Injury exposes danger to riders

Veteran Naylor, 63, left paralyzed after steeplechase spill

April 24, 1999|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

At 63, Irv Naylor was probably the oldest jockey on the steeplechase circuit -- eclipsing others who loved sailing over 4-foot fences on 1,000-pound horses. Previous spills didn't stop him. Neither did the distractions of his ski resorts and box company.

"He likes to have fun," said a friend.

"He's just as tough as can be," said another.

But last Saturday, Naylor didn't get up after his horse hooked its legs on a fence and crashed to the ground at the Grand National Timber Stakes in Butler. A gloom settled over the crowd when paramedics applied a neck brace and a helicopter arrived to take him to the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center.

Now, those close to him are measuring his progress in increments. Irv Naylor is paralyzed below the neck, having suffered a blow that left a bone pressing on his spinal cord. On Thursday, three days after neck surgery, he was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital to begin the long work of recapturing whatever sensation and movement he can.

"He is upbeat and positive," said his son, Peter Naylor, adding that his father has regained some movement in his elbows and wrists. "But he's being realistic. He thinks he'll get some mobility in his arms. He doesn't know about his legs, but he will try to do everything he can to get motion back. He's ready to start with rehab."

Jack Fisher, a trainer and jockey who was trailing Naylor by three lengths when the accident occurred, said his friend wasn't talking about the struggles ahead when Fisher stopped to visit the the other day.

"He's alert, definitely on the ball," said Fisher, who trained Emerald Action, the horse Naylor was riding. "He wanted to know how his horse was."

Fisher was glad to report that the horse, an 11-year-old bay, was not injured and is ready to race today in the Maryland Hunt Cup race in Glyndon, the third and toughest leg of Maryland's Triple Crown of steeplechase. The three races are held on consecutive Saturdays, and together constitute Maryland's toniest sporting event.

In York, Pa., where Naylor lives, he is perhaps best known as a leading businessman. He is the principal owner of Ski Roundtop and Ski Liberty, two nearby resorts, as well as Cor-Box, a corrugated container company. He also owns Ski Windham in New York's Catskills.

Thirty years ago, he founded a green sea turtle farm in the Cayman Islands, hoping to find a market for the exotic meat, leather and shells in the United States. But he sold the farm when the turtle was listed as an endangered species, and today it is run as a preserve and tourist attraction.

Naylor also is a scuba diver and a fan of Greco-Roman wrestling. But to those in the racing world, he is a compact, muscular rider -- "built like a brick," said a friend -- who also owns 15 race horses that are kept by seven trainers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. As a jockey, one of his biggest victories came at the Grand National three years ago.

Though his injury saddened many in the steeplechase world, fans insist that the sport is no more perilous than many other sports. "It was kind of a freak fall," said J.W.Y. "Duck" Martin Jr., a steward at last week's Grand National. "People fall sometimes but they hardly ever get hurt."

Riders admit, however, that steeplechase has its risks.

"Dangerous? It's obviously dangerous," said Fisher. "You think horse racing is dangerous, well we have added one more thing -- we've put fences in the way."

In separate falls, Fisher has broken his collarbone, leg, ankle, back and fingers. "I'm 35, and I'm probably old for it, too," he said. "It's an exciting sport. And like every other sport that people do for fun, it's the rush that people look for."

Most everyone in the steeplechase world knows people who have fallen, including some who have sustained paralyzing injuries like Naylor's. Most, if not all, they said, occurred during training exercises and recreational riding, not during the fast-and-furious races where horses swoop over rolling country at speeds approaching 25 mph and jump fences in clusters.

Charles Colgan, executive vice president of the National Steeplechase Association, said the organization does not keep records of injuries. But he said, "The injury rate is not as high as one would expect. When riding horses jump over fences, the danger is always that the horse is going to make a mistake and fall."

The danger, he said, is mitigated by the fact that horses don't run as fast as thoroughbreds at Pimlico or Laurel.

"The most frequent injury is a broken collarbone," Colgan said. "If you're moving forward, you come down on your shoulder."

Naylor had his share of falls but, as far as Fisher could recall, never seriously injured himself.

He was in third place and close to the lead when he approached the 15th of 18 fences on the three-mile course. Tom Voss, a trainer who saw the the accident, said Emerald Action probably leapt too late and caught his feet on the fence.

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