By Betsy Burke Parker, Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation
She’s no stranger to steeplechasing – This insider brings a kit bag full of personal experience with jump racing and athletics to the role
Gaertner plans a holistic approach, supporting the physical, emotional and mental needs of sport participants
If you said Erica Gaertner has handled her life with surgical precision, you’d be right.
The Baltimore native, longtime steeplechase horsewoman and medical professional this year becomes the National Steeplechase Association’s first-ever medical director, linking her intimate knowledge of jump racing and sports medicine to create the association’s first centralized liaison for rider health and safety.
“The goal,” Gaertner says, “is consistency of care and a centralized person overseeing the process of jockey safety and fall protocol.”
Gaertner is race meet physician for the Grand National and Maryland Hunt Cup meets. She will play an active, but behind-the-scenes role at all the other NSA races. “I’ll work with (each) race meet physician before their race day, and do follow-ups,” she explains, plus be available by cell or text for real-time consultation on race-day if required. “It provides that consistency we need for the riders.”
How it happened
Gaertner, 41, grew up in Baltimore. A career in medicine – more specifically, sports medicine, appears almost preordained. Her mother was an occupational therapist, her father a college basketball coach and computer consultant. She rode most of her life and got her first steeplechase experience with trainer Bruce Fenwick while a student at St. Timothy’s, working with other trainers while at Towson University.
She took a few years off from the circuit while at the St. George’s school of medicine in Grenada, but she jumped right back in while doing a residency at MedStar in Baltimore and during a sports medicine fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“I was a show rider until I started working for Bruce when I was 15,” Gaertner traces her deepening involvement with jump racing. “(Then) Ann Stewart took me under her wing and taught me to gallop at the age of 16. I worked for Charlie Fenwick and Jay Griswold my senior year of high school and right after graduation.
“For my senior project in high school, I spent two weeks working for Tom Voss, back in the Jonathan Kiser era.”
She stayed at Bruce Fenwick’s for 10 years, went on to work for Billy Meister, and, later, spent time with Hall of Fame trainers Jack Fisher and Jonathan Sheppard. Along the way, she got to gallop, school, race, ride or show many of the sport’s standouts. She rode four-time Maryland Hunt Cup starter Sarkis, Virginia Gold Cup winner Priceless Room and multiple hurdle stakes-winners All the Way Jose and Batchwood.
She rode point-to-points and sanctioned races, winning four of 45 starts including the maiden timber at My Lady’s Manor aboard Yin Yang.
Gaertner currently works for the sports medicine institute for LifeBridge Health in Baltimore and is a team physician for Loyola University in Maryland. She is excited to add the NSA role.
“I think the NSA is always trying to figure out ways to improve safety for both horse and rider,” Gaertner says. “Most professional athletic teams and associations have chief medical officers. I think it’s great NSA is willing to follow suit.”
Linking it up – medicine and steeplechase protocol
Gaertner met former champion rider and physician’s assistant Gregg Morris a few years ago when she started working with the Steeplechase Jockeys Association of America. President Forrest Kelly, Kevin Tobin and Jennie Pearson had been working on new medical protocols for race meets, and Gaertner offered to help. In that way, she kicked off what’s become a ground-breaking movement in the American sport.
“Erica’s the best,” Kelly says of Gaertner, who currently acts as SJAA vice-president. “She brings with her this lifetime of knowledge about our sport, and the ability to articulate it in an updated way that helps everybody involved.
“She’s got the best interest of the riders first and foremost, and she knows most of the (players.) She speaks the same language, and everybody realizes she’s on their side.”
A few years ago, Gaertner began to work closely with Morris to develop standard race-day medical evaluations for riders, baseline tests for concussions included.
“Gregg has been very supportive of my desire to keep moving in a forward direction with jockey safety,” she says. “My reason to do this is to give back to a sport that has done so much for me,” she says. “I can finally put my medical skills to use with my passion of equestrian sports.”
American jump racing is somewhat unique in racing because the circuit travels pretty much as a unit, yet no “team doc” travels with them.
“There’s no (single) physician that covers every race,” Gaertner explains. “That can create some inconsistencies in care – just the nature of having a traveling sport.
“My goal is to make care as consistent as possible to keep the jockeys safe. I hope that this will help the …. jockeys feel their health and safety continues to be a priority.”
She hopes to offer something more.
Outside the physical challenges of the intensely demanding sport, Gaertner plans to initiate a support system for athletes struggling with issues outside of “race day” injuries, including emotional challenges.
“I want to make myself available as a resource,” she says. “Mental health is obviously a concern with athletes, due to the high pressure they are under to perform. I want them to know that I am a person they can reach out to for anything they need.”
“Erica is eminently qualified for this position, and kudos to her for taking it on,” Morris says. “As I told her, I am willing to play any supporting role she needs and am always available for consult.
“I kind of fell into the role (of spearheading early NSA concussion and medical policy) because of my history of being a jockey, steward, and emergency room physician’s assistant – in that order. There was essentially a vacuum with regard to consistent medical treatment for our jockeys and when the concussion stuff started to take center stage, I thought it was time for us to do something.
“The most motivating factor for me was an incident that took place at Saratoga years ago. I fell off a horse in an early race and landed awkwardly on my right arm. I had the mount on the odds-on favorite for the Turf Writers – Zaccio – a few races later in the card.
“The doctor at Saratoga cleared me to ride, and I would have done anything to do so. But by the time I got back to the jocks’ room, the arm was really swollen and hurt like hell.
“If there was any way I could have gotten on Zac, I would have.”
Trainer Burley Cocks subbed in rider Ricky Hendriks – Zaccio galloped in the Turf Writers, but Morris still shudders remembering how disastrous it could have been, with the rider on the odds-on favorite in the feature race of the day at America’s premier course unable to steer, or balance. It could have been ugly.
“Think what would have happened if I’d taken that ride.
“When I went to the hospital, x-rays showed I had a displaced fracture of the proximal humerus. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned that to anyone before, but it was an important part of the process of where we are today.”
“The goal,” NSA president Al Griffin explains, “is to create more uniformity between meets for the medical protocols. It’s as simple as that.”
“We’re lucky to get Erica Gaertner in that role,” Forrest Kelly adds. “She’s a huge benefit to the sport.”
Medical director duties
* Gaertner will oversee physicians covering race meets – each event provides their own medical coverage. She’ll ensure they have NSA protocols and evaluation sheets available.
* Gaertner will help riders with follow-up care after falls or injuries, guiding them to the appropriate specialists and ensuring proper clearance following recovery.
* Gaertner will stay updated on the latest concussion screening and treatment as well as other management of injuries.
* Gaertner pledges to be a trusted resource for jockeys with any health concerns not related to racing injuries.
What they say –
Champion jockey in 2020, Gerard Galligan is “thrilled” longtime steeplechase horsewoman Erica Gaertner will be NSA’s official medical director this term.
“I speak for all the lads (that I’ve spoken to) in saying we’re delighted Erica has taken over as the medical director.
Erica reminds me of the senior medical officer of the Irish Turf Club, Dr. Adrian McGoldrick, in terms that she shows us that she’s on our side and just wants to help get us back as quick and healthy as possible after a fall.
She doesn’t make us jump through hoops to get cleared, but she genuinely cares we’re A-1 before (we’re allowed to ride races) again. Her appointment is a big step forward to putting us in line with other racing jurisdictions.
Like Dr. McGoldrick, she’s on first-name basis with (most of) the jockeys, and is friends with us as well as someone that is always looking out for us. Every time I’ve had a fall, Erica texts me to make sure I’m doing OK, and that means a lot to know that the person in charge of medical genuinely cares about us, considering we have such a dangerous job.
I had a terrible fall in Tryon last year – (trainer) Kathy Neilson actually had to push me through the airport in a wheelchair! My orthopedic surgeon prescribed me painkillers just to be able to walk, but I had an adverse reaction and I became very sick.
Erica was only a phone call away, and did everything she could as a top class doctor to point me in the right direction to help me get back to full health.
She’s not just there for us on race day.
I don’t think any of the lads knew she’d be there for us (for mental fitness challenges.) But that’s great news that she’ll be there for us in that regard. Ireland and England have had programs and hotlines like that for years.
It’s a tough sport, (and) you have to be mentally tough because you lose more than you win. The pressure’s constant because you lose rides if you don’t win …. which adds to the race day pressure.”