home outside Cincinnati.

    The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund relies solely on donations. It has no permanent source of revenue. William Farish, a prominent horse owner and PDJF board member, has donated about $1.5 million, says PDJF executive director Nancy LaSala. She says the group holds a number of fundraisers at various tracks throughout the country. Over the summer, there’s a National PDJF day. It’s a fan-based fundraiser held at most tracks across the country that are open. Jockeys sign autographs or agree to perch themselves in a dunk tank. Last year, the day generated a little more than $100,000. Other organizations that support horsemen also chip in to the fund. For instance, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association provides a portion of revenue raised at its annual Eclipse Awards party to the PDJF.

    But as far as tracks donating even a small percentage of their income to the fund? “Some tracks do,” LaSala says, citing tracks owned by the Stronach Group, like Santa Anita Park in California and Gulfstream Park in Florida, as particularly generous. “(But) most don’t.”

    She gives a nod to Churchill Downs for providing the PDJF a “high-trafficked space for a silent auction on Derby Day.” (The auction typically contains three to four pieces of memorabilia. Last year, a print with Triple Crown horses from the 1970s, signed by the winning jockeys, was up for bid.) Through a Churchill Downs program, jockeys can elect to donate a portion of their mount fees, which the track matches, to the PDJF. Churchill Downs’ share typically amounts to $3,000 to $5,000 each year.

    Local event planner Joey Wagner has organized a Jocktails fundraiser here in Louisville for the last several years, with jockeys serving as bartenders. LaSala estimates that the event has generated between $150,000 to $175,000 for the fund over time. LaSala says the PDJF attempted a Derby week party to raise money for a few years, but the cost of putting on the event outweighed the financial benefits. “I am proud that we have been able to provide assistance for 11 years,” she says, “but saddened that donations have not increased to a level where we can increase the monthly stipend of $1,000 when their cost-of-living and medical costs over the 11 years have increased.”

    Shortly after the PDJF launched in ’06, LaSala recalls one month that she thought she’d have to reduce the $1,000 stipend due to a dip in donations. But after “a lot of phone calls and solicitations,” no cuts were necessary. The PDJF has an endowment with close to $5 million saved. LaSala says that beefing up that endowment to $35 million would likely sustain the PDJF indefinitely. PDJF board members have floated other possible revenue streams, perhaps a 10th of 1 percent on purses. But LaSala admits making this happen could be difficult, particularly because there’s no central governing body to turn to. “Horseracing doesn’t have a national commission like other sports,” she says.

    On top of that, the industry itself is shrinking. In 1989 there were 74,000 races in the U.S. In 2017, there were 37,000. According to Equibase, the official database for Thoroughbred racing, in 2017 close to $11 billion dollars were wagered on U.S. races. That’s down from about $15 billion in 2003. And while the addition of casinos at racetracks has subsidized large purses, “the bottom line is the racing operations are pretty weak,” says Matt Hegarty, a reporter with the Daily Racing Form. Churchill Downs, Hegarty says, is an exception. “Derby is an enormous cash cow,” he says. (Last summer, Churchill Downs reported that Derby week revenues, profits and wagering hit an all time high in 2017.)

    When discussing a lack of financial support from much of the horseracing industry, LaSala hesitates. “We’re a charity,” she says. “This isn’t a mandate. I want to be very careful of not doing a big anti-campaign against anybody. That doesn’t help the charity at the end of the game.”

     

    The days following Birzer’s accident were complicated and scary. There was the metal rod in his neck, high fevers, the moment he thought he was well enough to eat a cookie only to start suffocating — pneumonia in both lungs. “Doctors told everybody that, ‘If he wants to live, he’ll live. But if he doesn’t, well, it aint gonna be hard for him,’” Birzer says. One day, when his then two-year-old daughter came into the hospital room to show him her new haircut, “I remember thinking, man, I’m gonna miss this,” he says. “I’ve got to pull through.”

    Just a few weeks after the fall, the Birzers endured another major blow. In early August 2004 the vice president of the Jockeys’ Guild at the time, Albert Fiss, informed the Birzers that the Guild had no money to help with medical bills — bills that within a month would escalate beyond $450,000. (The health insurance policy Birzer obtained with the Guild did not cover on-track injuries at the time of his fall.) And two years prior to Birzer’s accident, the management of the Jockeys’ Guild had let its catastrophic-injury insurance that covered medical bills up to $1 million lapse, leaving only a $100,000 policy. This had happened under the radar. Jockeys had no idea. (In the early to mid-2000s, the Jockeys’ Guild was in the midst of management changes, questionable financial practices and general upheaval.)

    Fiss urged the Birzers to sue Mountaineer Park, even telling Amy Birzer at one point that the Guild was using her husband as a “guinea pig” to “make a statement” that all those getting rich off of horseracing should pitch in more to help hurt jockeys. Amy Birzer broke down in tears. Her husband had been a loyal member of the Guild. He needed help.

    A well-regarded spinal-cord facility in Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill Center for Rehabilitation and Healing, had agreed to provide four weeks of therapy at no cost. But the rehab facility discovered the Guild would not cover bills after that grace period, and Birzer was ultimately transferred by ambulance to a state facility in West Virginia. It did not specialize in spinal-cord care. According to testimony given by Amy and Gary Birzer during a 2005 congressional hearing focused on jockeys’ health and welfare, Gary took a grave downturn in West Virginia. Amy spoke of the facility having difficulty transferring him from his bed to his chair. She testified that “therapists were not well-educated on spinal-cord injuries.” Her husband, once a professional athlete, was now contending with bedsores and deep hopelessness. He dropped to 94 pounds.

    As jockeys learned of Birzer’s situation, anger erupted. A November 2004 Washington Post article recounted jockey revolts. Shane Sellers, who rode one of the favorites in the 2004 Kentucky Derby, The Cliff’s Edge, abruptly retired. He’s quoted in The Post as saying: “Gary Birzer opened my eyes.” After filing an unfair labor practice complaint, Sellers was escorted in handcuffs out of Churchill Downs, preventing him from participating in a meeting about insurance coverage for riders. Some jockeys refused to ride in states that didn’t provide workers’ compensation to jockeys.

    Eventually, tracks agreed to carrying a $1-million catastrophic-insurance policy. “The collapse of the Guild made the industry at least address some of these problems,” says Hegarty, the Daily Racing Form reporter. He covered the Guild saga extensively. “If a rider gets injured these days, you don’t get the kinds of stories you were seeing back in those days where, you know, ‘We don’t have money to pay for them,’” he says.

    In Birzer’s case, the Jockeys’ Guild eventually paid for a $15,000 wheelchair-accessible van and one year’s rent for an apartment in Cincinnati, where the Birzers would move to be near family. The Birzers sued Mountaineer Park (now called Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort) and the Jockeys’ Guild, ultimately settling with both. Birzer doesn’t reveal the dollar amount of those settlements, but says it was enough to cover medical bills and buy his home outside Cincinnati, a home that makes life easy. It’s essentially one large, open living room with a bathroom, bedrooms and kitchen connected directly to it. “No narrow hallways,” Birzer explains, tapping at his wheelchair.

     

    In the wake of Birzer’s accident, the Jockeys’ Guild changed management and recruited new board members, including Nancy LaSala’s husband, Jerry LaSala, a former jockey who had raced primarily in Illinois. In 2006, the board learned that the Guild would no longer provide a stipend to permanently disabled jockeys due to a lack of funding. (At the time, payments to permanently disabled jockeys were as low as $250 a month, Nancy LaSala says.) The board of directors held meetings with industry leaders and collectively decided that caring for catastrophically injured jockeys must be a priority.

    Nancy LaSala was always good with data, having spent more than 20 years working in management at an engineering firm. So she took on the task of collecting stats on disabled jockeys, along with their medical needs and cost of care. She made a presentation to about 30 racetrack owners and industry leaders, a plea for their support. In the spring of 2006, the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund was created as its own entity, separate from the Guild.

    LaSala hasn’t stopped advocating. The 55-year-old who lives near Chicago puts in three to five hours a day on PDJF-related duties. That’s on top of the work she still does at the engineering firm. She travels often for PDJF fundraisers and meetings. Humble and quick to deflect attention, she credits her husband and daughter and a team of volunteers with keeping the PDJF running. But she’s the motor, overseeing event planning and accounting, constantly marching toward her goal. “I’d like in my lifetime to see the PDJF fully funded,” she says. “Not so much for me but for the recipients. I hope I can achieve that.”

    One morning we are scheduled to speak by phone and she apologizes for not connecting at the set time. A few days earlier, a veteran rider, Jose Flores, had been severely injured at Parx Racing, a track near Philadelphia. Flores was on life support and LaSala had been fielding concerned calls all morning. Flores died on March 22. According to the Jockeys’ Guild, 157 riders have died from race-related injuries since 1940, the year the Guild began keeping those stats.

    It is LaSala who often is the one picking up the phone to reach out to disabled jockeys, checking in on them. “People who get in this game, this is in their blood,” she explains. “It’s in their DNA.” When a catastrophic injury strikes, after a few months, as the fundraisers and well-wishers fade and rehabilitation progress slows, the permanency of it all can lead some to fold inwards and slip into isolation. “We provide community,” LaSala says. Once or twice a year, Birzer and other PDJF recipients will don their PDJF ball caps and attend fundraisers in their area. “Sometimes I have them reach out to younger jockeys who’ve been injured,” LaSala says. “It provides extra value to their life.”

     

    Several years ago, looking around Birzer’s home, a stranger would not have detected his riding history. A framed Kentucky Derby print was stored away. A thick black photo album stuffed with Birzer’s “win pictures” was quarantined to a wire shelf in his bedroom closet, a shelf Birzer couldn’t reach from his wheelchair. It also held his old riding helmet. “I went into a depression really bad,” Birzer says. He and Amy divorced. (She has since passed away.) “I wasn’t acting right,” he says. “I just fell apart. I blocked my mom, my dad, my brother.”

    Birzer and his older brother, Alex, had always been close. When Gary made his debut as a jockey in the late ’90s, Alex was so anxious he trembled in the jocks’ room. “I was as nervous as a mother taking her son to school on the first day,” Alex told a Nebraska newspaper at the time. Remembering that phone call at 1 in the morning in July 2004, Alex still chokes up. “Spiritually, I struggled with it. I couldn’t believe something like this would happen to him,” he says. “If (Gary) could get up and walk out of that chair, the first thing he’d do is get his jock’s license.”

    Following the accident, Alex knew his brother worried tremendously about how he’d care for his family. “When I would call him, we would never talk about how he was doing physically, or finances. He would never talk about himself,” he remembers. “He would only talk about the kids.” The PDJF, Alex believes, helped usher Gary through grieving and loss, into a place of adjustment, acceptance. “The PDJF is peace of mind for me,” Alex says.

    As Gary tells it, one day he just “snapped out of” his depression. He’s not sure how or when. But an upward sequence followed. He hung the Derby picture. He took some silks signed by Cincinnati-area horsemen and encased them in glass alongside his old riding boots. He’s got a girlfriend, a woman he met on Facebook who works at an Ohio racetrack. A few years ago, he was finally able to turn on TVG and watch the races.

    His days unfold like any parent of two. If his 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son are with him, he wakes at 6 in the morning to take them to school. He busies himself with errands or bills. He has learned cooking is easiest in a microwave or with the George Foreman grill. “It’s my favorite friend if I want a steak,” he says. At night he pushes the button that raises his chair, scoots his upper half into bed, grabs his legs and flops himself in. Everything goes smoothly until it doesn’t and he falls. A call for help follows, usually to one of his nurses or a friend to hoist him upright.

    On the day I visit, we open the photo book of win pictures. He points out one from April 19, 1997 — his first career win, at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Nebraska, on a horse named Fabulent. He animates when recounting one of his best memories, a muddy mess of a day at what was then called Beulah Park near Columbus, Ohio. “I rode a horse — Grand Tura — that my father trained. I remembered taking care of it when it was six. Well, I go to the racetrack and he’s 11 years old! And I’m riding him! And I jumped up and won!” Birzer says, a little laugh rippling. He “jumped up and won” a second race that day on a horse named Yarny Star, a horse Alex had won on some three or four years earlier.

    Birzer shares that Alex recently marked win number 3,000. His nephew may start racing soon too, he says, revealing a delighted, boyish grin. Injury can wreck a body, but if it’s in your blood, there it stays. When I ask if he regrets following his dad and brother into horseracing, he shakes his head, a firm no. “I love it way too much,” he says. As far as Birzer’s feelings on how the horseracing industry supports disabled jockeys, he says, “I would like to see more done but it is. . . .” The sentence collapses to silence. Only on the condition of anonymity does a seasoned jockey share his opinion in a huff: “Racetracks should be covering part of (the PDJF). They don’t care about us. You get hurt, we could be replaced the next day,” he said.

    As I leave, before I can walk out of Birzer’s front door, he asks if I’ve talked to Nancy LaSala yet. I tell him I have, and that I plan on calling her again soon. He pauses. One last parting thought: “We’d be in a world of hurt if it wasn’t for her and all her family does.”  

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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