Steeplechase jockey paralyzed after fall at Berryville race

Photo by Dana Lee Thompson

An amateur steeplechase jockey was in critical condition following a spill at Saturday’s Blue Ridge Fall Races in Berryville.
Jake Chalfin, 32, underwent more than eight hours of surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore Saturday night and Sunday morning to stabilize four fractures to his cervical and thoracic vertebrae.

From Chalfin’s own Facebook report, updated Monday evening, one of the fractures displaced, cutting his spinal cord and causing paralysis “from the chest down.”

Friends that visited him at the hospital Monday afternoon reported that Chalfin is awake and talking, able to move his hands and arms, but unable to feel a pinprick below chest level, nor able to move toes, feet or legs.

Chalfin is a Pennsylvania native who works for Laurel Valley Soils in Wilmington, Del.

Riding in the open hurdle race at Blue Ridge, Chalfin was on Gum Tree Stables’ Sometimes Not, a maiden 3-year-old filly who had not previously started over jumps. The winning rider in the 1 7/8-mile race, James Slater recounted the chain of events leading to Chalfin’s fall.

The race began to unravel for Chalfin from the start, Slater said.

“I was out in front, but I was aware he was having trouble when he loomed up outside me heading to the second” fence, said the good friend and neighbor of Chalfin’s from Unionville, Pa.

The Woodley Farm course runs right-handed, unusual in American racing. Only a handful of steeplechase courses, and no flat tracks in North America, race to the right. So when Slater said Chalfin seemed to steer Sometimes Not to the “outside” of the track, he meant the horse was coming up on his left.

Another jockey in the race, Jacob Roberts, agreed with the assessment. “I thought the horse was drifting out,” he said, describing an action sometimes taken by a young or green horse when first faced with the pressure of racing conditions.

Sometimes a 140-pound jockey can have great difficulty “straightening” a panicked, 1,200-pound racehorse. This was apparently what Chalfin faced.

“She kinda lugged out, and I saw that Jake couldn’t keep her straight,” Roberts continued. “He was off to my left, past where I was. He was going Mach 10, I swear.”

Slater said it seemed like Chalfin “was trying to pull up,” something both Slater and Roberts agreed was the best solution for a young horse upset by the excitement of her first start. “Try again another day, I like to say,” Slater said.

As Chalfin continued to try to slow the still-panicked Sometimes Not, he faced a decision. The end of the straightaway was nearing, and he had to be able to turn to avoid other areas, such as a closed pair of metal gates near the horse van parking area.

The filly might be “trying to get back to the trailer area,” Roberts surmised. But the racecourse curves right just before the parking area, up a steep hill to the long backstretch. It was a place Roberts figured Chalfin expected to be able to stop the runaway horse.

“That’s what it looked like to me,” Roberts said. “[Chalfin] wasn’t freaking out or anything, he was just pulling and waiting, pulling and waiting, waiting, I’d say, for that nice long hill where he’d be able to stop her.”

Sometimes Not had other ideas.

Slater said the horse ran toward the gates. “It looked like she kinda half ducked into the gates there, jinking and diving but not jumping them, just sort of whistling past and scaring herself when she hit [them] with her nose, I’d guess. She jumped sideways, and Jake went off” to the left, head-first into the board fence lining the far perimeter of the wide course.

“I figured he’d be hurting” from the impact on a solid piece of wood at racing speed, 30 miles an hour, Slater said. “But I had no idea how bad it was.”

The race continued as the remainder of the field took its final circuit of the course.

Slater, aboard Sgt. Bart, won, with Roberts on Fogcutter second. As they pulled up after the wire, they neared the far end of the course where the ambulance and a worried cluster of horsemen and helpers knotted together to try to assist the fallen rider.

Slater said he hurried down to see if there was anything he could do. “Jake was talking,” he said. “I heard him saying ‘No, I can’t feel that’ as they were touching his feet and hands.”

The Blue Ridge Hunt has long hosted a spring point-to-point at the Woodley course, and the fall meet has run for four years without incident.

Sometimes Not did not race as a 2-year-old, but ran twice on the turf this spring, once at the Plumsted point-to-point and once at the Foxfield spring meet in Charlottesville. She finished last both times, but completed the course.

Roberts said the filly had schooled over hurdles this summer at trainer Larry Ensor’s farm, where he said Chalfin often galloped, worked and schooled horses before going to his Delaware office.

The races were delayed while a medical helicopter was called in. Chalfin was taken first to the nearby Winchester Medical Center to stabilize his injuries, then by air to Johns Hopkins, one of the nation’s top spinal trauma centers.

“I’ve seen so many falls like this where you’re just fine,” Slater said. “It was just the unlucky circumstances. No blame to be placed. He’s a great rider and knew what he was doing – he takes his riding and his fitness very seriously. Steeplechasing is a dangerous sport. We all know that.”

Race chairman Michael Hoffman, a former amateur jump jockey who broke his pelvis and back in a bad fall at Casanova point-to-point in 1994 – and made a full recovery – said that “steeplechasing is a small family. We have to look after each other.”

Hoffman said race officials contacted Chalfin’s parents in Boston before their son was even on the way to the hospital, and that racing friends near Baltimore were arranging a long-term place for them to stay while Chalfin is hospitalized.

“In the context of the run and the ride, sometimes things happen and have terrible consequences. Any of us who’ve done this sport know the risks,” Hoffman said.

“We all have Jake in our prayers and wish him a speedy, full recovery.”

In Chalfin’s own words Monday evening, he has “full use of my arms and hands and zero head [trauma.] The doc’s not too positive for a full recovery. But I am.”

“That’s Jake for you,” Slater said. “He’s got determination. He won’t let the doctors tell him what’s his long-term prognosis. He’ll tell them.”

“Mentally, he’s 100 percent,” Roberts reported after visiting Chalfin Monday evening. “He is holding onto hope – I mean, he figures he could barely feel his arms when he was laying on the ground at the course, and that’s come back. Right now, he’s trying to be Mr. Positive. We’re all trying to hold onto that bit of hope.”