by TC Lane, USTA Chief Operating Officer
Is Your Track Prepared?
Detailed, up-to-date plans for handling racing accidents are a must for every racing venue
On Monday evening, Jan. 2, along with more than 23 million of my closest friends, I tuned in to watch the anxiously awaited football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills. The stadium appeared to be buzzing, and social media had created an atmosphere leading up to the game as if it were the Super Bowl. The number of eyes glued on this game around the country was a new record, including many from my location, in southern Ohio. The stage was set for a top-tier performance by both clubs.
What the world didn’t expect occurred at 8:55 p.m., with the Bengals leading, 7-3, and both teams vying for top seeding in the upcoming playoffs. Cincinnati wide receiver Tee Higgins caught a 13-yard pass in Bengals territory and ran a few yards near midfield. Buffalo Bills defender Damar Hamlin pounced aggressively on the receiver and made the tackle.
Hamlin stood up and appeared for a brief second to be able to return to the huddle. He then fell backwards. A referee stopped the clock with 5:58 left in the first quarter. Bills staff then rushed to Hamlin’s aid. The rest of the world sat motionless, awaiting the result of what we had just witnessed.
Behind the scenes, the NFL’s preestablished emergency action plan had been activated and the wheels were in motion to handle this situation. Every club in the NFL is required to have an emergency action plan for instances of severe trauma, such as the injury that had taken place. The plan is reviewed by the league and players’ union officials and approved by outside experts in advance of the season, which includes requiring the designation of a Level I trauma center along with the presence of two certified paramedic crews and advanced life support ambulances.
According to Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president for football operations, “There is an emergency action plan in each and every one of our stadiums that’s rehearsed every year.” The officials in Cincinnati were prepared. They can handle a crisis, along with a refined crisis communication plan.
In the first press conference from Hamlin’s doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the physicians credited the medical staffs from the Bengals and the Bills, as well as the on-site paramedics for the textbook response to the injury that not only resulted in saving Hamlin’s life, but was also responsible for leaving him neurologically intact. His doctors explained that, in accordance with the NFL’s plan, there were five emergency medical physicians from the UC Medical Center among the Bengals’ medical team on the Bengals’ sideline. The Bills also had their own medical team.
Why is this a topic for Hoof Beats? Like many of you, racing lives in all our heads nonstop. That incident made me ask myself, “Are we (the industry) able to handle this kind of issue?” Granted, our game isn’t the same, but regardless, accidents do take place. Harness racing and the NFL or MLB are not the same. Where we are similar is that we do experience unfortunate occurrences from time to time. In life, there are instances that you cannot control.
The difference lies in how the matter is handled. Like many of you, I have seen terrible accidents take place firsthand. Fortunately, most have ended without life-threatening injuries, but unfortunately not all have. As an industry, we must ask ourselves, “Could we have handled that incident in Cincinnati?” Do we really have a solid and consistent plan in place to do so?
I understand that in most jurisdictions, accident protocols are reviewed each year or at the beginning of each meeting. Is the plan detailed enough? Probably not. When was the last time it was updated? Are we ensuring that emergency technicians are suitable to treat our participants in a way that is appropriate? In the event of a downed driver, can the ambulance immediately transfer the driver to the hospital?
In some jurisdictions, I have heard that isn’t the case. Do you have someone designated to speak to the media if something happens? I doubt the NFL would approve a plan that includes waiting on a township ambulance to transfer Hamlin from the stadium that evening.
To address the actual handling of a racing incident in terms of transportation, I have provided you with the USTA rule regarding medical assistance. The following regulation states:
- 5.16 Medical Assistance—At all member tracks where harness races are conducted it shall be the responsibility of the track member to have a licensed paramedic, emergency medical technician or the equivalent and an ambulance or other suitable transportation available on the premises during the period beginning 30 minutes prior to the post time for the first race on the program, or first qualifying race, through the conclusion of the racing program. For the purposes of this rule “ambulance” or “other suitable transportation” shall be defined as one capable of transporting injured parties to an appropriate medical facility. In the case of an injury, the medical team on site shall have the discretion to transport immediately and have a backup ambulance called to replace them or call for backup to transport depending on the severity of the injury.
Understanding that while the USTA regulations are not applicable in jurisdictions where pari-mutuel racing is conducted, safety for both our human and equine participants should not be used as a bargaining agent in negotiations. Last year, USTA Director Mark Loewe had proposed the bold text of the previously referenced rule, which outlined discretion for immediate transfer for treatment. The proposal passed and went into effect May 1, 2022.
There has not been one year of my employment with the USTA in which I have not had to explain to a track operator or official that a golf cart or UTV is not an ambulance. Their follow-up to that response: “Do you realize how much that’s going to cost?”
My response is simple. I ask them, “If you are in a car accident and you or your family member need help on the highway, would that golf cart be good enough for you?” That answer usually hits close to home, and we move on. We need to accept zero substitutes for safety.
It’s February, so now is the time to make sure that all the ducks are in a row moving forward. So, the USTA will be making sure that in the locations where we do have jurisdiction (mainly the roughly 200 county fairs with no pari-mutuel racing), that they are compliant. In the jurisdictions where we do not, rest assured, we will be working directly with those states and shareholders to influence similar regulations.
Work with your local track and the racing commissions too, making sure that everyone is on board in the event of such an accident. A crisis typically involves everyone, not just one certain group. Be a part of the plan to ensure that not only you, but your friends, family members, colleagues, etc., are in lockstep with that plan as well.
On that Monday evening in Cincinnati, Damar Hamlin’s relatives were extremely grateful that a plan was indeed in place for their loved one.
Our members and our horses deserve those safeguards, too.
The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at email@example.com.