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January 26th 1999

 

 

 

HORSE RACING:
Paraplegic fights to harness race

By STEVE KENNEDY, Sacramento Bee
Copyright The Sacramento Bee


SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Jul 23, 1998) -- The issue seems simple: Should a paraplegic be allowed, or have the opportunity, to drive in harness races?

For 16 years, through paperwork and multiple legal and political wrangling, Oza James (O.J.) Waddell has persevered toward that goal.

Waddell, paralyzed from the waist down by a 1979 drive-by shooting to his spine, finally picked up his qualifying license from the California Horse Racing Board last Thursday after trying since 1982.

"It's worth fighting for," Waddell said last week on the backstretch at Cal Expo. "Is this the kind of sport it is, where you should have to fight for 16 years?"

Of course, it's not that simple. The ramifications of a paraplegic driver -- perhaps the first in the history of the sport -- are wide- ranging.

"Some people say you need your legs, and you do, but my upper body is twice as strong as everybody else's," said Waddell, his chest and arms visibly fit following years of rehabilitation in a home gym set up by his father after the shooting.

His parents, whom he describes as upper middle class, have supported him financially and emotionally since the shooting, which ended up costing Waddell a football scholarship to New Mexico State. His parents have a farm in Fontana in San Bernardino County, not far from his home in Rialto, where they have raised horses. Waddell has some stock of his own, which he trains.

Along his way to a hopeful career in harness, Waddell has tried his hand at writing, including a script of his own life that, ideally, would include some success in the sport.

Even with the dreams of victory, though, come the inevitable warning signs: If there's an accident during a race, could his disability reduce his chances to escape other horses or sulkies? Does he need his legs? Is he strong enough to control a horse? Would he be endangering others as well as himself?

His case may be more difficult to evaluate than that of golfer Casey Martin, who is allowed to ride a cart during competition because of a degenerative disease in his right leg. Not that Martin's plight didn't help Waddell's cause.

"Casey Martin came around and opened my eyes to just how strong the Americans With Disabilities Act can be," Waddell said. "There are some similarities. The only difference is that you can get killed out here; you won't get killed playing golf."

Waddell said that finding manageable horses would be preferable to rough-gaited standardbreds. Unlike other drivers' seats, his has two inches of padded support for his hips and back in an attempt to prevent unnecessary movement.

"If I got bumped, I wouldn't feel it in my hips," Waddell admitted. "I could slide off the seat."

Drivers seem sympathetic to his plight. In a sport that pays entirely on performance -- no endorsements, long-term contracts or guarantees here -- their feeling is basic: If he doesn't create a problem and is competent, he's entitled to an opportunity.

"Legs have nothing to do with driving harness races," said driver Rick Plano. "It looks like he's in good shape, and this is a game of upper-body strength.

"It may turn out that he should be limited to a certain type of races; trotters, for instance, don't wear as much equipment as pacers and are less likely to get tangled up."

With a driver like Waddell in a race, Tim Maier said his strategy would be slightly affected, especially for a while.

"I would keep an eye on the more inexperienced drivers to begin with," he said. "I'd put him in the same category. I don't give them extra room, but I'm aware of them."

Not so forgiving was the wife of a former driver who asked to remain anonymous.

"I wouldn't want my husband out there in a race with him because of the endangerment to other drivers," she said. "He is able to train without driving, as a lot of people do. It's not as though he's being put out of business."

For now, though, he's in business. After a time trial July 2 on Not An Angel, three stewards -- Mike Corley, Bob Latzo and Pete Tommila -- ruled unanimously against Waddell. They wanted his horse to pace a mile within a second of 2:10 on the Cal Expo track, and he went in 2:03. The conclusion was that Waddell couldn't control his horse satisfactorily.

Waddell appealed, and Los Angeles administrative law judge Vincent Nafarrete said neither side had proved its case. With Corley specifically excluded from being part of the ensuing mix, another time trial was set up, this one July 6 in front of stewards Will Meyers, John Herbuveaux and Tommila. Driving Mostly Me, Waddell needed to finish within a second of 2:10; Mostly Me crossed the finish line in 2:09 3/5.  The ruling was unanimous again, this time in his favor.

"It's a level playing field," Tommila said. "He just has to meet the same standards of everybody. All three of us decided that he met the requirements."

Now the real fun is about to begin.  If Waddell, 35, performs satisfactorily in 12 qualifying races within the next six months -- possibly beginning at the fall meet in Sacramento -- he can earn a provisional license, which would allow him to drive in parimutuel races.

"I've had a lot of support out here, but there's a lot of people from the old school, too," Waddell said.

And there's a lot of work still to be done. His next step is finding horses to drive, or owners to believe in him. He's in the process of buying two horses in Sacramento, and he also has five horses on his parents' ranch.

"Hopefully I'll have four or five racing at the Los Alamitos meet," which begins in December, he said.

By STEVE KENNEDY, Sacramento Bee

Copyright 1998 Nando Media
Copyright 1998 Scripps Howard

(Permission to post in Paralinks applied for)

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