By T. D. Thornton
The chief state steward at Mountaineer Park, Jim O'Brien, on Friday defended his board's seemingly light $100 penalization of jockey Jose A. Leon after other licensees who were on horseback during training hours at the West Virginia track Sept. 10 testified that the 24-year-old rider dismounted from an unruly horse and struck it across the face with his whip.
“He was wrong, but I guess he let his anger get the best of him, and he hit the horse in the face,” O'Brien told TDN.
O'Brien added that he and the other two Mountaineer stewards–Maureen Andrews and Phil Heidenreich–won't be revisiting the penalty, because they believe the punishment fits the violation.
“The horse was acting up after he got off, which is no excuse, but that's what happened,” O'Brien said.
Leon, in a separate interview Sept. 22, denied he hit the horse in the face after dismounting from it. But he did admit that he was “frustrated,” and that he struck the horse “in the mouth” earlier in a workout while still on horseback in an effort to keep it from careening through the outside fence after it bolted.
Specific information about the horse's identity and condition were not available at deadline for this story.
TDN first reported Leon's fine on Sept. 21. At the time of publication, details about the incident were scant. The stewards' ruling, dated Sept. 18, didn't even mention that a whip was involved.
That initial news story caught the attention of TDN readers, and it quickly cycled to the top of the most-read articles list. Within 24 hours of publication, it drew 19 reader comments, which skewed 18-1 against Leon's actions, with a number of the commenters suggesting that the penalty should have been stiffer.
One reader who phoned TDN directly was Justin Jensen, a former jockey who now owns, trains, and exercises horses at Mountaineer. Jensen said he had witnessed Leon's actions, and was one of the witnesses who reported what happened to the Mountaineer stewards.
Jensen said his motivation for wanting his side of the story told was because “A hundred-dollar fine isn't acceptable. The stewards are not doing what they should be doing by throwing the book at him a little bit more.”
Leon, Jensen, and O'Brien essentially told TDN the same version of what occurred during the botched workout. It's what happened after the horse got pulled up that Leon disputed.
“I'm at the three-eighths pole galloping in a set, and Jose Leon worked up the rail, worked past us, and his horse bolted to the outside,” Jensen said. “Now to his credit, he stayed on, and I thought for a second that horse was going through the outside rail. And he corrected the horse by hitting it in the face.”
O'Brien corroborated that explanation: “Other witnesses said they don't even know how he stayed on the horse, and the horse was acting up bad,” the steward said.
“I showed him the whip,” said Leon, who has been a licensed jockey for five years. “I did hit him on the bit; just tried to correct him. The stewards told me that was okay, because they know if I'm in a dangerous [situation], I really have to do something to correct the horse. I hit the horse on the mouth. It wasn't on the face.”
Jensen said that at that point, he couldn't really blame Leon for his actions.
“You're in a dangerous spot. He reached out and smacked the horse in the face. Not the end of the world, okay?” Jensen said.
But what happened afterward troubled Jensen.
“So now he gets the horse back down on the rail,” Jensen continued. “They finish the workout, and I'm galloping right behind him. We pull up. I'm maybe 30, 40 yards away from him. Now the problem is done. All he had to do was turn that horse around and jog it home. And because he's got a bad attitude, and he always has a temper, he jumped off that horse, and as he jumped off that horse, he grabbed the right rein with his left hand, and he reached back with his right hand, and he whipped that horse in the face. I don't know if he hit him in the eye, but he whipped him hard across the face.”
Jensen continued: “Now I yelled at him, and I said, 'Jose, that's enough.' I said, 'Calm down, get that horse back to the barn safely, and just take a breath.' We rode away from him. He continued to get a little bit more mad at the horse, but he did not whip him in the face again. But he did whip him in the face the first time, 100 percent.”
Jensen said by that time, outrider Theresa Akers had come over to assist. She would also testify at Leon's hearing.
“If we had some patrons from the casino standing up on the turn, watching horses train in the morning, which they do quite often, and they witness a jockey whip a horse in the face like that, that makes our business look worse,” Jensen said. “And right now, horse racing is under the microscope.”
Asked directly by TDN if he dismounted from the horse and struck him, Leon said no.
“I came up to the seven-eighths pole [and] just put my stick up, and I started, like, holding the bridle, working with him,” Leon said. “The outrider, she was saying I hit the horse in the face, that the horse had an [injured] eye, and I explained to the stewards the horse did not have any damage, that the horse was fine, and everything was okay. The horse is the type of horse that is a crazy horse. He's super hyper.”
“I was frustrated, but I did not do things on purpose,” Leon said. “I know it's something serious. I will pay the fine, because I know if I lose [an appeal], I don't want to get in trouble for something that I know that I did, but it wasn't on purpose to hurt the horse. I did it to take care of myself. I know with all the [new] rules that are going on, [an incident like this] can affect my career.”
Jensen, in telling his version of events, also referenced the slew of new national anti-whip rules that are in effect. He said he can't square Leon getting fined only $100 for what happened when other jockeys who violate crop rules for being a few strikes over the in-race limit get hit with multi-day suspensions or fines that are much higher than that.
Jensen also gave an example of something that happened to him last year at Mountaineer: He got into a disagreement with the track superintendent and swore at him. He said he was asked to explain his actions before the same board of stewards and admitted that what he said was not appropriate.
“Now those were words,” Jensen said. “How did I get a $400 fine for saying [expletive], but this guy gets a $100 fine for whipping a horse in the face?”
Jensen said he is well aware that speaking out against alleged horse abuse can have repercussions for those within the industry who choose to report it, especially at a small track like Mountaineer. He said there were others who witnessed Leon's actions on that morning but chose not to come forward, and that he understands their reasons for not doing so.
“But I'm okay with you putting my name on this,” Jensen said. “I'm probably going to be dragged through the mud with the stewards. I foresee them dragging me in and giving me a hard time over this. But you know what? There's a difference between right and wrong, and I'm trying to stand up for the right right now.”