In the wake of the tragic car accident that claimed the lives of Pan American Games silver medalist Andres Rodriguez and amateur rider Sophie Walker, riders on both coasts have stepped up and used personal funds to establish late-night car services in an effort to prevent accidents for party-going equestrians during the 2016 winter circuit.
Rodriguez and Walker died from injuries sustained in a car accident in Wellington, Fla., in the early morning hours of Jan. 4. According to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Rodriguez failed to negotiate a curve and veered off the road, hitting a concrete pillar. Autopsy results later revealed that Rodriguez’s blood alcohol level at the time of the accident was 0.126 percent.
The events struck a chord throughout the equestrian community. New York City-based rider Romain Marteau started a fundraiser on CrowdRise.com to solicit donations and sponsorships for a program he’s calling “Free Ride Sundays,” which would provide three mini transportation buses every Sunday night in Wellington during the winter circuit. Marteau dates Brianne Goutal, whose sister Clementine was married to Rodriguez. Brianne sponsored the first week of transportation.
“I’ve been trying to set up a car service in Wellington for a couple years now,” Marteau said. “In light of the recent events, we decided that it would be the appropriate time to do it. The service is not only going to be for equestrians; it’s going to be for the entire town of Wellington. Safe driving is really an issue that everybody in Wellington should be concerned about, and I believe that with all the support we’ve been receiving from everyone, equestrians and non-equestrians, we can make Wellington a safer place.”
Marteau has plans for the buses to run separate routes on Wellington’s main roads. One route would cover the area near the Polo Club, a second would run on Greenview Shores, Wellington Trace and Pierson Road, and a third would run southward toward Lake Worth Road. There would be a three-stop system that would provide transportation to The Grill, a popular restaurant on South Shore Blvd., and, from there, to the nearby Players Club and back to people’s homes—a “three-step transportation service.” He also hopes to work with the Village of Wellington to better curtail speeding and improve overall road safety in the area.
“One of the biggest challenges is going to be convincing people to use the service,” Marteau said. “Even though it sounds amazing, very few people leave their houses thinking, ‘I’m really not going to be able to drive tonight.’ But once you have one drink, your driving capabilities are affected. Why take the risk when there will be somebody that has had nothing to drink and is insured and certified who can take you home safely? There’s no comparison in my opinion.
“It’s not even always about drinking,” he added. “Sometimes you’re just tired and don’t want to drive. It’s the end of the week, and everybody’s tired, and that’s also a good reason to use the [service].”
Wellington-based Tom Wright of Uphill Farm also started his own car service, and he had his limo driver on call at the Players Club from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 24. Two vehicles provided complimentary transportation that evening, and more than 30 people used the service on its debut outing. Wright and Marteau have conversed and hope to combine their services down the road.
“If we could have both, it might be amazing,” Marteau said. “If we can have one scheduling person coordinate between the buses and the cars, we leave no chance for people to be able to drive.”
“Honestly, I thought there needed to be some kind of service for the last 10 or so years,” Wright said. “With us losing Chepito [Rodriguez] and Sophie so suddenly, it’s just made everyone revisit this again.
“If we do this right, we will never know truly what the benefits are, because we will not have to see the negative aspect of this if we don’t do it,” he added. “We’ll never know what we’ve saved, but in the long run, it will be so worth it to have this option out there.”
And this circuit “safe ride” idea isn’t limited to Wellington. On Jan. 22, Zazou Hoffman, assistant trainer at Meadow Grove Farm in Lake View Terrace, Calif., announced on social media that her barn, headed by Dick Carvin and his wife Francie Steinwedell-Carvin, would be sponsoring a car service at HITS Thermal (Calif.). Also on Jan. 24, three cars provided free transportation from The Cantina at the Eldorado Polo Club in Indio, Calif., from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
“Me being sober for 22 years and being lucky that I never got a DUI or anything else, it’s been in our thoughts for a while,” said Steinwedell-Carvin, who has frequently used her own experiences battling alcoholism and depression to help others. “Zazou came up with the idea and said, ‘Why don’t we we do it like this?’ ”
“Sunday night is the only time [for riders] to let down a little bit and relax after a long week [at the show],” Hoffman said. “Most everyone at the horse show is quite responsible, but my thought was to just take that one step out of the process for them.”
In generous “pay it forward” fashion, other East- and West Coast-based riders have offered to pay for future Sunday night driving services, including Ellicia Edgar of Valleyfield Farm (Alberta) and Irish show jumper Shane Sweetnam, along with his wife Ali, of Sweet Oak Farm (Fla.).
Steinwedell-Carvin hopes the services will encourage people to make sound decisions when going out. She gave Hoffman several toy cars with the phrase “MGF Safe Drive Home” written on them to give out to people and remind them to “make the right choice.”
“The thing that we’d like to put out to the younger generation is that [electing to get a ride from someone] is a very mature choice to make, rather than trying to act tough and saying, ‘I’m fine,’ ” Steinwedell-Carvin said. “In this day and age, getting a DUI changes your life, and anything else that happens worse than that is just horrific. It’s about becoming aware and making good choices even before the festivities kick in and our judgment gets impaired.”
Marteau said doing something positive for the community and receiving such an overwhelmingly positive response has been emotionally rewarding.
“This has been obviously something very difficult for everyone,” he said, “but the difficulty only brought out the best in everyone. There are all these services getting out there now that are free, and it’s been a team effort. Everybody is donating their money and time, and I’m sure The Grill and Players are going to work very closely with us, because it’s in everybody’s best interest to make it safe, so I couldn’t be happier with the way people have been responding. It’s only making us feel so much better during a difficult time.”