Thursday, December 12, 2013
Leigh Fitch, a veteran harness-racing driver renowned for his success, longevity, technique and the number of crashes he's been in, remained hospitalized in serious condition Tuesday night after experiencing an apparent medical problem as he was getting up to speed before the start of a race.
Fitch, nicknamed "The Fox," of Sebago, was driving Monday night in the fourth race at the Cumberland County Fair when he fell out of his sulky moments before the starting truck raised its gate, fair officials said.
The racers were moving about 30 mph when Fitch fell.
It was Fitch's first race since breaking his neck in a crash at Scarborough Downs in May.
"My son was racing next to Leigh. He said when he looked over, (Fitch) was flat out cold. He was unconscious when he fell out of his seat," said Kevin Switzer Sr., a veteran driver from Cumberland who has known Fitch for 25 years.
Fitch was taken by ambulance to Maine Medical Center. Doctors upgraded his condition from critical to serious on Tuesday.
Stacey Lord, Fitch's wife, said doctors have placed Fitch in a medically induced coma. Fitch broke his neck during a race at Scarborough Downs when his horse collapsed on the track and he was catapulted forward and landed on his head, Lord said.
Drivers wear helmets during races. Monday's race was Fitch's first since the May accident.
"We'll know more tomorrow (Wednesday)," Lord said.
Fitch, who celebrated his 67th birthday Friday, has won 7,589 races over a career spanning 50 years.
Only three drivers in Maine have won more races, according to the website, meharness.com.
His horses have won more than $9 million for their owners, the website said.
Fitch told harness-racing writer Jay Burns in a 1996 interview for Hoof Beats that he had crashed about 150 times by then. Burns has written extensively about Maine harness racing in the Portland Press Herald and other publications.
"It's the nature of his driving style," Burns said.
"He's not a dangerous driver ... He could envision where he needed his horse to go before the opening was there ... On the flip side, that might cause him more accidents than a driver driving to avoid traffic.
"He was famous for sitting and sitting and sitting (on the inside of the track) while other drivers make a wide move," he said.
At the head of the stretch, Fitch would find an opening and make his move, Burns said.
Fitch's temperament is also well-known in the harness-racing world, Burns said.
"He has a complete win-loss fighting competitiveness," Burns said.
"There's no veneer of sociability."
Switzer said his friend has raced all over the country but is best known in Maine.
"I'd say he was a legend (in Maine). A lot of the younger drivers idolized him," Switzer said.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:
This article was updated at 8:54 a.m. on Wednesday, September 26, 2012 to remove incorrect race speed.