During a 22-year career that ended in 1975, jockey Walter Blum rode 4,382 winners with only one good eye. Now, however, Kentucky racing officials are telling a 19-year-old apprentice jockey that he can’t ride because he’s blind in one eye.
Only minutes before the first race last Thursday night at Latonia Race Course in Florence, Ky., track stewards called the jockeys’ room and took Charlie Fletcher off the horse he was scheduled to ride.
Fletcher was also named to ride one horse on the program Friday night at Latonia, but again the stewards cancelled his mount.
Fletcher, who rode in seven races last year at River Downs in Cincinnati and at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., said Monday that he will appeal the stewards’ ruling, probably to the Kentucky State Racing Commission.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t ride horses,” Fletcher said. “Riding is my life, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. That’s how much I love this sport.”
According to Cap Hershey, vice chairman of the Kentucky racing commission, the Latonia stewards based their ruling on an eye examination that Fletcher took after a ride at Keeneland last October.
“Other jockeys in the Keeneland race didn’t think Fletcher could see too good,” Hershey said. “The exam showed that he couldn’t see in one eye and was partially impaired in the other. We don’t want to hurt this kid, but we don’t want him to hurt himself, either.”
Rick Norton, the former University of Kentucky and Miami Dolphin quarterback who is director of the Kentucky racing commission, said that the eye exam showed that Fletcher had poor peripheral vision. “The doctor said that this might be dangerous to his health and the health of others,” Norton said.
Burr Travis, an attorney representing Fletcher, said that they would like to have the jockey examined by an independent eye specialist.
“Charlie was licensed in both Ohio and Kentucky in ’85,” Travis said. “What’s happened is that now he’s been denied the right to renew his license for ’86.”
Norton said that Fletcher was asked to take the Lexington eye exam after the jockey rode a “visibly bad race.” Both Fletcher and a 2-year-old filly were making their debuts at Keeneland, and at 115-1 odds they finished 11th in a 12-horse field.
“Nothing happened in the race,” Fletcher said. “The filly broke third, but then she raced green and backed off when the dirt started hitting her in the face. I just hand-rode her all the way.”
Blum, who now works as a steward at Florida tracks, has been blind in his right eye from the time he fell off a toy horse when he was 2 years old. His eye hit the ear of the horse in the fall.
It was not commonly known in racing circles that Blum had only one good eye when he rode. Near the end of his career, however, he came to California to ride and a physical exam revealed the blindness. By then, Blum had ridden almost 4,000 winners and racing officials allowed him to continue riding.
“I can’t understand why they won’t let that kid ride,” Blum said Monday from Calder Race Course near Miami. “I feel sorry for the kid because he’s not getting the chance. I must have ridden a zillion races in Kentucky and never had any problem.”
Blum rode twice in the Kentucky Derby, finishing fourth on Reason To Hail in 1967.
Fletcher said that a letter from the doctor who gave him the eye test in Lexington could be interpreted two ways.
“It says that I could be a hazard, but it also says I’m capable of riding,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher said he suffered an injury to his right eye when he was 9. A friend acted as though he was going to throw a metal dart at Fletcher and the dart slipped, striking him in the eye.
“My sight in the eye gradually faded away without me knowing it,” Fletcher said. “I was going blind, but didn’t realize it. About a year later, I had no sight left in the eye.”
Fletcher said he began galloping horses about five years ago at Latonia. He said that since then, he’s ridden quarter horses in races in Texas, broken yearlings for Kentucky breeding farms and ridden in schooling races for 2-year-olds at Louisiana Downs.
Last July, Fletcher rode in two races at River Downs, finishing second on his second mount. He said he was then issued a license to ride in Ohio for the rest of the year and that Kentucky licensed him before his ride at Keeneland in October.
“I wear glasses, besides three or four sets of goggles, when I ride, and I think the glasses are one of the problems they have with me riding,” Fletcher said. “But I don’t have any trouble switching the goggles when the dirt or the mud hits them.
“Before those first two races at River Downs, it rained about an hour straight. The track was so muddy that if you look at a picture of me after one of the races, you can’t even see the colors of my silks because of the mud.”
Marion Corn, a Latonia trainer, had given Fletcher his two mounts last week and the jockey said that Corn promised him that he would ride all of the horses in his barn. Corn could not be reached Monday.
“The other jockeys are behind me in this,” Fletcher said. “I galloped horses for top trainers like Harvey Vanier and Lucien Lauren last year at Keeneland and they liked my work.”
Nick Jemas, a former rider who is managing director of the Jockeys’ Guild, said he couldn’t comment about Fletcher until he had received all of the details.
Meantime, Charlie Fletcher was in familiar territory Monday morning, galloping horses at Latonia, the track that doesn’t think he can see well enough to ride horses when it counts.