Fort Larned cruises riderless to the finish line in the Gulfstream Partk Handicap on March 9 after stumbling badly and unseating jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. at the start. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
The Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 9 was officially won by Discreet Dancer, but the horse who led the field to the finish line was Breeders Cup Classic (G1) winner Fort Larned. Fort Larned was declared a non-finisher despite crossing the finish line first because he dumped his jockey when he stumbled coming out of the starting gate. That’s right, he ran the entire race without a rider.
Watching the replay of the race is a real treat, because Fort Larned really feeds some dirt to the other horses and effortlessly flies through traffic. He had quite an unfair weight advantage to be sure, but in all the times I’ve seen a horse stumble badly and give up the jockey, I’ve never seen one go ahead and finish the race.
This led me to wonder about how common this was, that horses race without jockeys. My research took me all the way to Italy, where in a town called Ronciglione there is a yearly riderless horse race as part of their carnival celebration. In the United States, these kind of “empty races” are far less common. Kent Desormeaux, the Hall of Fame jockey from Louisiana, tells the Independent about the backwoods match races of his youth where he raced against riderless horses with chickens tied to their saddles to spook them into running faster.
While the efficacy of the chicken thing isn’t well documented, and Fort Larned’s run seemed inspired indeed, for the most part horses require humans to run their best race. Other animals are less picky. Greyhounds, of course, race without any guiding hand other than the mechanical rabbit that circles the track. In the 1930s, however, it wasn’t uncommon for tracks to use small monkeys as jockeys on the dogs. Likewise in the Middle East, in countries where camel racing is popular, robots are used as jockeys. This technological innovation came about as an answer to the traditional convention of using young boys as jockeys, which was banned in 2002. In Oklahoma and other tracks in the American southwest, ostrich racing is a popular sideshow to the horse races. The ostriches allow full-grown humans to ride them, but many years ago they, too, were known to be piloted by monkeys.
Fort Larned’s jockey in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, Brian Hernandez Jr., wasn’t injured in the spill and is going to be okay. On June 4, 1923, jockey Frank Hayes wasn’t as lucky as Hernandez. His mount that day at Belmont Park in New York, a mare named Sweet Kiss, crossed the finish line in first place as a 20-1 longshot. But when the horse’s excited owner ran to the horse to help Hayes out of the saddle, Hayes was slumped over stone cold dead. Doctors say he died of a heart attack in the middle of the race. He stayed in the saddle the whole way. His victory that day remains the only recorded victory – in any sport – by a dead person. In case you were curious – Belmont Park rang the bell making the race official and paid the winners. Officially, there’s no rule about horses winning with dead jockeys, but this precedent would seem to suggest that as long as the jock can hang on in the saddle, it’s going to count.