Concussion testing grows as Gulfstream Park adds program

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Dec. 31, 2018

Concussion protocol at racetracks picked up another advocate in Gulfstream Park, where a sports medicine doctor conducted baseline testing on more than 25 jockeys Dec. 28.

Dr. Michael Swartzon, who does work for the Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers and the Miami-Dade public school system in South Florida, handled the testing in conjunction with members of Baptist Health South Florida. He is a colleague of Dr. Kelly Ryan, the MedStar Health physician who coordinates concussion protocol at racetracks in Maryland as part of the Horsemen’s Health System, a partnership between the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Maryland Jockey Club.

Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and Gulfstream Park are owned by The Stronach Group, which Ryan said is a leader in pushing for coordinated testing for jockeys. She said P.J. Campo, Vice President of Racing for TSG, and Dr. Robert O’Neil, the company’s Equine Medical Director, were instrumental in getting the program started in Florida.

“Gulfstream will have an athletic trainer on site on major racing days,” Ryan said. “It’s kind of a compromise to implement some type of program to have a support system in place for jockeys. If we can get The Stronach Group on board, I think other racetracks would have to fall in line.”

At Gulfstream, the jockeys provided medical histories, answered questions and were provided information on concussion and symptoms associated with head injuries.

“The health of our athletes, both human and equine, is a priority for us,” Gulfstream General Manager Bill Badgett said in a release. “By establishing baselines we can be well prepared with the necessary information and data in case one of our riders has an accident in the morning or afternoon. It’s also important that we all understand the symptoms and warning signs of head injuries.”

Ryan, who like Swartzon is part of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, said the “sports medicine is where it needs to go.” She noted the costs involved for tracks as well as various state laws that preclude paramedics from conducting baseline concussion tests, but said she believes Thoroughbred racing can develop a network to facilitate testing, the exchange of information, and adoption of “return to ride” protocol.

In Maryland, concussion protocol is part of Maryland Racing Commission regulations and there is a MedStar physician on site every live racing day. Delaware Park in 2018 entered into an agreement with a local sports medicine entity and now has an athletic trainer on hand every racing day. Ryan also works regularly with Dr. Angelo Chinnici, the medical director at Monmouth Park, who handles concussion protocol at the New Jersey track.

The Parx Racing Jockey Association has asked the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission to make concussion protocol mandatory—perhaps as part of the licensing process for jockeys—and riders at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course also have expressed interest in exploring the options.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, which accredits and reaccredits racetracks, is actively disseminating information on concussion protocol, and Ryan said a group of riders at the recent Jockeys’ Guild annual assembly met to discuss concussion procedures.

Concussion protocol video courtesy MedStar Health is available here.