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Preakness 2024: 90-year-old woman in good spirits after lead pony bites off part of her finger at Pimlico

A lead pony bit part of a finger off the hand of Dorothy Watley, 90, when she tried to feed it carrots between races at Pimlico Race Course ahead of the 2024 Preakness Stakes on Saturday afternoon.

Before the Jim McKay Turf Sprint, the 11th race of the day and two before the Preakness, the rider of a lead pony — who guides and calms racehorses during events — led their horse to the edge of the track and fans in the concourse apron box reached out to pet it. Dorothy, who uses a wheelchair, was attending the races with her son, Rudy Watley, and tried to feed the horse carrots with her right hand. She didn’t leave her palm open enough and the horse bit off the proximal bone of her middle finger.

“We just were sitting in the second row of the track apron and we saw some folks down there that were petting the horse,” Rudy Watley said in a phone interview Sunday. “So, they were feeding the horse and she said, ‘Well, I want to do it too.’ So, she stood up — she’s primarily wheelchair bound but she can get up — she stood up at the rail and they handed her a carrot. … She had her hand cuffed as opposed to open and so to try to get it out to the horse and the horse kind of nibbled at her thumb and then wound up catching her index finger rather than the carrot.”

While Rudy described the experience as “traumatic,” Dorothy never screamed and remained calm as Rudy and other spectators around her tried to find something to wrap around her hand. The rider of the lead pony, after asking three times if Watley was OK, rode off without signaling anyone for help. It was unclear whether the rider realized the extent of the injury.

“It was the gnarliest thing in the entire world,” said Marisa Bowersox, a Washington resident who was sitting with her husband, Hunter Scott, nearby. “She literally didn’t make a peep and everyone was running around trying to help her. No one knew what was going on. … There were passersby helping her. They wrapped it in a towel and they wheeled her up.”

There were no ushers or security officers standing in their section, so Rudy had to wheel Dorothy back inside before they could notify a staff member of what happened. When they tried to exit the building to get to the medical tent, however, there were no ramps for them to use so Rudy had to take her to the south end of the concourse to get around. She was then taken to an ambulance and transported to nearby Sinai Hospital, where her finger was sewn up.

Dorothy, who has “always loved the Triple Crown” according to Rudy, was attending the Preakness for the first time. While the incident caused them to miss the race, she was still in good spirits after the surgery and they watched the race from her hospital bed.

“This incident hasn’t tainted her view on horses or races,” Rudy said. “So, that was a surprise so she still loves horses and races. I found recently that she was a horse race lover. Of all the things that she’s done, sports that she’s supported, horse racing and baseball is her favorites.”

No one from the track went over to the section to check on the spectators who witnessed the incident or examine the area. The carrots the woman dropped were still sitting in the mud in front of the fence two hours after it happened.

“There was an incident but we don’t know the extent of it and are looking at surveillance tape,” said Dave Joseph, vice president of communications/media for the Maryland Jockey Club, on Saturday. Rudy, who was recording a video when the incident occurred, reached out to Joseph on Sunday morning.

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“I feel so sorry for her because she’s in really bad condition,” said another witness Stan Svrlinga, who lives in Virginia and grew up tending to horses. “I can’t imagine how much effort her son took to just get her here and for that to happen … it was pretty bad.”

Five police officers on-site confirmed that no mention of the incident was made on their radios. Five medical professionals working at the track declined to comment.

“I would have thought there would be an usher along the edge to give some insights and say [to] exercise care,” Rudy said. “So, that was a little surprised to me, but I liked the fact that we were able to get up that close. I hope they don’t change the way you can get that close and I wouldn’t want this incident to stop to be able to enjoy.”