Taking a turn on tight side

Timonium: Banked corners of half-mile oval create crowded quarters, but for jockeys it's full speed ahead.

September 01, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

In midafternoon at Timonium Race Course, 10 horses are stampeding toward the first turn, the petite riders on their backs in control. From the porch of the jockeys' room, the view is enough to frighten most sane adults.

There, in full view is the danger -- the big sweating animals charging at 35 mph, running so close together their bodies rub and their hoofs click as they make incidental contact. It is coordinated mayhem, a fantastic, frenetic jostle for position before the banked course forces them into a pounding left-hand turn.

"Once you get used to it, there are no concerns," said Frank Douglas, who nearly lost his life coming out of the far turn two years ago. "Accidents will happen, but there is nothing wrong with this track. The track is in perfect condition."

Timonium is a half-mile oval with sharp, banked turns and short straights. A jockey hardly has his horse through the first turn before he or she has to regroup for the next.

And the next turn offers still another twist, as the 10-day meet (which runs through Monday) is held in conjunction with the Maryland State Fair. The view toward the far turn is much like that around the storied road course in France where sports cars race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

All around the course, people hang over the rails and, just beyond the turn, a carnival's midway rises in the sky, just as it does at the end of Le Mans' straight.

"It's fun to race this track," said Mark Rosenthal, who has been racing here nine years. "It's a false impression that the track is dangerous. It's only as dangerous as the riders make it, and the riders here take care of each other. No one wants to get anyone hurt.

"The only real danger is when a horse breaks down."

Young horses are another worry at Timonium, because more of them run here. The inexperienced horses may act unexpectedly.

"The young horses do look around," said apprentice David Carstens. "One of my horses, Snow City, was leading, but he ducked in when he got to the grandstands and finished third."

Douglas, 39, found trouble here in 1997 because a 2-year-old that Rosenthal was riding veered into another young horse. Douglas' horse got caught in the chain reaction and stumbled. Douglas fell and suffered a severe brain injury when the back hoofs of still another horse slammed into his head.

But Douglas is back, riding well and winning as much as ever. "I was not nervous when I came back here last season," he said. "I don't remember the accident. In my mind, it never happened."

Fear is not an emotion a jockey can afford.

"If they're afraid, they don't ride," said Tim Killoran, who saddles horses at the track. "Horses can't handle fear. If they feel a jockey is afraid, he'll think he has a mountain lion on his back."

Jockey Jennifer Stisted draws a comparison with a parent holding the hand of a child in a crowd. If the parent is nervous, there is no need to voice it for a child to pick it up. It's the same with the horse, who can sense a jockey's mood.

Stisted, 30, grew up in Annapolis and has been riding in Maryland for three years.

"It's just a matter of being very, very alert," she said.

"Your eyes get trained. You see the whole race in front of you and then you catch a funny movement. A horse's tail will wiggle and you know they're going down. I was behind Frank in the race where he was injured and I saw his horse's tail wiggle and jerked my horse to the outside," she recalled.

"I look back at that and said, `Wow!' My hands moved before my head had time to tell them to."

Speed enhances the perception of danger in sharp turns. Former IndyCar champion Tom Sneva once described driving into the tight first turn on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as like driving into a dark closet at 200 mph.

As jockeys at Timonium considered their first turn approach, most didn't think it was as bad as a dark closet.

Alberto Delgado, a multiple champion at Timonium, minimized the differences between a half-mile and a one-mile track. "On bigger tracks, everyone is still bunched up and on the rail," he said. "You have plenty of room if you can see. That means you have to pay attention and keep your head up."

"A lot of the jockeys told me about the turns before I started riding here," said Carstens, who is from South Africa. "I think the turns are OK if everyone gives each other room."

Rosenthal said, however, negotiating the turns does require skill.

"Because the turns are banked, you have to make an early decision about getting to the inside of a horse," he said. "You can't stay on the flanks, because when the horses hit the turns, they naturally drop down. You have to think ahead all the time. Things happen quick. We're moving at 35 or 40 mph -- and we don't have brakes like a race car, and all these horses don't steer easy, either."

Pub Date: 9/01/99

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