A night at the races
One of my favourite shifts over the years is attending sporting events. In particular, the football was always popular. So too was the horse racing and ‘the trots’. This was a Saturday afternoon and the nearby trotting track was running its usual evening racing event. We were the lucky Saturday afternoon shift so for once knew what our next few hours would look like. Or thought we did.
After spending a luxurious couple of hours washing the vehicle and inspecting our equipment, we eventually made our way out to the track. There was always plenty of time before the first race.
The fellow at the gate knew just where to direct us to go. Unlike the horse racing where you follow on a side track, the trots have only one circuit. You follow the horses on the same track. This adds an extra level of ‘stress’ as there is no margin for error now. Tonight would test that margin though we didn’t know it yet.
But first, the important activities. Before and during races we were allowed to ‘partake in refreshments’ in the jockey’s room. This meant that there was always a range of food on offer ranging from pastries to sandwiches. It was rather ironic of course as in a jockey’s world even a glass of water is too fattening on race day.
Apparently I chose a bad place to stand as I was blocking the path of one of the jockeys. Actually they aren’t jockeys as such at the trots as they are drivers but the stature remained much the same. My partner nudged me and nodded his head for me to move. As I turned, mouth full of sandwich, I had to look down to see what the problem was. Now I’m not a tall guy but I towered over this fellow. Clearly not bothered by this dynamic, he locked eyes with me and gave me the withering death stare with more force than Darth Vader could ever muster. Or tried to. Resisting the urge to laugh, I quickly moved to one side, visitor as I was.
Out on the track we followed the first few races uneventfully. It is surprising at first how fast the trotting horses move. It is also a little disconcerting how much the heavy ambulance slides through the corners on the shale track. Fun, but disconcerting. A team of race track staff sit in the back with a variety of cutting devices ‘just in case one comes off’. Joy ride more like it I thought. In between races you can have more food or, as some did, try to increase your pay cheque with a ‘little flutter’. As long as you are back right on time. This is all televised and precisely scheduled. There is no forgiveness for error here.
Anyway, race four. The first lap is uneventful. Rounding the bend into the second lap the first domino falls even though we didn’t yet realise it. One of the horses breaks down losing its trotting gait completely. It slows considerably and begins to weave all over the track. There are two problems with this, apart from the obvious issues for the poor horse.
Firstly, the track is short and the other horses will all catch up again very soon. The unfortunate horse has to be moved out of the way quickly by the driver. Secondly, and more pressing, a four ton ambulance is about to run the beast over. Quickly we slow but now we are blocking the track and the field is closing fast on us. Fortunately the injured horse moves to one side and we are urged to quickly steer past it. Looking across at my partner I make the rather dry observation that “this can’t be good, we’re not coming last anymore”.
Increasing our speed a little to catch up again we round the bend just in time to see carnage unfold before us. The wayward horse has decided that it had one more veer across the track left in it so did so. Just as the field approached the finish line at full tilt. The lead drivers desperately tried to avoid horse and sulky managed slightly better than those following. One unlucky horse ploughed straight into the side of the errant sulky.
Actually not so much ploughed straight in but tried for a fleeting moment to transform into a majestic jumps horse. Perhaps without the sulky attached it may have fared better. The horse came down heavily sending its own sulky skyward. The driver sitting in it also became airborne. In slow motion he flew, pirouetted, then landed heavily head first. To emphasise this wasn’t his lucky night, the horse following him managed to land one hoof onto his head on the way past. There were four hooves to choose from so the horse had all the advantage in this drama.
Braking heavily, our crew were out of the ambulance quicker than lightning. I could see now the value of their equipment as wires and straps were rapidly disposed of. The driver was badly injured, unsurprisingly. We set to work on his unconscious form.
A few things remain starkly memorable from that moment. As fortune would have it, an intensive care ambulance happened to be driving right by the race track at that very moment. When we called for urgent assistance, they arrived within a minute. You couldn’t script this.
That was fortunate as the next thing was a race track official, suit, tie and hat, stood over me and proclaimed a simple instruction.
“The next race starts in fifteen minutes.” He paused for effect before adding. “Without fail.” One of the track staff reminded quickly about the television commitments.
In this business, ambulance not horse racing, you are used to working at fast pace on occasions. We adapted quickly and met that time frame. The departing ambulance, beacons flashing, was still in camera as the next horses assembled to race. The final stark memory though was not of that though. No, it was the image of track staff desperately trying to sweep the shale around to conceal the rather obvious ‘red on white’ circle in the middle of the track.
The rest of the meet was uneventful with normal business returning quickly. Almost normal business. Just about every driver and track official must have approached us to ask after the injured man. The man in the suit and tie certainly did and thanked us for not disrupting the scheduling. He was filled with genuine concern for the driver but had a job to do. One person who stood out most of all though was the little jockey who had glared at me earlier. He shook our hands and made one simple remark.
“I forgot why you guys are here. Thanks.”
Jeff Kenneally www.prehemt.com
ambulance paramedic prehospital emergency medical trauma