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Harness driving poses great risks

| Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dave Palone stood along the backside at the Meadows Race Track, only a few minutes separating the Hall of Fame driver from the night's first race.

"You never know," he said, "when the next race is going to be your next accident."

The dangers of harness racing were witnessed again last month with two horrific spills in an eight-day span, including a wincing wreck at the Washington County track.

Aaron Merriman, a rising star who leads the nation with 355 wins this year, suffered multiple serious injuries during the four-horse pileup June 11 at the Meadows.

One week later, three of the nation's top drivers, George Brennan, Brian Sears and Hall of Famer Ron Pierce, were among six drivers unseated in a chain-reaction wreck at Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.

"It's just part of horse racing," Merriman said. "It's an unfortunate part."

Despite the inherent risks, drivers from all ages and experience want nothing else but to compete in the sport they adore.

"It's dangerous, and anything can happen," 22-year-old Meadows driver Kyle Bolon said. "But if you love doing it enough, you know the risk and you've just got to continue on."

Bolon, a Trinity High School graduate from a harness racing family, was part of Merriman's gruesome wreck. It was Bolon's first accident since he started driving four years ago.

"There is an element of danger," said David Carr, the director of information for the United States Trotting Association. "Horses are going 30-35 mph and the drivers are exposed."

Added long-time Meadows driver Doug Snyder: "There's no roll bar when you go down. No seatbelt."

Merriman, 32, was thrown from his sulky in the 11th race June 11, when his horse, Sound Dragin, broke stride, took a misstep and went down near the three-quarters pole. Merriman, trying to pass on the outside, landed in the path of three other horses.

The Macedonia, Ohio, native was run over by two sulky-pulling horses, suffering a fractured neck, bleeding of the brain, two broken wrists and a shattered elbow.

Three other drivers, Ray Paver, Tony Hall and Bolon, were thrown from their sulkies but escaped serious injury. The four horses involved were uninjured.

Bolon, who suffered minor bruises, was directly behind Merriman.

"I ran right into him," Bolon said. "It's terrible, but it's part of the business. There was nothing anyone could do."

Merriman spent three days in intensive care at Allegheny General Hospital, beginning with emergency surgery on his right wrist that required five pins. The wrist was so damaged, Merriman said, his hand "had flipped upside down," and he initially feared -- unfounded -- that it might have to be amputated.

The most serious injury, however, is the left elbow, which had compound fractures, Merriman said, and "the bones are disintegrated." Merriman underwent surgery at the Cleveland Clinic a couple of weeks ago and returned for a follow-up visit June 30, his birthday.

"There were no bones left in my elbow," he said. "They tried to build me an elbow."

Doctors told Merriman he will never regain full use of his left elbow or right wrist, but his prognosis for returning to the track has improved. In the hours after the accident, it was feared his career was over. Then, doctors told him he'd be out at least a year. Now, while admittedly optimistic, Merriman is pointing for 3-4 months.

"That's my goal," he said.

Merriman said he won't have to worry about medical bills -- the track carries a $500,000 policy for each accident -- but he is losing upwards of $4,000 a week in purse money. Drivers typically earn 5 percent of the winning purses; Merriman's mounts already have $2.04 million in earnings this year.

Like most veteran drivers, Palone has endured his share of wrecks, including being life-flighted after a crash in the mid-1990s and a frightful accident at the Meadows three years ago when he flipped trying to avoid a fallen horse.

"I shattered my femur in 40 pieces," Palone said. "It was just like a pane of glass. Screws and rods. I didn't know if I'd ever walk again, let alone race again."

Palone, sixth in the nation with more than $4 million in earnings, said the '07 wreck still affects the way he drives.

"There hasn't been a race go by that I haven't thought about it," he said. "I'm much more cautious since it happened. I think I'm probably a better driver, too. I don't take things for granted."

Dick Stillings, 66, has wrecked at least a dozen times in his 40-year career. He said it's impossible to put the dangers completely out of his mind.

"You definitely think about it after (an accident)," he said. "Now, I think about it more."

With the drivers in difficult-to-turn sulkies, harness racing can lend itself to disastrous pileups if a horse near the front goes down. But the sport was made significantly safer in the past two decades with three changes -- improved helmets; solid, spokeless wheel hubs; and the removal of the hub rail, the metal ring that circles the inside of the track.

Hub rails were replaced with pylons, giving drivers a chance to move inside to avoid a fallen horse and jockey instead of the unavoidable pileups of the past.

"It's much, much safer than it was 20 years ago," said Jerry Connors of the Pennsylvania Racing Commission.

Even with the recent wrecks, harness racing isn't as dangerous as its jockey counterparts in thoroughbred racing. Four harness drivers have died in accidents in the past 15 years, according to the USTA. By contrast, 14 jockeys died in wrecks over that same period. Harness racing had 588,917 starts in North America in 2009, while thoroughbred racing had 446,196 starts last year.

Snyder, 59, considers himself lucky. He's broken more bones than he cares to remember, including a made-for-YouTube spill at the Meadows.

"I think everyone on the race track ran over me," he said. "They show that one on American Home Videos every once in a while. I broke five ribs, punctured a lung, broke an ankle, my shoulder."

Snyder doesn't compete as much anymore. As of Tuesday, he had driven in 287 races at the Meadows this year, compared to more than 1,000 for many of the busiest drivers. When recalling a career dotted with crashes, Snyder looks at the bright side.

"I've been in a lot of ambulances," he said with a soulful smile, "but I've never been life-flighted."

Additional Information:

Tough gig

Here are the driver/jockey deaths in horse racing since 1995:

Harness: 4

Thoroughbred: 14

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