(LOS ANGELES) -- Despite the considerable beauty associated with thoroughbred racing and the glory awaiting the winner of Saturday's 137th Kentucky Derby, the dangers a 115-pound jockey faces when mounting a 1,100-pound horse moving at 40 miles per hour cannot be overlooked.
From 1992-2006, there were 26 fatalities among jockeys in the thoroughbred and standardbred industry -- an average of 5.6 deaths each year, according to an April 2009 report compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The authors said the figure likely was an underestimate.
Dr. James Tibone, an orthopedic surgeon with the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, who treats jockeys at Hollywood Park, called horseracing "probably the highest-risk sport for dying."
Yet, jockeys are a resilient bunch: "They're tough. They don't complain about stuff. They hurt and they ride," said Tibone, a specialist in repairing shoulders, elbows and knees.
Although jockeys are small, ranging from four-foot-10-to-five-foot-seven, "they're very fit," he said. "They have no body fat. They're toned and they're in great aerobic shape."
Tibone recalled that the late sports medicine pioneer Dr. Robert Kerlan, team physician for the Los Angeles Rams, Dodgers, and Lakers, as well legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker, "used to say they were the best-conditioned athletes he took care of."
These men and women (Rosie Napravnik hopes to become the first female Derby winner on Saturday) endure years of fractures, concussions, bruises and sprains, always aware that they could become paralyzed or die.
"Riders know that's the risk they take and they just go with it," said Darrell Haire, a former jockey who has broken both shoulders, both collarbones, a leg, a foot, a wrist, a thumb, and his jaw before hanging up his racing silks at 32.
As for pain, "they just block it out," Haire said. Fueled by a combination of fitness and adrenaline, "they go on with it."
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