Illustrations by Cathryn Virginia

The Death of a Racehorse

In the dirtiest sport there is, deregulation, doping, and politics changed a man named Jimmy Rivera's life forever.

Flyfly Fly Delilah felt fine to Jimmy Rivera as they strode to the track on the sunny morning of November 25, 2008. It was just past 7:30 at Calder Race Course in South Florida and Rivera had already galloped four horses in two uneventful hours of training. But his assignment for Flyfly Fly Delilah required a faster pace than the others.

The bay filly, aged two, had only arrived at Calder in late September but she was well-regarded around the barn. She had narrowly lost her first race a week and a half earlier, a hard-fought second that pleased Bill White, her trainer and Rivera’s boss. White, then 56, could spot talent. He had saddled more winners than almost any other trainer in Calder history, and had recently earned induction into its Hall of Fame.


With Rivera, Flyfly Fly Delilah was also in the hands of an experienced exercise rider. He hadn’t, though, been scheduled to ride her.

Moments earlier, he and Pedro Cabezudo, a fellow rider in White’s stable, watched as grooms walked Flyfly Fly Delilah and another two-year-old named Island Dreaming around the barn. Both horses were saddled and ready to go. But the jockey who was supposed to exercise Flyfly Fly Delilah was a no-show. So Rivera, who thought he might get off work, was told by White’s assistant trainer to get on her. Cabezudo took Island Dreaming.

Halfway down the barn, White, as he would later testify in a lawsuit brought by Rivera against his stable, his veterinarians, Calder Race Course and its veterinarian, instructed his riders to breeze their horses together and make it comfortable. Fly Fly, as she was often called, would be racing again soon.

It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and there were no races that afternoon. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were typically “dark days” at Calder, meaning most of its employees, including its track veterinarians and stewards, had off. That was standard in the industry, but with approximately 1,800 horses on the grounds, enforcement of rules and regulations fell on its security guards. One of the few visible signs of Calder personnel was the ambulance parked near the finish line. (Through a spokesperson, Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Calder, declined to comment on any details of the lawsuit.)


The ambulance was a permanent feature, but it had been a deadly year at the racetrack located across from the Miami Dolphins’ stadium. Since the start of 2008, according to Calder records later produced in the lawsuit, 53 racehorses from the track had already died, or about one a week. Many were dying young—about half were two or three—and of causes ranging from broken limbs to inexplicable sudden death.

Worryingly, training fatalities were outpacing those that occurred during the races. Yet nobody seemed concerned, largely because of when the deaths were happening. To those with the power to investigate, morning training, which was a 365-day-a-year activity at Calder, was seen as unregulated. Its senior track veterinarian would later say under oath that she considered training deaths to be a “private matter” between the racehorse owners and their trainers. It was an attitude that was widespread throughout the industry.

The senior track veterinarian said under oath that she considered training deaths to be a “private matter” between the racehorse owners and their trainers.

If a horse died on a dark day, most officials would only learn about it a day or two later, in the form of a Dead Horse Report. To Calder’s head of security, who signed these single-page reports, racetrack breakdowns were simply the “nature of the game,” he would later testify.

Since Fly Fly’s last race, however, there had been five fatalities in 11 days. None of these incidents were looked into further, according to court testimony and records, and none were on Jimmy Rivera’s mind as he led the young filly into the November sunshine.


What was on his mind was a desire to make up for lost time. Rivera, who grew up the second oldest of five in the South Bronx, found his way to the racetrack in his twenties, and this discovery freed him from a life of dull jobs. But after his wife June, an ex-jockey herself, enlisted in the Army in 1989, they had to relocate often with their three children. Sometimes he went several years without riding. It ate at him, since he felt he was doing something special on the back of a horse.

Rivera was 55, but his age wasn’t a problem—there were exercise riders older than him working at the track. And at five-foot-five and 125 pounds, he still felt an adrenaline rush from controlling thousand-pound animals. Bill White had a number of fast ones, and he thought Flyfly Fly Delilah might be the next.

So he and Pedro Cabezudo, who was about the same age, joined the throng of riders and horses making their way to Calder’s one-mile oval track. It had just been harrowed, as it was every morning between 7 and 7:30, and White, according to the track clocker, typically sent his horses to breeze after the break. Fly Fly and Island Dreaming wore distinctive saddle towels: blue with white trim and an emblem with White’s initials.

As the trainer drove his golf cart to the far side of the course, from where he would watch the action, Rivera and Cabezudo entered past the finish line and jogged their horses up the stretch, warming them up before the real work began. Then they wheeled around and began galloping in the normal counterclockwise direction toward the first turn.


Rivera took the inside with Fly Fly. He thought she felt slightly off in a front leg when he had ridden her a week earlier, information he would later testify he had shared with White’s assistant trainer—a recollection White and his assistant denied—but as they galloped past the glass-and-concrete grandstand, Rivera didn’t notice any signs of soreness. They passed White, who was leaning against the outer rail, and then began angling inside about to start their breeze. White could see that his young charges were listening to their riders. Gaining speed, they took off sprinting at the half-mile pole, pushing 30 miles per hour.


Photo by George Ondricek.

The pair of horses made for a pretty sight as they swept out of the final turn. From White’s vantage point, Flyfly Fly Delilah appeared silhouetted by the white Island Dreaming. He was happy with what he saw, he would say in a later deposition, and so too was Jimmy Rivera.

It was almost eight now, and they had a quarter-mile left to run. Rivera nudged his filly to switch her lead leg from left to right, as she had been coached to do, so she would accelerate into the home stretch.

Then it happened suddenly. Cabezudo heard an explosive crack, he would later testify, like that of a tree branch snapping, then Rivera scream. He continued looking straight ahead, but the sound was gut-wrenching. He knew what it meant. White, whose line of sight was partially blocked by a row of hedges, would later say that he only saw his white horse still running.


Flyfly Fly Delilah dropped quickly, careening down to her right. Rivera tried to hold on, but within seconds he was catapulted headfirst into the freshly-groomed track. The filly, all 1,000 pounds of her, landed on top of him.

Watching from the grandstand’s seventh floor, Margaret Contreras, who timed workouts for Calder, gasped. “Oh, my god,” she said.


Photo by George Ondricek.

Contreras knew it was bad. Of the thousands of workouts she’d watched since taking her job 11 years earlier, she never forgot the handful in which a rider was badly hurt. But horses broke down all the time—so many in fact that she had lost count. In a recent year at Calder, she would say in a 2014 deposition, she remembered them happening once a week. (Calder officials didn’t return requests for comment.)

One of her colleagues slammed the alarm, and a siren blared around the grounds. Everyone knew what that meant: Pull up your horses. They radioed the two outriders down on the course, who in turn called the track-side ambulance. One outrider rushed to the top of the stretch and began waving horses toward the outside rail, while his colleague did the same at the other end.

Two members of the gate crew sprinted toward the carnage. Rivera lay face-down in the dirt, the lower half of his body pinned underneath Flyfly Fly Delilah. He feared she might roll over and finish him off, but she didn’t move. She was already dead.

Barely above a whisper, Rivera told the pair, “I can’t feel my body.” They dragged Flyfly Fly Delilah off him. White arrived less than five minutes later to find a sickening sight: The filly’s right foreleg was held together by nothing more than hide and ligaments. Her cannon bone, slightly above the ankle, looked like it had detonated. But that wouldn’t have killed her on the spot. She must have fractured her neck or spine, or maybe suffered a heart attack as she crashed to the ground.


“I can’t feel my body.”

At 8:05, two paramedics pulled up beside Rivera. Bystanders offered some details, and realizing that Rivera might have suffered a spinal injury, they called 911. They decided to move him into the ambulance immediately, away from the commotion; they secured his neck with a brace and rolled him onto a backboard, making sure his torso and neck stayed aligned.

Rivera was in shock, and his pulse was weak. Inside the ambulance, they gave him oxygen and encouraged him to focus on his breathing. “I don’t feel my fingers and legs,” he said calmly. They struggled to hear him. Rivera could recall his name but little else, such as the date or particulars of his fall. His pain was a 10 out of 10, he said, and he could feel only his neck.

Outside, another ambulance arrived for Flyfly Fly Delilah. Its attendants raised a screen and pulled her body inside using a mechanical winch. One of the outriders asked them to hurry up so training could resume. Back at White’s barn, Pedro Cabezudo got ready to gallop another horse while his mind replayed that sickening sound.

At 8:30, the paramedics drove their ambulance to the main stable gate to meet Metro-Dade Fire Rescue. Once there, the decision was made to airlift Rivera to the trauma center at nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital. Meanwhile, the ambulance carrying Flyfly Fly Delilah left the course and unloaded her body at a tucked-away area known as the kill pit.


Four hours later, a truck from Lowe’s Horse Removal, the company that Calder retained for this grim task, arrived to dispose of the filly. Still another eight horses, according to records turned over by Lowe’s and Calder in the lawsuit, followed her before the year was finished.


In 2008, 62 racehorses died from Calder, as well as three stable ponies, but there were no headlines about it then. (Six years later, Rivera and his wife June appeared on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel in an investigation of horse racing’s rampant drug culture, and in 2015 the Washington Post ran a story about the lawsuit.) By comparison, last year there were more than 20,000 news stories about racetrack deaths, according to a public relations firm hired by one industry group—and all of them were a product of the 30 track fatalities at Santa Anita Park that captured national attention. (Unlike the reporting for this story, industry statistics exclude horses whose deaths are not immediately caused by racing or training injuries but of harmful diseases like colic or laminitis that are generally caused by life at the track.)

Santa Anita’s stature partly explains why its death toll in its 2018/19 season set off a media storm, yet the track still averaged 50 fatalities per season going back a decade. Why the less-prestigious Calder escaped that spotlight might also owe to the fact that Florida has always been an extremely dangerous place for racehorses. Through the first half of 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, 68 had already died at Florida tracks—on pace to surpass the no fewer than 102 that died last year.


Horse racing in America is regulated by the states, and in Florida, where many industries have long been given extreme discretion to police themselves, racetracks are no different.

When Calder Race Course opened on May 6, 1971, 16,263 fans greeted the start of summertime racing in South Florida. The effort was led by Stephen A. Calder, who owned most of Ft. Lauderdale’s beachfront real estate. Calder became the track president while keeping about a quarter interest in the new place. There was no such thing as too much racing at the time, even if that meant during tropical summers. The sport was enjoying its glory years—Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed won the Triple Crown that decade—and expansion was in the cards.

In Florida, where many industries have long been given extreme discretion to police themselves, racetracks are no different.

With the 1980s came Reagan-led deregulation on a national scale, and Florida politicians were eager to follow, including in horse racing, where the legislature decided to let the three South Florida racetracks—Calder, Gulfstream Park, and Hialeah Park—fight for the best dates on the calendar. Hialeah eventually lost, and Calder began carrying two-thirds of the year-round schedule, opening for racing from late April through the first few days of January. Gulfstream then hosted the prime dates. Calder kept its backstretch open to trainers who preferred to stick around and van their horses to Gulfstream on race day.


In 1992, the legislature furthered its deregulatory drive when it allowed the laws governing horse racing simply to expire. Fifty-four pages were reduced to five. The regulatory apparatus of this large industry, from licensing participants to punishing drug violators, was tossed aside. The state agencies in charge drafted emergency administrative rules, but local newspapers like the Sun Sentinel announced “It’s No Joke: Florida Has Become One.”

30 x 60_ SATELLITE VIEW print.jpeg

Photo by George Ondricek.

It wasn’t a laughing matter to anyone interested in above-board wagering and the safety of horses and riders. Wilbur Brewton, a Tallahassee attorney who had advised Calder since its ribbon-cutting, worked with its president, Ken Dunn, to create order out of the chaos and introduce some of the sunsetted regulations into its own house rules, according to their respective depositions in Rivera’s lawsuit.

Calder’s new handbook, which became evidence in the lawsuit, established the conduct of professionals at the track, primarily jockeys, trainers, and veterinarians, but they were meant to supplement the rules promulgated by the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering—the ones left anyway. As before, a board of three stewards were tasked with adjudicating that conduct; Calder hired two while the state contracted the other. The state employed one veterinarian, the so-called division veterinarian, and he mainly supervised the collection of post-race urine and blood samples at the racetrack. Calder hired two veterinarians each season—they were compensated a day rate without benefits, according to those who held the position—and their focus, they said, was the health of horses on race day.


Morning training was another matter. Although the house rules did not explicitly say there would be no oversight, regulators from the track and state saw it that way. Training was “an unregulated event,” Dr. Mary Scollay, Calder’s senior track veterinarian who resigned five months before Flyfly Fly Delilah died, said in a 2019 deposition. In her dozen years on the job, she didn’t investigate horses that died while training, she testified, “because it was not in the context of a race, and my responsibilities were related to racing safety and soundness.”

In 1996, the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering reintroduced some of the expired rules following negotiations with the racetracks. There was a need to at least establish some standards, the Division noted, and they largely focused on medication use: the permitted ones, the sampling and testing of them, the responsibilities of veterinarians. Their stated purpose was to protect the integrity of horse racing and the welfare of the animal and racing participants.

There was one rule that touched on training, and it concerned the handling of a racetrack death:

“The division veterinarian or any other Florida licensed veterinarian hired or retained by the Division shall collect urine, blood, or other bodily fluids or samples of tissue from any animal which died in a permitted race or while training at a pari-mutuel facility or from any animal found dead at a permitted track.”


Any licensee who interfered with or prevented this from happening, it read, would be “subject to suspension by the stewards or judges of the meeting and to action by the division.”

This post-mortem sampling could be done on the premises after a horse died, but the state decided to go one better and establish a necropsy program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, similar to one California started in 1990. California’s became the gold standard, in which roughly 250 horses were necropsied every year to figure out the nature and cause of their fatal injuries.

Florida’s became a farce. The state bought a refrigerated truck to transport the deceased horses, according to Scollay’s testimony, but evidently there were issues with the license of their hired driver. Later the refrigeration unit supposedly failed, and the truck disappeared. The state abandoned the program in 2001 or 2002 based on an “absence of funding,” according to the testimony of Dennis Miller, the pari-mutuel division’s longtime manager of South Florida. He said fewer than 15 dead horses were sent to the laboratory.

Nonetheless, during and after this failed effort, the requirement to take samples from any dead racehorse stayed on the books. Which is about the only place it existed. Dr. Billy Ray Cannon, the division veterinarian from 1997 through 2012, testified that it was not enforced, not by him or by those who had held the job before him in his two decades as a private practitioner.


So when a horse died on the track of catastrophic racing or training injuries—and there were dozens at Calder and the other Florida racetracks every year—that was generally the end of the story. The rare exceptions were when a horse had caught a potentially contagious infectious disease. Miller, who was Cannon’s boss, said in his deposition that the state didn’t have the budget or the staff to enforce the rule, which as written applied to both racehorses and racing greyhounds. But the division never sought to remove or amend it, and neither did the racetracks, even though they technically violated it every time they removed a dead horse from their premises without any post-mortem sampling.

Into this deregulatory vacuum entered the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a group that represented the state’s roughly 5,000 trainers and owners. Led by Kent Stirling, their first executive director, they sought to loosen restrictions on a catalog of drugs that they claimed were needed for therapeutic reasons. Florida’s guidelines, governing how close to a race medications could be given to a horse and in what amounts and combinations, became some of the most permissive of any jurisdiction in the country.

It didn’t stop there. After the state laboratory began using more sensitive testing, there was an abrupt increase in the findings of permitted but easily abused substances, such as anti-inflammatories, anabolic steroids, and painkillers like corticosteroids. At the time the industry treated them as drugs with a purported therapeutic benefit. Fines and suspensions rose too. Stirling, on behalf of the horsemen, lobbied state legislators to write a law that would restrict the screening of these drugs to the older method, called thin-layer chromatography. Almost two decades later, while still on the books, Stirling proudly noted in correspondence with an industry official that he had co-authored the statute and believed it had worked “quite well.”


Florida became the only state that placed a restriction like this on how to test for these categories of drugs, according to Dr. Rick Sams, who headed the University of Florida lab from 2006 until the summer of 2010. Sams knew they were missing a lot because of this extraordinary requirement, and there was nothing he could do about it.

“It was a good 20 to 25 years out of date at that point,” Sams testified.

Private veterinarians were well aware of this, and trainers too, who had nothing to fear if they somehow ran afoul of these ineffective tests, according to a Miami New Times investigation in 2012. One of Calder’s most successful trainers was hit with 41 drug positives from 2005 to 2011, the most of any trainer in the country during those years, and he was fined a total of $13,100—less than the winner’s share of a single race. When the division eventually tried suspending him for two months, he appealed for two years.

The prevailing attitude was summed up by David Romanik, a racehorse owner and attorney for gaming entities in South Florida, who volunteered in a deposition that “it’s easy to say I believe in no drugs in horses, but when it comes right down to it, everyone wants to win races.”


In 2008, the first of 62 racehorses from Calder to die was named Go Directly to Jail, a seven-year-old gelding with earnings of $167,000. He left the Calder backstretch on the late morning of January 7 to run in the ninth race at Gulfstream Park, where hours later he broke down and was euthanized.


The Gulfstream meet had opened a couple days earlier, and Calder was closed for racing until April. But its backstretch, according to trainers there, was still a hive of activity in the morning. The regulatory veterinarians and stewards who had been working at Calder went to Gulfstream or elsewhere, which meant that for the next three and a half months there was little oversight of training hours at Calder. Who was responsible for ensuring the house rules were complied with?

“Security,” said one of those stewards, Jeffrey Noe, in a 2015 deposition.

The security department, however, and indeed the whole place, was undergoing a dramatic overhaul. Calder was about to be rebranded Calder Casino & Race Course, with a poker room and slot machines on the way. The new name was telling. Churchill Downs Inc., which had purchased Calder for about $86 million in 1999, was becoming a multifaceted gaming company with a shrinking interest in the sport in which it had made its name. (Churchill Downs, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story.)

Casinos were more popular and less messy than horse racing—and it was becoming evident that at Calder, the horses were about to take a backseat to the new casino.

The first half of 2008 was marked by turmoil. That June, Calder fired its track superintendent of about 17 years, Steven Cross, who oversaw the maintenance of the racing and training surfaces and barn area. The reason became public four years later, after Cross and the heads of two local chemical supply companies pleaded guilty to running an illegal kickback scheme for at least a decade, in which Cross submitted invoices for products that were never delivered. (Asked by the judge why he did it, Cross replied, “The money.”)


(Asked by the judge why he did it, Cross replied, “The money.”)

Elsewhere at the track, Tony Otero, its director of security since 1990, was forced to staff two positions himself, according to his sworn testimony. He had fired the supervisor of the backstretch security force and offered to step in during the search for a replacement. This put him in charge of the barn area and the spectator area. In addition to his day job, Otero and his wife Gail also owned a private agency called Top-Notch Investigations.

Otero was an experienced investigator who had previously worked in federal and state law enforcement, according to his testimony and the Top-Notch website. He was now working six or sometimes seven days a week, attending regular planning meetings for the new casino. Part of this included restructuring his department and training new hires. On the racing side, he and his guards were still responsible for enforcing the state and house rules, according to Calder’s president and Otero himself.

Despite that, Otero later testified that he thought the state rules that had sunsetted in 1992 were never readopted.

For all these reasons, dark clouds of uncertainty hung over Calder as it reopened for live racing on April 21, 2008. The locals, among them Bill White, bedded in for the eight-month meet.

Before each season, White and every other trainer had to sign an agreement acknowledging knowing and abiding by the state and house rules. As he testified in one of his depositions, White had a record that included seven small-time medication overages and two suspensions, of 15 and 30 days, years apart. Beginning in 1997, he had captured eight consecutive Calder training titles, and by the start of the 2008 season, he was a couple of years away from 2,000 career wins.


As with any successful stable, White was surrounded by a loyal team that knew what he wanted. That included his veterinarian, Dr. Robert O’Neil.

O’Neil, who was close to 60 and had earned his veterinary degree from Auburn University in 1975, stood out for his stature and his size. “Nothing goes on in these barns that I don’t know about,” he said of the trainers who hired him during one state hearing. For three decades he had managed Calder for Burch & Burch, a practice started by Joe Burch that was later purchased by his son George. (O’Neil declined to comment.)

Private racetrack veterinarians are always on call, and O’Neil said under oath in 2014 that he saw between 50 and 100 horses every day, sometimes arriving as early as three in the morning and departing at six in the evening. There was a financial upside to such tirelessness. Like all private practitioners, he testified, he was paid by the shot: the more drugs he administered, the more he earned. He received a third of Burch & Burch’s gross income and was guaranteed a minimum annual income of $50,000, according to a copy of his contract provided at his deposition. Despite this incentive, however, he testified, “I’m not a person to give medication just willy-nilly.”

O’Neil said under oath in 2014 that he saw between 50 and 100 horses every day, sometimes arriving as early as three in the morning and departing at six in the evening.


Part of his job was knowing each trainer’s medication regimen, or as he put it, “some routine procedures that we followed.” He testified that White’s horses received Vitamin E and Selenium before or after a workout, and on the night before a race, they got Naquasone, the brand name of a diuretic-corticosteroid combo that O’Neil said reduced inflammation in a horse’s lungs. On race day, he testified, the horse received another diuretic (the popular Lasix), as well as corticosteroid Solu-Delta-Cortef, or prednisolone sodium succinate. Its manufacturer intended it for severe allergic reactions, although O’Neil and others said it calmed a horse’s “nerves” and staved off heat prostration.

The manufacturers of these drugs warned of negative effects in combining them, but in Florida this cocktail was legal and, according to O’Neil's testimony, common. Florida was also the only jurisdiction that allowed a shot of Solu-Delta-Cortef a couple hours before post-time. It had become state law based almost purely on anecdotal evidence.

“I never did find any reason why that was a permitted medication on race day,” Dr. Cynthia Cole, who ran the University of Florida lab prior to Rick Sams, said in testimony. “It was very unusual.”

White’s horses also typically received anabolic steroids, according to testimony and O’Neil’s medical records. O’Neil treated horses with either Winstrol, a brand of stanozolol, or Equipoise, also known as boldenone. At a state hearing in August of that year, he called them “very useful to veterinary practice” and said he “vehemently opposed” their prohibition. He had been using them for 30 years, he said, but never abused them. He typically administered them to a horse “that’s doing poorly, has a poor appetite, not performing well, lackadaisical,” he said. He didn’t mention any other side effects, such as their well-known muscle-building properties.


At the time in Florida, anabolic steroids were permitted up to a certain level, but they were difficult to detect on the state lab’s outdated tests, according to Cole, and so there was really no limit to their usage. Anabolic steroids were “standard operating procedure” for almost every veterinarian in South Florida, according to testimony from David Romanik. Across the country too: In California, for instance, its state veterinarian estimated that half of the horses there were on them.

Anabolic steroids were “standard operating procedure.”

The rest of White’s team claimed in their depositions to be unaware of this routine. His assistant trainer, Leonardo Tunon, swore that none of their horses were given anabolic steroids, although he acknowledged that it was not his place to check medication logs. This applied to White’s loyal exercise riders for whom riding horses was like an addiction—“a fever one gets,” said 61-year-old Manuel Macias.

They weren’t there for the pay. White’s team included ex-jockeys like Macias, Pedro Cabezudo, Luis Castanada, and Jimmy Rivera. Unlike those three, Rivera wasn’t salaried. He was paid $8 or $10 per horse, and his weekly earnings ranged between $300 and $400. He also moonlighted as a waiter at a Hilton on I-95.

Rivera had ridden off and on for White for more than 20 years. He was quieter than the others, but his love of the job burned just as brightly. For him it had started out as a family affair. He met June, four years his junior, at New York’s Belmont Park in 1982, and they got married there the same year. Jimmy was a lowly hotwalker and June was a hopeful jockey. She had grown up in Puerto Rico, where her uncle owned a few racehorses, and graduated from its riding school. Before they met Jimmy had married and divorced, and spent his early twenties waiting tables at the Yale Club in Manhattan.


They moved to Florida in 1983, mainly so Jimmy could learn how to ride. June galloped horses for a year until their first child, Christopher, was born. The rest of the decade was hard. Jimmy hustled mounts, his pay meager and inconsistent, while June worked at a Miami department store. Few people on the track made much money, and yet they felt a sense of camaraderie in this shared hardship. Jimmy found it thrilling. But after their second child, Marisa, was born, June decided to enlist in the Army. She wanted their kids—a third, Ruth, was born five years later—to enjoy more stability than their itinerant racetrack life offered.

June became a computer systems analyst, and they moved to different bases every two or three years, with stops in Georgia, Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, and Germany. Jimmy often worked at the commissary, and rode only when they lived near a racetrack. The family stuck together, but after a decade and a half, their separations grew. June was sent to the Middle East for a year-long assignment she described as “traumatic” in one deposition, and after she returned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Jimmy decided to remain in Florida. He felt his time with the horses was running out. June was close to her 20-year milestone and wanted to stay in the military.

In the summer of 2008, Jimmy was offered a spot on White’s full-time payroll, increasing his weekly earnings to $550. He and June came to an amicable agreement, they said, and, after 26 years of marriage, June filed for divorce in North Carolina. It was finalized in early November.


By the time of Calder’s April curtain raiser, at least 17 racehorses, or the equivalent of one a week, had already died. They were memorialized in out-slips, later produced in lawsuit discovery, that logged all comings and goings at the stable gate security office. Three of those appear to have been euthanized after races at Gulfstream, while the rest died on the grounds.

Calder’s recordkeeping, however, was frequently incomplete or inaccurate. One of the dead, for instance, was an unraced three-year-old filly of Bill White’s named Haymeadow Miss. Her identifying tattoo number was incorrect on her out-slip, according to White’s testimony. On another occasion, a pair of horses suffered fatal training injuries the same January morning, and yet their out-slips omitted the cause of death and attending veterinarian.

Calder’s house rules, which hadn’t changed much since 1992, did establish standards for this reporting: It was up to the trainer and the attending veterinarian to tell the security office about a racetrack death. The house rules also specified that the horse could not be removed without the written consent of a Calder steward or his designee, and not without a death certificate signed by a licensed veterinarian. The stewards were allowed to take control of the remains to request a necropsy.

But no stewards were present at the track during training hours, according to the depositions of Calder executives and the stewards themselves. One steward, Jeffrey Noe, testified that he never gave written consent for the removal of a dead horse, but he also never named a designee to handle it. It was up to security, he said, to get information on the deceased before discarding the body.


As for the death certificate, Calder officials believed that this was satisfied by the Dead Horse Report. A security employee typed it up and Tony Otero signed it, as did the veterinarian of record. It was distributed to a number of individuals at the track, including the president, racing secretary, superintendent, track and state veterinarians, and stewards.

Most testified that they never looked at the reports a second time. Sometimes they would show up under an office door, sometimes in a mail slot, and sometimes not at all, according to one recipient. Billy Ray Cannon, the division veterinarian, said in a deposition that they were generated by Calder for Calder, and as a state employee he was not obligated to send them to his superiors at the division. He filed them in a cabinet, he said, and never thought of them again.

Florida’s pari-mutuel rules hadn’t changed much since 1996 either, and they still mandated that the division veterinarian take blood, urine, or tissue samples from a deceased animal. Cannon said he never did. State steward Kevin Scheen testified that he was not familiar with the rule, and said he never ordered a necropsy nor was aware of any state employee who had. (In a very brief phone call, Scheen said he wasn’t present at Calder on the day of Rivera’s accident and had little to add about the case. Cannon couldn’t be reached for comment.)

A state steward testified that he was not familiar with the rule, and said he never ordered a necropsy nor was aware of any state employee who had.


To Calder’s president, Ken Dunn, fatal breakdowns were an “unfortunate part” of this “great business,” he said in a 2015 deposition. But business was shifting. Dunn resigned in April and continued serving as a consultant through the end of July. In a press release, a Churchill Downs Inc. executive vice president thanked him for his 18-year service, saying, “We are transitioning Calder into a destination with horse racing and casino-style gaming and have a need for management skills and leadership experience in both industries.”

Dunn wasn’t replaced immediately, and sometimes it was unclear who was in charge. “There was a lot of title changing going on at the time,” Calder’s publicity director said in a deposition.

There was also a change to another key oversight position: senior track veterinarian. In the third week of June, Dr. Patricia Marquis succeeded Mary Scollay, who left to become the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s new equine medical director. The 36-year-old Marquis, a native of Saint John, New Brunswick, in Canada, graduated from veterinary college in 2000 and worked for Burch & Burch, with Bob O’Neil, for less than a year. She returned to Calder in August 2004 as its assistant track veterinarian. (Marquis didn’t return requests for comment.)

Her promotion was announced in the racetrack’s in-house weekly newsletter: “Among her many responsibilities is the conduction of pre- and post-racing soundness evaluations, maintaining an injury database, managing herd health and equine infectious diseases, developing policies, and serving as a liaison between horsemen, racetrack management, governmental regulatory agencies, and private veterinary practitioners.”


It seemed like a lot of work for one person. Marquis reported to racing secretary Michael Anifantis, who, according to his testimony, created her schedule based on the previous payroll. She wouldn’t work on dark days. That would demand a larger staff and resources than Calder chose to allocate.

“That was the custom,” Anifantis said under oath. “It’s industry-wide, and it still is, as far as I can tell.”

Marquis was elevated to her new role during a stretch of four fatalities in five days. In hindsight it looks like a call to action, but the South Florida track was only a small piece in a nationwide scandal.

One week later, in the wake of the televised death of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby, Congress held hearings on racetrack breakdowns and the curse of legal and illegal drugs in the sport. Scores of new ones had been coming onto American racetracks for three decades, and while many of them had an ostensible therapeutic use, almost all of them were vulnerable to being abused. The tendency to use them to push horses beyond their physical limits or to mask their injuries was increasing their risk of breaking down—or to put it plainly, the risk of killing them.

The tendency to use them to push horses beyond their physical limits or to mask their injuries was increasing their risk of breaking down—or to put it plainly, the risk of killing them.

The rampant use of anabolic steroids loomed large over proceedings. Big Brown, the Derby and Preakness winner, had run on them in those races and in Florida. His trainer, Richard Dutrow, admitted to monthly injections of Winstrol (“I don’t know what it does,” he claimed, “I just like using it.”), but the big bay colt finished last in the Belmont Stakes after it had been taken away. Dutrow did not turn up, apparently too ill to travel to D.C., but members of the committee said he never notified them.


Amidst this uproar, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission decided in August 2008 to ban the synthetic steroid stanozolol, which Winstrol was the brand name (and which was made famous by Ben Johnson, the 100-meter champion stripped of his gold medal after he tested positive for it at the 1988 Seoul Olympics), and limit three other anabolic steroids from being used within 60 days of a race. Additionally, the Breeders’ Cup announced that any trainer whose horse came back positive at its million-dollar races would face a one-year suspension from the event.

Another rule-making body wanted to create a 30-day withdrawal time and recategorize four anabolic steroids as class three drugs, meaning they would no longer be treated as having a therapeutic purpose. If Florida adopted that, its lab would be forced to test for them with a more sensitive technology. If the state refused to go along, its biggest races could lose their status.

In late August, O’Neil and Kent Stirling, the executive director of the horsemen’s association, dug in their heels at a hearing of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. Stirling said they were being blackmailed; O’Neil agreed. Public relations, not health and safety, were forcing their hand, O’Neil said. “To do this is wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It’s not going to solve our race problems.”

On steroids, he spoke first and loudest throughout the night.

“We are in this frenzy right now that steroids have caused all of our problems,” he said, “and if that’s true I wonder, why don’t we have 200 baseball players batting .500 instead of four baseball players? If half of them are on steroids, why weren’t they all superstars?”


O’Neil said he was not speaking for the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine, of which he was a longtime member. Instead of 30 days, he suggested a five-day withdrawal period or an “out” by way of a medical exemption. But the exemption proposal fell flat. A few others predicted it would be hard to enforce and make room for abuse. Marquis, there on behalf of Calder, agreed that the exemption was a risky idea.


A month later, on the morning of September 26, Flyfly Fly Delilah was led out of her stall at a farm in central Florida and onto a van to take her to Calder. She walked into Bill White’s barn about four hours later. She was one of 34,905 thoroughbreds born in the U.S. in 2006. A quarter of them would never make it to the races.

How Flyfly Fly Delilah would take to the rigors of racing was unpredictable, but her bloodlines offered promise. Her father was Florida’s leading stallion then and her mother had won two out of 10 races and was becoming a successful dam. Three of her four foals were winners.

In his training chart that day, White wrote the name of his new arrival as Fly Fly Delta. He knew very little about the filly, other than the fact that Maurice Miller, her owner and breeder, had sent her.

But she had been training well the last four months, putting in short breezes of three or four furlongs at a training center in Ocala, building the foundation for the strenuous work ahead. In her first week at Calder, Pedro Cabezudo frequently took her out for a spin as she grew familiar with her new environment. Jimmy Rivera galloped her on the second day of October, according to White’s charts, and again each morning for a week.


On her fifth day in the barn, according to a computer printout of Flyfly Fly Delilah’s medication billing report, O’Neil injected her with half of a standard dose of stanozolol. That would continue every two weeks. The charge was billed to her owner.

“The filly had been in my barn for awhile and she was not eating real well,” White asserted in his depositions, “and we were trying to get her to get back into her feed tub.”

Judging by O’Neil’s medical records, exhibits in the lawsuit, he was treating many horses on the grounds with half-Winstrol, as he noted it. It’s unclear if all of them had appetite issues.

As for Flyfly Fly Delilah, there were no physical exams or blood tests listed on that billing report that might have indicated an attempt to figure out why she wasn’t eating well. Asked about that under oath in 2015, White said, “My position is she was examined every time the vet walked in her stall and administered any of those medications.”

(Before any depositions were taken, in 2013, White replied in writing to questions from Rivera’s counsel—known as interrogatories—in which he stated that the only medications Flyfly Fly Delilah received were vaccinations, vitamins, and Lasix. He would later say in a deposition that he had based this on his memory at the time.)

But Leo Tunon, his assistant, who was in charge of checking the feed buckets every morning, said in his deposition that Flyfly Fly Delilah never ate poorly. He worked for White for two decades and said their horses were never given anabolic steroids to help improve their appetite. “I never work with nobody who use that stuff,” Tunon testified.


Photo by George Ondricek.

If ever there were suspicions of wrongdoing, Calder’s house rules provided its veterinarians and stewards with aggressive tools of enforcement. Private veterinarians had to keep a daily log of the horses they treated and the type of medication given, and the logs had to be available for inspection by the division and track veterinarian. The track could also monitor and question them, review their medical records, inspect their vehicles, confiscate and test their syringes and vials, and take blood and urine samples of the horses under their treatment.

But Marquis testified that it wasn’t her responsibility to oversee the dozens of private practitioners on the grounds. It was up to the stewards, she said, and if they found wrongdoing they could report an individual to the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine. But they never received or inspected daily medication logs, according to steward Jeffrey Noe, who said the records were supposed to go to the division veterinarian. As it turned out, the state had quit asking for them many years earlier.

Flyfly Fly Delilah, meanwhile, received the same dose of stanozolol again on October 15 and November 1. White claimed “she wasn’t eating well enough to compete,” according to his testimony, but the rookie filly began gearing up for her debut. She had early zip from the gate, and that would help her separate from the pack.

On the cloudy morning of November 14, Calder’s assistant track veterinarian checked Flyfly Fly Delilah in her stall as part of the standard pre-race exam. She would later testify that the filly did not jog outside her stall, which was standard at many tracks, including Gulfstream Park, where she also worked. Gulfstream hired three veterinarians, while Calder employed two. If in fact Fly Fly was not exercised outside her stall for a complete examination prior to the race, then Calder would have been running afoul of state regulations. (Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Calder, declined to comment.)


If in fact Fly Fly was not exercised outside her stall for a complete examination prior to the race, then Calder would have been running afoul of state regulations.

A few hours later, she entered the gate as the 5-2 third choice against a half-dozen two-year-old fillies. The distance was six furlongs and the track was fast, and she broke out of the gate cleanly, dueling for the lead with the favorite. She put her away, then held off another challenger, but in the final strides, out in the middle of the track, a deep closer surged in front.

For Flyfly Fly Delilah’s first start, it was a big performance that promised a bright future. She was led to the test barn along with the winner, where urine and blood was collected to send to the University of Florida lab. Her post-race samples ultimately came back clean for illicit substances. She had been given permissible amounts of a couple drugs within the previous 24 hours, but none of them targeted any specific illness or pain, White testified. The stanozolol that was in her system did not appear on her test results, according to court records—proof of the limited technology that Florida was using.

Two days after the race, Flyfly Fly Delilah received a fourth injection of steroids, only it was now Equipoise, according to her medication billing report. O’Neil attributed the change to seeing if she would respond “appetite-wise” to a different drug. Asked in his testimony about the risks of this biweekly regimen to a young filly, he said, “I don’t think there are any risks myself.”


The timing was interesting. Earlier that week, O’Neil had attended a second hearing on the proposal to phase out steroids. The state finally accepted the change, starting with a 90-day grace period beginning on January 1, 2009.

It was going to be “a dramatic change for a lot of horsemen,” Kent Stirling said at the hearing. O’Neil also asked Rick Sams, the lab director, for specifics on how long it would take Equipoise to clear a horse’s system, especially if the horse had been given it for an extended period of time, like a month. Sams told him that some steroids would clear in one month, and others in 45 days, but that the clearance time could be longer in “a multiple dosing regimen, as you’ve described.”

Equipoise was the last item on Flyfly Fly Delilah’s medication report. And in the last week of her life, Jimmy Rivera was assigned to ride her on all but one morning.


Minutes after Rivera was being airlifted out of Calder on November 25, 2008, Tony Otero, the head of security, learned about it from one of his employees. Otero called the new track president and left a message. He then emailed him, plus the interim president and assistant general manager, to say he was on his way to the track, according to email records produced in discovery. The assistant general manager, who headed Calder’s safety committee, wrote back that he was heading over too. Calder’s publicity director was also pulled into the email thread.


But the circle of communication ended there. None of the higher-ups on the email chain, not even Otero with his decades of investigative experience, called the stewards or veterinarians to report the incident, according to their own sworn accounts.

About two hours after Flyfly Fly Delilah died, White, according to his testimony, was called by the security employee who typed up the Dead Horse Reports. For whatever reason, Flyfly Fly Delilah’s tattoo number and her veterinarian of record, O’Neil, were left off the report. Instead, it read, “No attending vet.” Her cause of death was imprecise and crude: “Fractured front leg and then collapsed.”

Otero signed it anyway. Years later, he testified of their response, “On non-race days, the horse, unfortunately, died, and this form was prepared and the horse was removed.”

White, in his deposition, could not explain why O’Neil was left off the report. But his veterinarian was there that morning. Margaret Contreras, the track clocker who watched everything unfold from her panoramic seventh-floor seat, recalled O’Neil walking onto the track. She said his size made him unmistakable. (O'Neil testified that he had no memory of walking onto the track.)

Leo Tunon, in his testimony, recalled O’Neil coming by their barn shortly after White returned, about 20 minutes after the accident. (White said he only spoke to O’Neil several hours later.) Tunon tried to listen in on their brief conversation, in which, he said, O’Neil described Flyfly Fly Delilah’s injury. He assumed O’Neil had seen her on the track.


O’Neil testified that he had no memory of this meeting. In his records, however, he noted her name, color, gender, and tattoo number, J30853, which he said he did for deceased horses in case the owner needed that information for tax purposes. If a horse is insured, an owner might request a necropsy. O’Neil had done a few before at the kill pit, he said, but Flyfly Fly Delilah was not insured. White testified that he had never requested one in three decades as a trainer, and “a necropsy at the racetrack would be simply having a vet walk up, look at the horse, ascertain what happened and leave.”

In those tense hours, White was also called by Calder’s publicity director, Michele Blanco, who asked him to send any press inquiries her way. White was focused on Rivera’s plight above all else, he said, and in his opinion, his responsibilities to Flyfly Fly Delilah—after notifying her owner and reporting her death to the security office—were now finished. Asked under oath what he based that on, he answered, “Tradition.”

But Tunon was upset. After training finished around 9:30, he walked to the kill pit to see the filly. She was the only horse there. Her body was covered by a blue tarp, and he pulled it back to reveal her head, neck, and front legs. Looking at her ghastly right foreleg, he felt sad for her. “She was a special horse where everybody liked her,” he testified.

Close to nine that night, Christopher Rivera, Jimmy and June’s oldest son, visited Otero at the stable security office. Christopher had been at the hospital and he told Otero his father could move his arms but had no feeling from the chest down. Surgery was scheduled for the morning to relieve the pressure on his spine.


Otero updated Calder brass in a late-night email. The track president, Tom O’Donnell, replied early the next morning: “Thanks for the update! With that said, also please make certain that Michele is the voice for Calder on this unfortunate circumstance.”

He signed off with “Happy Thanksgiving!”

A couple hours later, June Rivera and their three children arrived at the trauma center before Jimmy went into surgery. June and their daughters had driven 12 hours from North Carolina, their car stuffed with their belongings. June hadn’t seen or spoken to Jimmy since September. He was barely responsive.

June had a feeling she wouldn’t be returning to Fort Bragg. She told her commanding officer, “I have to go be with my husband.”


Jimmy was paralyzed, and doctors placed him in a medically-induced coma to decrease the swelling in his brain. He had suffered cognitive damage from the head trauma. His neck was snapped in two and his spine stretched to the limit, but because it wasn’t severed, he was considered an incomplete quadriplegic.

White visited him on several occasions in the hospital, and during his first visit, according to June’s testimony, he told her Flyfly Fly Delilah had been cremated. June said that struck her as odd, since she hadn’t asked. Other members of the stable also visited Jimmy at the hospital. Two months later, White organized a fundraiser at Gulfstream Park that raised about $15,000 for the family. Under White’s worker’s compensation policy, Jimmy’s medical bills were covered.


His operations seemed endless. He was heavily medicated, and later all he remembered was his breathing; there were tubes everywhere, and it was difficult to speak. After he was stabilized, he underwent cognitive therapy for months. Rather than drive back and forth every day between the hospital and their house in Hollywood, June and the kids stayed at a nearby hotel. On December 27, she and Jimmy were remarried by the hospital chaplain at his bedside. The next week, the Army transferred her to nearby Southern Command.

Back at Calder, it got worse—eight horses died in the meet’s final five weeks. Several were tragically predictable. A four-year-old filly named Maliboo QT had struggled mightily in the cheapest races, but like grist to the mill, she was sent out for another race on December 27. Her odds were 130-1. She collapsed halfway through, her left foreleg exploded. Marquis, the senior track veterinarian, euthanized her on the spot.

Three months later, once Calder had closed, Marquis used the enforcement powers available to her, only now at Gulfstream. She suspected, according to her deposition, that George Burch, her onetime employer and O’Neil’s partner, was using a pain-blocking procedure called shockwave therapy without notifying her. After discussing it with one of the stewards, she visited Burch with a security guard and requested his records for the previous two months.


Upon reviewing them, she wrote the state steward, “it became apparent that Dr. Burch had ‘Shock Waved’ horses on several occasions without reporting the procedure to me, but it was also apparent that the medical records written by Dr. Burch contained evidence of several nefarious practices.”

Those practices included administering drugs not allowed on race day, like Serapin, “Klot,” Amicar, Naquasone, “Carolina Gold,” and the anabolic steroids Equipoise and Winstrol. Florida was phasing those out, but according to Marquis’ findings, Burch was making the most of Florida’s 90-day grace period, giving them to a number of horses.

Burch “rejected” a subpoena to appear before state regulators, according to a report by the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, and their investigation dried up. In March 2012, after more than two years without any updates, the division’s chief attorney recommended closing the case. He said there was no rule in place that would have prevented the shockwave therapy and that Burch’s records, lacking a time of administration, would have made it difficult to prove race-day violations. Burch, 73, later said that Marquis, Otero, and several stewards had it out for him. “I have a few of those people,” he boasted in sworn testimony.

There was no investigation into Rivera’s misfortune, and had it not been for June it would have stayed that way. The same month as the state closed its case on Burch, she came across a cover story in the New York Times headlined “Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys.” The first installment in a brutal series on horse racing, it profiled another paralyzed jockey against the backdrop of breakdowns, drug abuse, and industry practices that jeopardized the welfare of horses and riders.


June cried, but it made her wonder about the horse Jimmy had been riding. She grew upset and angry. The racetrack had felt like an extended family to them. “It’s about trust when you get on a horse,” she thought.

Jimmy had worked his way up from the bottom and devoted his life to horse racing. But she had this sense that riders like him were becoming expendable, and it seemed obvious there would never be an inquiry unless they pursued one. They decided to seek legal counsel, though she knew it would jeopardize their racetrack friendships.

Although four years had passed, a Miami attorney named David Mishael took their case. Rivera and his children sued Calder, William White Racing Stable, O’Neil, Burch, and Marquis in Broward County. The bar was set high. There is an equine immunity law in Florida that blocks lawsuits from racing participants if injury or death occurs as a result of its inherent risks. But there is an exception for negligence in instances of “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant.” Mishael had to show that their inability to follow the house and state rules amounted to gross negligence and a reckless disregard for human life.

The first deposition took place more than five years after Flyfly Fly Delilah’s demise. Meanwhile, the key players were moving into high-profile positions in the industry.

In July 2014, the Stronach Group, the owner of Gulfstream, hired O’Neil as its first equine health and safety director, a position that tasked him with implementing and overseeing policies focused on medication and equine health at the track. Marquis also made the permanent switch to Gulfstream as its senior track veterinarian. And in 2015, White was elected president of the horsemen’s association. He was reelected twice and led the group “to defeat what would have been a major overhaul of state pari-mutuel statutes to the detriment of Florida horse racing and breeding operations,” according to one press release.


White was a visible figure during the lawsuit, attending at least 21 of the depositions. But by 2016, O’Neil and Burch had settled, and in early 2018, White’s racing stable filed for bankruptcy. Rivera’s attorney dismissed the entity from the lawsuit, which was the quickest way for it to continue. Marquis settled midway through that year. Calder alone remained, and its failure to preserve crucial evidence—the remains of Flyfly Fly Delilah—appeared likely to work against the track; ultimately, the judge was prepared to let Rivera’s side argue that the horse had been discarded because post-mortem samples might have revealed wrongdoing.


Photo by George Ondricek.

White moved to central Florida, where he won a four-year term on the city council of Dunnellon. He’s now running for mayor. Meanwhile, according to Gulfstream Park, both O’Neil and Marquis no longer work there; in April, O’Neil resigned his position with the Stronach Group, according to one report, because of ongoing medical issues, although it coincided with a video that had surfaced on social media of him using “derogatory language” in a dispute with a Gulfstream employee. A Stronach Group executive told the Thoroughbred Daily News that the video had no part in O’Neil’s resignation.

(The aforementioned settlements each included a denial of wrongdoing. O’Neil, reached by phone, declined to talk about the case. Marquis did not return requests for comment. Neither replied to a list of emailed questions.)


In an email exchange with White, he provided this response:

First of all, the accident with Jimmy Rivera was and remains a life altering tragedy. Jimmy worked on and off for me for years and I considered him a friend. The weight of this accident is still carried by all that know him.

My involvement in the suit was that my stable was a named defendant. It is important to note that Jimmy did not name me personally as a defendant in the suit. The suit was filed three and a half years after the accident.

The main thrust of the case as it pertained to me was the accusation of spoilage of the evidence. The suit charged that there was a requirement to report the death of a horse to the State to allow for a postmortem examination. The testimony from the depositions clearly showed that in 2008, there was not a requirement to report a death to the State….by anyone.

The testimony from the depositions showed that there was not a state program in place for postmortem examinations. There was no program or funding in place. There was not an entity to call. The State had not addressed this.

In your correspondence with me you state that the lack of enforced regulations, “lead up to the accident.” These are the plaintiffs’ accusations and as such are accusations. I would be hopeful that you would remain mindful of that and to not accept them as facts.

Rivera’s lawsuit almost certainly had an impact on Florida racing—though not the kind you might expect.

In May 2013, the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering introduced a rule that trainers must notify it of a racehorse death within 18 hours. The initial fine for not complying is $100. The division was also eager to get rid of the rule requiring its veterinarian to take samples of dead racehorses. It was gone by June 2015. That same month, the governor signed legislation that ended the use of that obsolete testing method in its racing lab—by then, almost four decades past due. The corticosteroid Solu-Delta-Cortef would also no longer be allowed on race day.

Churchill Downs Inc. also began speeding up the elimination of racing at Calder. In 2014, it cut a deal with the Stronach Group to hand over the running of Calder’s dates through this year. The Stronach Group renamed the meet “Gulfstream Park West” and has run it for around 40 days each year, the minimum required by law.

Churchill Downs continued to own and operate the casino. In 2015, it began kicking out trainers to make way for the demolition of most of the barns, and later that year it tore down the seven-story grandstand, which had gone up in 1971.


Photo by George Ondricek.

Horse racing at Calder looks marked for the grave. In September 2019, an appeals court upheld a 2018 decision that let Churchill Downs tie its casino to a jai alai permit instead of horse racing. It built a jai alai facility next to the casino and began offering wagering there. On the losing end were Florida’s thoroughbred owners and breeders, who feared the loss of their share of between $7 million and $8 million in slot-machine revenue from the casino.

The lease deal with the Stronach Group ends this year, and the 40-day meet that began October 3 is expected to be the final one at Calder.

It happened slowly, but Jimmy Rivera began watching the races again. It was hard not to turn on the glamorous events like the Kentucky Derby. In 2015, he and June watched American Pharoah win the Derby and Preakness, so they invited over a couple friends to watch the bay colt capture Triple Crown glory. June made dinner while Jimmy told stories about his racetrack days. She thought he looked happy.

June later asked his psychiatrist if she could take him to the track, and after a year, they decided to go through with it. They went to Gulfstream on a quiet Thursday, ate lunch at one of its restaurants, and watched the races for a couple hours. Nobody in the restaurant knew them.

“It went okay,” June said afterward. “It was empty.”

They returned the following year, with their youngest daughter Ruth, but the atmosphere caused her an anxiety attack. All the shouting and screaming evoked painful memories, and Ruth told her parents she couldn’t stand the racetrack. They left, and took it in stride.

“We face everything together,” June later said. “We’re not scared of anything that might come.”

There is a normalcy to Jimmy’s days now. He requires around-the-clock care from a rotating pair of six highly-skilled nurses working 12-hour shifts. They do everything, from preparing his medicines to emptying his bladder, and he never sleeps for more than three hours without being woken. He has no control over his trunk, and his hands are contracted, but he learned to use a joystick to move his wheelchair and how to eat with a device that stabilizes his wrist. Because he has a choking tendency, he can’t eat by himself.

Jimmy Rivera requires around-the-clock care from a rotating pair of six highly-skilled nurses working 12-hour shifts.

From the moment Jimmy returned home, June began watching everything the nurses did, as intensely focused as if it were a military exercise. She became like an auxiliary nurse and now oversees her husband’s rehabilitation and treatment. Yet she also suffers from chronic physical pain as a result of her time in the Army.

“She’s strong,” Jimmy said, “and she’s strong for me.”

After breakfast, he usually goes into the backyard and studies their flower garden. June helps him choose what to grow. He watches a lot of sports on TV. Because of his cognitive damage, he finds it hard to focus on reading and he easily loses concentration. Once or twice a month they go to the movies or a restaurant for dinner, and a couple years ago the family went to Disney World. June wanted to see how they would manage the travel; it was tiring but successful.

And in August 2019, right before their lawsuit was about to go to trial, they reached an undisclosed settlement agreement with Calder. (It included a denial of wrongdoing.) The trial had been delayed a number of months after Calder’s expert witness, Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, who was then the chief examining veterinarian of the New York Racing Association, withdrew from the case.

The official reason given to the court was that Durenberger was “permanently unavailable to testify,” although according to her Twitter account she was traveling to industry conferences. Rivera’s attorneys had secretly planned to call her to testify, certain that her perspective supported their picture of racetrack lawlessness. The deaths at Santa Anita were still fresh in the news, and their strategy was to put the sport itself on trial.

“Generally, ask anyone on the track whether a licensee has an obligation to report soundness issues to the track veterinarian, and they will tell you it is exactly the opposite,” Durenberger had said in a 2018 deposition, reading from subpoenaed notes of hers on the case. “The expectation is that the exercise riders, trainers, and private vets are expected to hide soundness issues from the regulator.”

She added, “The fear is that they will not be able to participate.”

A prohibition on anabolic steroids didn’t make a dent as regulators hoped, not in terms of fatal injuries or public relations. Roughly a thousand racehorses die annually at American racetracks, or an average of 20 per week. Taking into account the hundreds of training centers and farms where deaths go unreported, the true figure is certainly much higher. And records in Florida show that deaths are on the rise: from 2014 through 2018, an average of 91 horses died in the state annually, while in 2019 there were at least 102, including 66 at Gulfstream Park or Gulfstream Park West.

Last March, two of the most successful trainers in the sport, Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, were arrested at their South Florida barns and indicted, along with 25 others, many of them veterinarians, for allegedly orchestrating a widespread doping scheme in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Kentucky and overseas. (Servis and Navarro pleaded not guilty. Recently, two defendants pleaded guilty to charges relating to the manufacturing, selling, and transporting of performance-enhancing drugs.)

There’s now growing support in Congress for federal legislation that would standardize medication rules and let the industry create an “independent” regulatory board, but the future of horse racing still appears more uncertain than ever. The Washington Post’s editorial board, not exactly a loud voice for animal rights, wrote earlier this year: “It is long past time to stop viewing horse racing through the prism of its past glories and answer the question of whether a sport that gambles with the lives of horses—animals we profess to love—has a place in the modern world.”

But Jimmy Rivera sometimes misses it. As June says, “That’s in his blood.”

Two weeks after their lawsuit settled, I visited them at home. They were living in the same three-bedroom house as they had purchased with the help of worker’s compensation nine years earlier. It seemed large when they bought it, but now it was cluttered and crowded. The narrow hallways made it hard for Jimmy to motor around, and there were rooms he could not reach. They had added a ramp to the garage so he could use it as a gym, but when Christopher moved in they made it his bedroom.

Before I arrived, Jimmy had finished his physical therapy in the living room, which he does every other day. A nurse and therapist helped him stand and with their help he took a few steps. The walls held old racetrack photos and religious maxims, and hanging in front of him was a framed picture that read: When you can no longer stand … kneel.

We spoke briefly about the morning of November 25, 2008, but it felt like a very long time ago. Calder is all but finished. A number of the people deposed in his lawsuit have died. Yet what happened to him and Flyfly Fly Delilah remain a familiar story.

About four years earlier, he told me, he asked his nurse to drive him to Calder. He wanted to see the spot where he went down. He expected to get emotional, he said, but that didn’t happen. It turned out he had made his peace.

He wanted to see the spot where he went down. He expected to get emotional, he said, but that didn’t happen.

June lightly ribbed him, saying the nurse had told her otherwise. “I think if he had two wishes of God,” she said, “one would be to ride horses again and the other to walk with his grandchildren.”

A third was on the way, June said. Then she paused, not sure she should continue.

“I think Jimmy would use his first wish to ride horses again,” she said. “That’s how much he loved it.”

Jimmy shook his head. “No, I’ve pushed those thoughts out of my mind. I would love to walk.”

He was silent for a moment, then realized something. “But if I could ride,” he said quietly, as if talking only to himself, “then that means I could walk, too.”