07/11/2012 4:48PM

Hovdey: Herrera's death raises emergency care issues


Ten or so years ago Jorge Herrera, now famous for dying last week after being thrown from a Thoroughbred at the Alameda County Fair, wanted to learn a rider’s trade badly enough to spend eight months at Frank Garza’s jockey school north of the L.A.Basin while working off his tuition, his room, and his board in chores at the ranch.

“He was walking hots at Hollywood Park,” said Garza, who rode for 27 years. “He called me up and told me he wanted to be a rider. When I picked him up he was waiting at the stable gate with his suitcase.”

This is how the picture of the unsung Herrera is coming into focus, a snapshot at a time, with details layered on over the past week by friends and workmates who knew just enough about the 33-year-old native of Jalisco, Mexico, to be desperately sad that he is gone.

“He was intelligent and well mannered, but very quiet,” Garza said. “I started him on an old racehorse named Uncle Bob. He never showed any fear. We had racing mules at the time – everybody falls off mules – and when he would fall I would ask him, ‘You sure you want to ride?’ He would answer, very serious, ‘Yes, I do.’ ”

It was the deal Herrera was willing to make, same as any other jockey, that falling off and getting hurt or worse can be part of the job. Of course, even in the most remote racing outposts there exists among riders a reasonable expectation that the inherent dangers of the sport are not exacerbated by local conditions, which is why riders and their representatives at the Jockeys’ Guild are forever encouraging racetracks to be vigilant about surface condition, quality of rails, pre-race veterinary exams, skilled gate crew personnel, and the best possible emergency care.

The California Horse Racing Board has launched an investigation into all aspects of the incident that cost Jorge Herrera his life. This will include a review of the emergency trauma procedures in place at the Pleasanton track, which were apparently in keeping with the basic standards mandated by the Rules and Regulations of the racing board, as empowered by the State of California’s Business and Professions Code – “basic” being the operative word, to wit:

“The association shall provide the services of an ambulance and its properly qualified attendants at all times during the running of races at its meeting . . . ”

There is no stipulation as to the level of expertise required for those attendants other than being “properly qualified,” nor that the ambulance be equipped with Advanced Life Support (ALS). It should be noted that, in the wake of Herrera’s death, Alameda County Fair officials have added a paramedic to its team of emergency medical technicians following the horses and jockeys as they compete, prompting a layman to say both “good for them” and “what’s the difference?”

Huge. According to the website of UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine Center for Prehospital Care:

“EMTs usually complete a course that is about 120-150 hours in length. Paramedic courses can be between 1,200 to 1,800 hours. . . . EMTs are educated in many skills including CPR, giving patients oxygen, administering glucose for diabetics, and helping others with treatments for asthma attacks or allergic reactions. With very few exceptions .  .  . EMTs are not allowed to provide treatments that requiring breaking the skin: that means no needles.

“Paramedics are advanced providers of emergency medical care and are highly educated in topics such as anatomy and physiology, cardiology, medications, and medical procedures. They build on their EMT education and learn more skills such as administering medications, starting intravenous lines, providing advanced airway management for patients, and learning to resuscitate and support patients with significant problems such as heart attacks and traumas.”

So that’s pretty clear. If you’re a jockey who has just broken a finger or sprained an ankle an EMT usually can do the job and then some. But sustain possible head trauma or internal damage with diminished pulse and respiration, and a paramedic is about your only chance until you get to a hospital.

At California’s county fairs, there are always paramedics somewhere at the fairgrounds to respond to racetrack emergencies like the Herrera accident. How long they take to arrive on the scene depends on where they are headquartered and what other emergencies they might be dealing with at the time.

California racing commissioner Bo Derek has spent the past year urging all associations to adopt the Del Mar model of emergency staffing and care, a model that includes backups and redundancies with the highest available level of trauma response and personnel.

“I was like everyone who assumed that because they were being followed by an ambulance they would be getting Advanced Life Support, or that there was not a difference between EMTs and paramedics,” Derek said. “I got a quick education between ‘basic’ and ‘advanced.’ ”

In attempting to craft a regulation that would mandate the best care available to a fallen rider, Derek and her fellow commissioners have run into jurisdictional snags between local public and private emergency services.

“Right now it’s all voluntary,” Derek said, “and other than agreeing that it is important, everyone has a point of view.”

Whether or not the life of Jorge Herrera could have been saved had paramedics with Advanced Life Support been immediately at his side is a tragic negative impossible to prove. There is only one positive outcome, and that is the racing board go forward with its mandate that all tracks – fairs included – adopt the Del Mar model.

“Eventually it will be required,” Derek promised. “And I hope tracks around the country would consider this. Once you know the level of care that is possible, how do you not go forward and have it? It’s the least we can do, especially after we’ve seen once again how terribly dangerous the sport can be.”

Frank Garza saw Jorge Herrera for the last time on the evening of June 29 at Hollywood Park.

“He told me he was driving to Pleasanton that night after the races to ride at the fair,” Garza said. “I asked him if he was going to ride any mules. He smiled and said, ‘Oh no. Way too dangerous.’ ”


BigBear More than 1 year ago
I have always felt jockeys are treated the worst of all our athletes. There are no guaranteed salaries or paid IR lists. We can't prevent falls but we do have the capacity of controlling what happens after the fall. The addition of a Para to the Medical Response Unit would be a miniscule expense and I'd also recommend someone in the Stewards booth who could analyze the fall as to what areas of the body were landing points w/the ability to relay this info to the Para as the team was responding.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
How about facing the real issue here,bad cheap overaced horses with bad legs and medicated to the gills.its a wonder there's so few tragedies.some of the horses at pleasanton and other small tracks can barely stand up straight without painkillers yet they try to get them around those tight turns as fast as they can.to me that is not how racing should be conducted,but I guess anything goes even mules race.racing should be more like ascot or even Saratoga and not at all like what goes on at most American tracks.
Derek Isenberg More than 1 year ago
As an emergency physician, there is no evidence that advanced life support improved outcomes in trauma. The interventions that an ALS provider could have provided the jockey in this horrible incident would have made no difference. The only thing that could have helped is rapid transport to a trauma center. Based on the reports, nothing would have saved this jockey's life. Paramedics have their place, but would not have made a difference in this case
BigBear More than 1 year ago
My son began his career as an ER Doc/ Rode an EA for known Head & Neck cases and led a Rescue team on 9/11. I'm an ex PE Instr. & Football coach and retired to a Sheriff's Dept. Rapid Response Unit . So I know we can't win them all but the better prepared we are, the more we win the ones we could have lost.
Jeffries Will More than 1 year ago
What a shame that we all have to learn from a tradgedy. Negligence isn't a case here, the jockeys know what care they are getting, whether good, bad or indifferent. Let's use this as an example to the industry to further try to do the right thing and stop suing everyone
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My grandma died of an athsma attack because the people in the ambulance on the way to the hospital weren't allowed to do more than they did. If a life is on the line they should be able to try to save it.
Jim Eggers More than 1 year ago
Jay- another great piece, and I am stunned to hear that paramedics are not REQUIRED to be in the Ambulance at all tracks. I have been an EMT for over thirty years, and know enough to know that what I cannot do with a head injured patient far outweighs what I (or any other EMT) can do. Of course their should be Paramedics with ALS skills on board every Ambulance, head injured/ spinal cord patients may need intubation, cardiac intervention, and IV fluids. I am going to contact the Washington State Horse Racing Commision tomorrow to find out where they are on this.
Karen More than 1 year ago
Jim-I have a friend who is a Paramedic with King County's Medic One. She is one of the qualified personnel who look over the jockeys as they head to the track, and follow the race in the car. They are all top-of-the-line; Emerald Downs, anyway, is looking out for the riders!
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Dangerous sport. I had the same mare fall on me twice. -- Talk Little. I am sure she is dead now. Horses kill you ( I mean in a more symbolic manner ) They give their lives for us, but every now and ( to often ) again we give our lives for them. God bless him, and don't take it out on the horse.
Paul Garcia More than 1 year ago
Imagine a person's head as a watermelon. Imagine dropping that from 5 feet. It will probably be cracked but might be salvageable. Now imagine that watermelon being thrown down with strong force from 10 feet high. The result is an unsalvageable mush. So, it should be understood that, while emergency measures should be taken beforehand and should be available, for example, like racecar driving, besides preparation, the best that can be said is, "He died doing what he loved doing." It is sad, but true. Appreciate greatly and always what the jockeys and horsepeople go through to bring to you the sport of kings.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And on the same token, let's show some appreciation for Bo Derek on the matter trying to raise the standard of emergency care at the racetrack to a much higher standard within the state. There's no reason that racing can't dip into their accounts and spend what it takes to ensure that all racetrack personnel have the safe emergency care they need in worst-case scenarios. You never thought it would be Bo Derek leading the charge, but give her the credit that's due for trying to understand the problems in order to reach a positive solution. Let's make Jorge Herrera's death not be in vain for someone else.
paul More than 1 year ago
I believe all jockeys who go to jockey school should be required -- as part of the curriculum -- to take tumbling classes and prove that they know how to take a fall before graduation. Falling properly can be learned; it is taught systematically in martial arts classes. Time and time again I have seen jockeys just fly through the air then flop flat on the ground like a sack of potatoes. That is not right, Even at the speeds they are moving upon falling, if they learned how to tumble and fall properly, I am certain it would reduce injuries.
littlelouis99 More than 1 year ago
actually i was a jock agent many years ago and hustled book for a rider that was a top stuntman in the movies at the sametime,i remember one race where his horse went down midstretch fast and hard and he was in a roll before he hit the ground,the rest of the field went over top of him and as i uncovered my eyes he was standing up and grabbing the lines of his fallen mount!i could not believe what i'd seen,i'll give you a thumbs up
Kyle Stasierowski More than 1 year ago
Dear Jay, If I were a member of Jorge Herrera's family and I was reading this article, I'd really be thinking of hiring a lawyer and suing the State of California’s Business and Professions Code, CHRB, and the Pleasanton County Fair for negligence in the death of Jorge Herrera. Especially when the ambulance he was put in didn't have an Advance Life Support (ALS) system that maybe could've saved Jorge's life. Sincerely, Kyle Stasierowski 27-year-old loyal TVG viewer, HRTV Live Feed viewer, TVG Community member, and DRF twitter follower from Alden, New York.
ECarlos727 More than 1 year ago
I understand your post but was Jorge tied to the horse? He made a choice and he lived by that choice everyday he rode. He loved what he did but every jock, every race, at every track make these decisions every half hour or so to ride. Yes, let's add paramedics that's a track expense that should be made, but let's not forget that he rode to live and we all go one day and I for one wish it would be doing something I chose and not by a drunk driver or by the hand of some criminal. I for one appreciate Jorge because he rode.