This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 2, 2004.

Sorrells knows dangers of horse racing all too well

By Ed Odeven

Saying horse racing isn’t a dangerous sport is like saying Lieutenant Stitchie is the most popular Jamaican musician of all time.

Neither statement is true.

But the following statement is 100 percent accurate: Jockeys are a special breed.

Only a select group of individuals possess the athleticism, not to mention the diminutive size and weight, needed to be a professional jockey. In addition, they need intense mental focus to guide a horse that generally weighs about 1,000 pounds at speeds up to 40 mph.

Some say it’s the hardest activity in sports. Or as Flagstaff resident Jim Miller, taking a break Friday morning from reading the Fort Tuthill racing program put it: “It’s much more difficult than it appears. … You have a lot of dependence on the guys you are riding with. If somebody screws up (you’re in trouble).”

Janna Sorrells won’t dispute the fact that her job is difficult. She has the scars to prove it.

On Jan. 23 at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Sorrells sustained a serious injury, breaking her neck in two places.

How frightening was that experience? I asked her.

“I don’t remember none of it, but they say it was pretty bad,” said Sorrells, who’s competing in the Fourth of July weekend races at Fort Tuthill Downs. “I lost all the skin on my face. I mean, yeah, it was bad. Anytime you go down it’s bad, but at least with mine it was minor.”

Here’s what she does recall:

“It wasn’t a collision,” Sorrells said. “It was a distance trial race. I remember being behind Bill Campbell, who was next to me, and there was about six (horses) in front of us and four behind us.”

Sorrells made her move toward the front of the pack. The rest of the details are a bit foggy. She sustained a concussion.

“My horse broke his neck and broke his leg, and I remember waking up in the ER,” she said.

Sorrells, 34, wore a neck brace for three months and had physical rehab (mostly massages and electrotherapy) for six weeks. But let’s back up a minute. While still wearing the neck brace, Sorrells began going to a Valley gym. She walked on a treadmill and swam.

“The doctor told me not to do much, but I did do stuff like that,” she said of the exercises.

Sorrells was asked if she ever thought she wouldn’t ride again.

“No,” she said, “as long as I can walk. No. … Bones heal pretty quick. It was just a matter of making sure it was healed enough that if I go down again it doesn’t re-break quick.”

For Sorrells, the medical bills piled up pretty quickly. She said she’s lost track of how much they are, but estimated they are at least $60,000. “And I’m still going. I’m still in therapy right now,” she added.

But since the accident occurred at Turf Paradise, the racetrack’s insurance covers the cost of her bills.

That’s the good news.

The bad news? Disability pay is $200 per week from The Jockeys’ Guild, plus another $200 from the track. Sorrells was accustomed to earning $1,000 to $2,000 a week riding at Turf Paradise. She said she doesn’t have an extravagant lifestyle, though.

Comparing the amount of money professional ballplayers make while serving stints on the disabled list to what jockeys get, Sorrells said “it’s crazy.”

She’s right.

Even with a union, injured jockeys struggle to pay the bills. Which is why the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund is such a vital resource for so many jockeys. It has provided financial assistance to more than 1,500 riders since 1987. “When you get hurt, you call them and tell them you need help, and they help you,” Sorrells said.

Talking to her, one senses she loves her job and the excitement of it. But I pressed her for more details about the euphoria of winning.

Sorrells said, “I win stakes races, I win for big trainers, but probably the ones for the little guy that’s got one horse that hasn’t won a race, those are the ones that are really cool.”

So, too, is Sorrells’ focus. She says she doesn’t want to be a jockey forever. She went to real estate school while spending those five months away from racing.

And how’d her return to the track go?

On her first official day back, May 29 at Yavapai Downs, Sorrells placed first, second, third and fourth.

“I’ve done well,” she said, modestly.

Today is Riders Helping Riders Jockey Across American XVI, a day in which more than 40 regular tracks — but not Fort Tuthill — around the country host events, such as bake sales, autograph sessions and jockey foot races to help in the fundraising endeavors.