Horse dies in gate at pinlico

April 02, 1993|By Bill Free | Bill Free,Staff Writer

A promising 3-year-old colt is dead and an exercise rider is in Sinai Hospital in satisfactory condition after a charge of electricity swept through the starting gate yesterday morning during a rainy training session at Pimlico Race Course.

And veteran starting-gate worker Danny Fitchette, 52, is being hailed as a hero for saving the life of exercise rider Richard Clayton Beck.

The colt, Fox Brush, by Broad Brush and out of Parade of Roses, fell to his knees and died instantly when hit by the electricity from a smoking cord that was hanging on the gate.

Beck jumped off the horse, grabbed the handle that opens the back door of the starting gate and started screaming, according to witnesses.

Fitchette, who was about 10 steps away from Beck, went over and pulled the rider off the gate in one swift motion.

"He [Beck] hollered, 'Get me loose,' " said Fitchette, who added he first thought that Beck had his hand caught between the horse and the back of the gate. "I knew there was a definite problem. I could see he was hurting. I grabbed him so fast that I guess it kept the electricity from going through me. I could see he couldn't let go because of the electricity."

Beck was taken to Sinai Hospital after the 8:30 a.m. accident and was in intensive care in satisfactory condition last night.

Longtime local racing observers such as George Mohr, who has been licensed as a trainer for 58 consecutive years, said they never had seen such an accident at Pimlico or Laurel.

Dick Small, who trained Fox Brush and witnessed the accident, said doctors want to observe Beck for three days to determine if there was any muscle damage.

"Danny saved his life," said Small. "He just sort of bowled him [Beck] over. It's a terrible accident, but, fortunately, no people were killed. Two people could have died."

The electrical cord that was hanging on the gate charges the batteries in the backup starting gate, which is used during training hours. It was connected to an outlet in a nearby trailer.

Pimlico and Laurel general manager Jim Mango, who also praised Fitchette, said the extremely wet weather conditions contributed to the accident.

"Unfortunately, with the bad weather conditions, it caused the starting gate to have water on it, and that carried the current through the gate," said Mango. "We had a cord plugged in from a trailer to the starting gate, and another battery pack plugs into an extension cord. We unplugged the battery pack, and the extension cord was laying over the gate."

Mango said track officials were looking into all aspects of the accident and "would make sure the problem was repaired.

"As far as what could have been or should have been, I'm not going to comment on it now," said the general manager.

But Small said the accident shows that track officials aren't responding to horsemen's pleas for more attention to details in the maintenance of Pimlico and Laurel.

"There's absolutely no excuse for this," said Small, who had Fox Brush scheduled to run in a $25,000 claiming race at Pimlico today. "Anybody knows a cord like that shouldn't be hanging over the starting gate. It should be unhooked and put away when not in use. That same cord has been laying there in the water for two years. I've reported it for two years, but nothing has been done about it. There's a certain amount of money under state law that's supposed to go to maintenance, and no one knows where it's going."

As far as liability is concerned, Small said: "Somehow, his [owner S. Bonsal White of Monkton] horse has to be replaced, and I guess workmen's compensation will take care of my rider [Beck]."

Fox Brush had earned $4,400 in five starts.

"We had high expectations for him as a 3-year-old after a pretty decent winter down south," said the trainer.

Small said: "Horses had been going through the gate from 7 to 8:30 in the morning, and nothing happened. One horse [Star Minister] backed out of the gate moments before my horse went in. He was in the gate about two minutes before it happened."

Owner White, 70, said he has been involved with horses since he was 8 years old and almost went to the track yesterday morning.

"I'm glad I wasn't there," said White, who said he wants to give the track a chance to explain the circumstances of the accident before assigning blame. "I don't know what would have happened if I'd been there. It would have been awful. My wife [Constance] has been in tears all day. I feel very empty."

White said he talked to Mango yesterday, and Mango informed him that "he was sorry and he would be in touch later. I haven't heard back from him."

White also said Lenny Hale, who is in charge of horsemen's relations, called him and told him the track would "do the right thing."

"You're talking about a major industry," White said, "and if it's not run well, the public has a right to know and I have a right to know. There's no question the track is liable and someone was negligent, which often happens out there."

Fox Brush was worth more than the $25,000 claiming price in the race he was supposed to run today, White said, but the owner wouldn't say exactly what the horse was worth.

White said that Fitchette was "the only hero of the day."

Fitchette said: "I know it sounds trite, but it's nothing anybody else wouldn't do. When you see somebody in trouble, you help them."

How it happened

A description of yesterday's accident at Pimlico, according to witnesses:

Fox Brush, a 3-year-old colt, was in a starting gate during training at 8:30 a.m. A smoking electrical cord on the gate jolted the horse, killing him.

Exercise rider Richard Clayton Beck jumped off Fox Brush and tried to open the back door of the gate. He, too, started receiving shocks.

Starting-gate operator Danny Fitchette, who was a short distance away, came to Beck's aid, pulling the rider off the gate.

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