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
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
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
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
"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
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Copyright © 1998 Scripps Howard
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