Discussion of concussion protocol continues in Pennsylvania

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Dec. 20, 2018

The push for mandatory concussion protocol in horse racing continued Dec. 18 when the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, which in November was asked to implement it, received a briefing on how the program works in neighboring Maryland.

Dr. Kelly Ryan, one of five MedStar physicians who participate in the Horsemen’s Health System funded by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Maryland Jockey Club, indicated the issue is part education and part regulation. She said it’s important for other jurisdictions to adopt the protocol, which requires a doctor to sign off before a jockey is permitted to ride after a fall.

“We really need to make a culture change,” Ryan told the PHRC. “It’s time we start educating our riders. If they’re not informed and educated, we’re doing them a disservice. Things people know with a concussion, and what they actually know, are two different things.”

Active rider Anthony Black, who heads the Parx Racing Jockey Association, and Dr. Brian Rizer, who has done work at the Pennsylvania track, at the previous commission meeting asked the PHRC to consider making concussion protocol mandatory, perhaps through the licensing process. The Association of Racing Commissioners International has adopted a model rule on concussion protocol, while the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance is looking at making concussion protocol part of its code of standards.

Ryan said baseline concussion testing is required as part of the jockey licensing process in Maryland each year. Should there be a fall, the Maryland Racing Commission and stewards employ “return to ride” protocol which involves a face-to-face concussion evaluation, she said.

The MedStar physicians visit the jockeys’ room before live racing each day to inquire if anyone has been injured, perhaps during training hours, and needs an examination. If a rider has a fall during racing hours—on the track or in the paddock—a doctor responds.

“Even if a rider pops off of a horse, he or she must be cleared to ride,” Ryan said. “If one of us determines he or she has a concussion, they are taken off their mounts. I haven’t had much pushback from the jockeys. At the end of the day they know they’re protected.”

Ryan regularly works with medical officials at Delaware Park and Monmouth Park during their live racing seasons to ensure that information regarding jockeys having falls is shared given the fact many ride at multiple tracks, sometimes on the same day. Black said he doesn’t see an issue with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which safeguards medical information, because it’s just a matter of another jurisdiction saying a jockey can’t ride.

“Maryland is on the front-end of this, but the only way this works (effectively) in the Mid-Atlantic is if all the states buy in,” said Tom Chuckas, PHRC Thoroughbred Bureau Director.

Ryan said other sports are far more along when it comes to recognizing the dangers of concussion and that United States racing lags behind some international jurisdictions when it comes to protocol. But there has been progress, she said, and it needs to continue.

“We know too much now about concussion to not do anything about it,” Ryan said.

In other business at the PHRC meeting, the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association asked the commission to consider changing a rule to allow a claimed horse to run back at the price for which it was claimed in 21 days rather than 30 days. The PTHA represents horsemen at Parx; the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents horsemen at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course and Presque Isle Downs & Casino, is expected to discuss the PTHA suggestion and report back.

The PHRC also approved a request by Penn National to race 172 live racing programs in 2019 rather than the 227 it requested in its submission in November, but it was noted at the November meeting that the track and Pennsylvania HBPA had not yet worked out a final calendar for next year. For 2018 Penn National was awarded 194 racing dates, so the number for 2019 represents a reduction of 22 programs.