Gregg Morris thought about it a minute, but knew the answer.
“As a rider, I would have said ‘Why do we have to do all this stuff?’ but back when I was riding I don’t think anybody understood the long-term repercussions of head injuries,” he said. “Now, riders should be grateful we’re providing this service.”
Champion steeplechase jockey of 1987 and winner of 103 races, Morris is a steward on the National Steeplechase Association circuit and spearheaded the adoption of a new concussion policy for the 2013 season.
All licensed jump jockeys must take a preseason imPACT test to provide a baseline for a future test should they sustain a head injury in a fall. The imPACT test is a computerized assessment of memory and reaction time used by the NFL and other professional sports leagues in addition to college and high-school teams. The test is part of a complete protocol, based on those used in other sports and finalized by experts in the field but organized by Morris. He says he rode too soon after a concussion at least twice. Now a physician’s assistant in a Delaware emergency room, he’s in a unique position to see both sides of the issue.
Head injuries have been blamed for death and longterm health issues in retired NFL players and other athletes in contact sports. Steeplechase jockeys are vulnerable to head injuries. They fall as part of their job description and roughly six are diagnosed with concussions each season.
Jockey Robbie Walsh took his test early and likes the new system.
“I don’t think it’s going to do any harm at all,” he said. “Some lads are going to end up missing a week or two more than they would have before. If you asked me when I was 21 it might be a different answer, but that’s a good thing. Now it forces you into a spot where the decision gets made for you rather than feeling like you have to hurry up and get back.”
Like all athletes, jockeys want to push the timetable for a return to action from a sprained ankle, a broken collarbone, even a concussion.
“Any athlete wants to compete in the sport they do,” said Walsh. “I’ve ridden with injuries, we all have and you think it’s OK. The head is a different story. It’s not a situation of dealing with pain. An injury that hurts where you’re not going to do any long-term damage, you just deal with it. The head is different. If (the new system) stops one major injury in the next 10 years, it’s worth it.
The new system will work like this: if a course physician lists a head injury on a post-fall exam sheet, a jockey must pass a second imPACT test and a physical exam before being allowed to ride again. The test, administered by the NSA, is available online at four sites – the NSA office in Fair Hill, plus locations in Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Test results will be interpreted by Morris and concussion experts. Though there are no grades, no pass/fail, the baseline test, taken before the season, is key to the process.
“If your scores are significantly different than your baseline, then you’re not cleared,” said Morris. “You’re supposed to rest and relax and not compete, then take it again a week later. Just that mental activity of taking the test will sometimes cause headaches and things, so if your symptoms return, you’re not cleared, but it’s really based on the scores of the first test. “
The NSA considered imPACT testing two years ago, but could not solve the accessibility issue – jockeys are based in various locations – until this year. With the test online, and accessed via secure log in, it can be taken almost anywhere. Several people have been certified as administrators and costs of the test are being paid by the National Steeplechase Foundation as a safety initiative. Dr. Craig Ferrell, physician for the United States Equestrian Team, was instrumental in the early stages before his death in a polo accident last year. In addition, Morris has enlisted Dr. Gary Solomon, a concussion expert and consultant to NFL and NHL teams, to review test results and provide expertise.