A press release just in from the Red Hills Horse Trials in Florida announced that the organizers have received encouraging news regarding New York event rider Darren Chiacchia and his condition. The Olympic medalist was airlifted to a hospital yesterday after a fall on the Preliminary level cross-country course that did not appear to injure his horse.
Family and friends at the hospital report that Darren is still in critical condition in the Neuro Intensive care unit at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, but is now showing definite signs of improvement.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat newsapaper, quoting a nurse at the hospital, his condition has been upgraded from "critical" to "serious but stable".
An Internet video of a press conference shows the palpable tension in the faces of organizers and USEF president (and former eventing star) David O'Connor as they made statements. The event is apparently banning media access to the competing riders unless formal interview arrangements are made. This sends the media into the crowds to interview spectators, primarily about the dead horses. Most non-horse specialist media representatives are not familiar with horses or the demands of the sport of eventing, nor are many spectators, who may inaccurately describe what they saw or what they have heard.
In one case, spectator comments to the Tallahassee media contradicted the official statement from organizers that one of the horses died "instantly".
One woman interviewed on Florida television compared Darren Chiacchia to Christopher Reeve; the actor's spinal paralysis was caused by a fall from a horse at a low-level eventing competition. In contrast, Chiacchia's brother, Dan, compared Darren to Evil Knievel when interviewed by the Buffalo (New York) NBC affiliate.
According to one report, Chiacchia may have had as many as six entries to ride over the course, albeit at different levels, yesterday. Therein lies another nuance of eventing: to the uninitiated, it may sound like going at the "Preliminary" level would be a pretty easy outing for a horse. Chiacchia's injury did not occur while he was riding one of his international-level horses over the most difficult obstacles. Had that been the case, the Internet's "YouTube.com" site would be lit up with spectator videos of his fall.
"His horse was going over a jump and actually did a somersault. He did it so fast he wasn't able to break away from the horse. The horse landed right on top of him," Dan Chiacchia, Darren's brother, said Saturday on Channel 2 News in Buffalo. "He's had his share of spills. I think he's sometimes refer to him as the Evil Knievel of horse jumping. Seems like there's not a time that goes by where he doesn't break something."
Event riders are required to wear body protectors and certified protective headgear in competition. Red Hills Horse Trials is one of the most highly-regarded events in the sport in the United States.
Eventing in the United States attracted widespread media attention in May of 2007 when a horse was injured on-course at the Rolex (Kentucky) Three-Day Event. The horse was later destroyed and the rider was subjected to an investigation by the FEI (international governing body of horse sports).
But the 2007 Rolex incident stirred concerns about the impact on horses of errors in judgment on the part of riders and the high risks of eventing, which the sport's supporters say are part of eventing's formula of balancing skill, talent and risk with condition, footing, course design, equipment function...and luck.