MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Margaret Contreras followed the two thoroughbreds as they approached the half-mile post. She clicked her stopwatch as they jolted from a gallop into a sprint. Side by side in the Florida sunshine, the horses and their riders rounded the curve and headed into the homestretch.
Everything went wrong in an instant. Through her binoculars, Contreras, a track clocker paid to time horses during workouts, watched as one of the horses, a 2-year-old filly named Flyfly Fly Delilah, suddenly tumbled to the freshly tilled track. Her rider, Jimmy Rivera, was caught under the thousand-pound animal as she fell. When the dust cleared, Contreras could see Rivera pinned underneath his horse. Neither one was moving.
“Oh, my God,” Contreras said at the sight of the carnage.
Sirens wailed. Track attendants tried to pull Rivera out from under his steed, but Flyfly Fly Delilah was dead. Rivera was barely clinging to life. With his face in the dirt, he told paramedics he couldn’t move his arms or legs.
The horrific accident at Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens occurred on Nov. 25, 2008. Nearly seven years later, the damage still lingers. Rivera survived but was paralyzed from the neck down. Now in a wheelchair, he is suing Calder, the horse’s trainer and three veterinarians in Broward County court.
Rivera’s suit goes far beyond claims of workplace negligence, however. Instead, it threatens to spill horse racing’s dirtiest secrets. The former exercise rider says Flyfly Fly Delilah never should have run that day, that she was seriously injured but shot up with steroids and pain killers so that her workout could be timed and gamblers could bet on her next race.
The suit, filed in 2012 but only now nearing trial, is perhaps the first in the country to link two clouds that have long hung over horse racing: the use of performance enhancing drugs and the on-track breakdowns that kill or maim horses and riders.
“Jimmy is the first jockey who went down and sustained a massive injury that we know was due to his horse having been doped,” said David Mishael, Rivera’s attorney. “He’s as expendable as the horses are. And that’s just the mind-set in racing. It just comes down to how much money are we going to make on this next horse?”
As the country tunes into the 140th Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on Saturday, Rivera’s lawsuit is a stark reminder of horse racing’s problems. Despite a decade of demands that the industry do away with steroids, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is still endemic.
Some in the industry are pushing for national drug and safety standards to prevent accidents, such as the one that paralyzed Rivera.
“I feel anger because I’m this way. I can’t walk,” Rivera said in an interview. “I felt betrayed because I thought they were there to take care of me, watch after their riders. I see now that it wasn’t that way. That nobody cared.”
Rivera was never supposed to take the ride that paralyzed him. He had already galloped four or five horses that morning and was leaving the track when his boss yelled after him: “There’s one more to work.” A jockey hadn’t shown up for work, so Rivera turned around, put on his vest and helmet, and saddled up.
Such is the life of an exercise rider: not quite a jockey but near enough to know the rush of riding a 1,500-pound thoroughbred — and the risk.
Rivera, then 55, had been walking and riding horses for more than two decades. Born in the Bronx, he waited tables at the Yale Club until a friend told him about the easy money to be made walking horses at Belmont Park. He met his wife, June, a jockey from Puerto Rico, at Belmont. When the couple moved to Florida, Rivera took lessons to become an exercise rider.
He worked at Calder long enough to see it slide. Once one of the country’s great racetracks, Calder had primarily become a casino by 2008. But Rivera still reported for work every morning at 5:15, running the horses in the half darkness.
Rivera didn’t worry when he climbed onto the back of Flyfly Fly Delilah, although he had reason to. The filly had shown signs of injury during a race 11 days earlier, favoring her left front leg but still finishing second. When Rivera had ridden her several days after the race, he felt she was limping slightly. Two other riders told him the same thing, Rivera said.
But Rivera said he had faith in the horse’s trainer, William White, and his veterinarian, Robert O’Neil. White was one of Calder’s most successful trainers, routinely finishing near the top in wins and earnings. O’Neil had been a horse doctor for more than 30 years and was a longtime member of the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine.
When he climbed atop the filly on Nov. 25, 2008, Rivera didn’t notice any limp. As they rode out to the racetrack, the horse felt fine. And as he pushed her into top gear at the half-mile post, Flyfly Fly Delilah was flying. Then Rivera heard a pop, and the two lives — horse and rider — were upended forever.
“It looked like it just dropped like a lead balloon. It just fell, boom, and didn’t move,” Contreras later testified. “I can’t get that out of my head.”
When he came out of a medically induced coma, Rivera and his wife faced two fights: one to physically rehabilitate Jimmy, and another to figure out what had really happened to him. White, the trainer, had been kind after the accident and organized a fundraiser. But the Riveras didn’t understand why Flyfly Fly Delilah’s body had been disposed of without O’Neil or another veterinarian performing a post-mortem examination, collecting tissue samples or at least filling out a death certificate, as required by Calder’s rules. The Riveras also began to hear from other exercise riders about Flyfly Fly Delilah’s previous injury and ask themselves why the horse had been on the track in the first place.
In 2012, the Riveras sued White, O’Neil, Calder and two other veterinarians for unspecified damages because of alleged negligence surrounding the accident. The lawsuit states that instead of treating Flyfly Fly Delilah’s injury with rest, O’Neil and another veterinarian “authorized and administered steroids and other medications that masked Flyfly Fly Delilah’s injury and were intended to rush Flyfly Fly Delilah back to racing status, as well as to enhance the performance of the horse even though the horse was physically impaired.”
Although the cause of the accident is in dispute, one thing that isn’t is that Flyfly Fly Delilah was given steroids and other drugs. The lawsuit is a rare look into how, exactly, horses are chemically prepared for races. “Day sheets” show Flyfly Fly Delilah received multiple doses of a powerful anabolic steroid called Stanozolol before her Nov. 14 race. She also received multiple injections of Lasix, a drug that prevents bleeding in the lungs but is also suspected of enhancing race performance, as well as powerful anti-inflammatory drugs. One of them, Naquasone, was approved not for horses but for udder edema in cows. O’Neil also gave Flyfly Fly Delilah a shot of another anabolic steroid, Equipoise, after the race, according to the lawsuit.
Reached by phone last week, O’Neil would not comment on the case. “I’ve been practicing for 40 years without a blemish on my record,” he said. “They are all legal medications, but I’m not going to make any comments on that lawsuit.”
During his deposition, O’Neil said he gave Flyfly Fly Delilah steroids not to add muscle mass and make her faster but because she wasn’t eating well, although an assistant trainer disputed that. “Fillies have terrible appetites,” O’Neil testified. “It helps them to eat better.”
“These guys aren’t treating the horse for medical problems,” said Mishael, Rivera’s attorney. “They are treating the horse for the race. It has nothing to do with the well-being of the horse. Nothing. And that’s the sickest thing about it.”
Although there were rules stating that medications must be therapeutic — and not performance enhancing — at the time none of the drugs was banned by Florida’s racing industry. In fact, 2008 was a year of change for horse racing in Florida and across the country. Stirred by the death of horse Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby that May, states started cracking down on the use of anabolic steroids. Florida approved new rules limiting the levels of drugs in a horse’s blood on race day, but the changes took effect a month after Rivera’s injury.
Rivera’s lawsuit focuses instead on Calder’s own house rules, which required vets to inform the track of the medications they were using on horses. It also accuses White, O’Neil and two other vets of violating their state licenses by giving Flyfly Fly Delilah drugs — including steroids and anti-inflammatories stacked on top of one another in a dangerous manner — to help the horse run instead of heal.
O’Neil said during his deposition that he kept records of medications given to horses but didn’t share them with track authorities because he wasn’t aware he was supposed to. As for allegations that he broke the terms of his state license, O’Neil said he was treating the horse for appetite problems, not to hide injury or make her run faster. He testified that he didn’t fill out a death certificate for the horse because he didn’t know this was required.
An attorney for Calder declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. White’s attorney declined to comment but has argued in court that his client did nothing wrong and was not responsible for the accident.
There is no telling what will happen with Rivera’s case if and when it goes to trial. But safety advocates are hoping it helps reform the sport.
The movement to better regulate drugs in horse racing is slowly gaining steam. After Eight Belles broke down at the 2008 Kentucky Derby, Congress held hearings on steroid abuse in the sport. The Jockey Club, one of racing’s most powerful organizations, asked politicians to let the industry regulate itself. Now, the organization is pushing for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to oversee the sport.
“We’ve had some very productive conversations with USADA and we believe that they could play an important role in helping racing move its regulatory standards to standards that are more similar to theirs,” Jockey Club President James L. Gagliano said. “Animal welfare, animal safety, safety of our riders and the integrity of the game all have levels of importance, which require us to rethink the model.”
On April 30, two days before the Kentucky Derby, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) announced he was introducing legislation banning interstate betting on horses and cracking down on drugs. “Out of sight of the spectators in the grandstand, 19 of the 20 horses competing in this year’s Kentucky Derby will be injected shortly before post time,” he said. “We must stop the abuse and restore integrity to this once-dignified sport.”
Rivera’s case has broad implications not only because of its allegations but also because of the actors involved.
Calder Race Course is owned by Churchill Downs, which runs the Kentucky Derby. O’Neil was recently named Florida’s Equine Health and Safety Director for the Stronach Group, which owns half a dozen tracks including Santa Anita in California, Laurel Park in Maryland and Baltimore’s Pimlico, which hosts the Preakness.
Whether his lawsuit plays a part or not, Rivera would like to see the sport catch up with the times. “Eliminate steroids like they are doing with baseball,” he said from his wheelchair in his home near Miami Gardens.
Now 62, he has a handsome face set atop an atrophied body. He still has a scar on his neck from his tracheotomy operation. His fingers are curled onto themselves, a result, his wife June says, of not getting enough physical therapy.
“With this lawsuit, maybe they’ll wake up and realize these guidelines have to be followed,” he said. “I’d like to be able to say the sport is not crooked.”
Despite all that he’s been through, Rivera said he watched the Kentucky Derby and plans to watch the Preakness. June wishes he wouldn’t.
“When he watches races, we go to the psychiatrist,” she said. “Afterwards he can’t sleep. He’s very restless. It takes him a week or two to go back to normal.”
In a voice slowed by his accident, Rivera explains why he still tunes into the sport that nearly killed him. “You’re controlling a 1,000- or 1,500-pound beast, and you’re 125 pounds,” he says. “So it’s an adrenaline rush.
“I do miss that,” he adds. “It was taken from me.”