07/06/2012 2:06PM

Hovdey: A jockey's death - swift, sudden, unforgettable

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Vassar Photography
Jockey Jorge Herrera, 33, was thrown from his mount and died at Pleasanton on Thursday.

A family attending the centennial celebration of the Alameda County Fair on Thursday afternoon could have stuck around for the last of eight Thoroughbred races and still had plenty of time to make the Temptations concert at the Safeway Amphitheater on the grounds at 7 o’clock.

Their last memory of the races might have been the sight of a gray horse running riderless past the finish line, an odd thing under any circumstances, begging the question of what became of the jockey once attached. But the races were over, all eight in the books, and there was just enough time to grab a picnic’s worth of fair food before Otis Williams and his four friends took the stage to sing “My Girl.”

A racing fan must be very unlucky to be at the track when a jockey is killed, and the disconnect is numbing. Often it happens in the distance – the far turn, the six-furlong chute – leaving it to racetrack officials to disseminate the news, if they know it soon enough. What was one instant a thrilling exhibition of a horse and rider in purposeful flight on a glorious day turns dark and bitter, suitable only for the evening news. If word gets out quickly enough, children are hustled to the exits, and nobody cares who won.

Not having been there, you wonder in this age of instant communication how long it took for word to dribble out to unsuspecting eyewitnesses that the jockey who fell from that gray horse, 33-year-old Jorge Herrera from Jalisco, Mexico, had not survived his crash to the backstretch of the five-furlong race for $5,000 maiden claimers. For the record, attendance at the races that afternoon was announced at around 4,300.

The stars crossed only once for this reporter, on Jan. 18, 1975, when Alvaro Pineda was killed in the starting gate at Santa Anita Park. What I have forgotten about that day you could store in a thimble.

But as a highly mobile California racing nut I could just as easily have been at Hollywood Park with my folks on June 19, 1958, when Jack Westrope was killed when his filly bolted into the rail near the end of the Hollywood Oaks. Or at Bay Meadows on Dec. 6, 1965, when Phil Grohs was killed when his horse was crowded and clipped heels. Or at Vallejo, not far from Pleasanton, on June 20, 1973, when Jack Robinson was killed trying to keep another jockey from falling. Or right there at Pleasanton on July 5, 1975, in the Sam J. Whiting Memorial, when Juan T. Gonzalez, the leading rider in Northern California, went down in a chain reaction crash and never got up. Or at Fairplex Park on opening day, Sept. 9, 1999, when the horse ridden by young Jose Carlos Gonzalez, the defending Fairlplex champ, suffered a fatal injury on the final turn and took his rider with him.

For the past two years, when the jocks leave the room at Pleasanton, they have passed by a bronze bust of Jack Robinson mounted on a plinth inscribed with the names of those riders honored with the Jack Robinson Memorial Award. More to the point, Robinson’s stern countenance is there to welcome jockeys back to the room upon their safe return.

The Robinson bronze was originally installed at Bay Meadows, closed now. The loss of Bay Meadows in 2008 represented a death in the Northern California racing family from which the region has yet to recover. The racing primarily takes place at Golden Gate Fields with time out in the summer for the racing fair circuit. Pleasanton, with its mile track and comparatively larger stabling, has become an integral part of the mix.

On Sept. 12, 2010, the circuit was traumatized further by the crippling injury at Golden Gate Fields to Michael Martinez, who was emerging as the Bay Area’s next breakout star, a worthy successor to Joel Rosario and Martin Garcia. Instead, at the age of 24, Martinez faced the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

“It’s been a couple months since I talked to him, but Michael’s doing pretty good,” said Darrell Haire, a national representative for the Jockeys’ Guild. “He had that catastrophic policy, which helps a lot. He bought a new house, not far from Golden Gate. He’s been getting a lot of moral support, which is good, because the first couple of years are the worst.”

Haire made a beeline from Los Angeles to Pleasanton as soon as he got word of Herrera’s death. It is his job to help review emergency protocols and offer comfort to fellow riders faced with going right back into battle. He also reviewed the replay of Herrera’s race.

“He got in tight between horses,” Haire said, “just at that point going into the turn where you’ve either got to get in there or get out, because the inside horse might come out a little and the outside horse could come in. He put himself in a bad spot, and waited until it was too late. When he needed room the door had already closed.

“It was really bad,” Haire added. “The trauma was considerable. He hit head first going 35, 40 miles an hour.”

Ask any jockey to chose between what happened to Michael Martinez and what happened to Jorge Herrera and to a man and woman, they take the Herrara choice almost every time.

“I felt that way too,” Haire said. “You’re an active athlete looking at being a vegetable, and you think you don’t want to live. Then it happens, and that fight in a jockey comes out. I’ve seen a lot of riders physically destroyed, but not too many of them ever give up. All they need is the chance.”

The chance Jorge Herrera didn’t get.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thanks you wrote a beautiful article. My prayers for the families of all the jockeys mentioned.
Hayley Baker More than 1 year ago
So what??? Happens all the time to horses and no one gives a crap!!!
mike More than 1 year ago
Thats gotta be the most ridiculous comment I have ever seen. You are obviously a very bad person.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Every service job or trade has risks, from serious injury to death. It is always tragic for someone to loose their life or be permanently injured from an accident. On the job or off. Our thoughts are with all the family and friends of those lost. We don't watch bridges being built or damns or tall buildings. If we did we would witness a tradgedy occasionally. And it would be hard to erase from our minds. Certainly more safety equipment should be considered by the Jockey Club. Right now they seam busy trying to ban lasix. Lets hope this accident puts more focus on equipment the jockey could wear that could prevent tradgedies in the future. There are items worn in other horse sports that react like airbags when the rider is unseated. We can always do better and I am sure the industry will. And probably the jockey club is working on theses issues too already. R D
Carolyn Littlefield More than 1 year ago
Brilliantly written Jay. The next time someone feels like berating a jockey for a "bad ride" I hope this article and the tragedy which prompted it enters the brain before the words escape the lips.
Chris Szabo More than 1 year ago
I've written a blog post on the subject, with strong emotional language and I don't apologize for it. I do not understand why the horse racing industry, and why jockeys themselves, accept all this risk and the frequency of head injuries and catastrophic injuries. Especially compared with other sports, or compared with other occupations. Jockeys should be wearing protective gear, deemed as safe as possible by the authorities, which would mitigate the risk and lessen injuries to an acceptable level. Surely things could be better than they are right now. Since track management will not do anything meaningful, jockeys should withhold their services until such time as there is an agreement to make it happen. Why do we place such a low value on human life? It's beyond sickening.
Andy Aaron More than 1 year ago
jay, i was there when mike venezia was stepped on and killed. i, like you, have not forgotten one detail of that day. i believe that jockeys are the bravest, strongest athletes and i often tell them so.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Was just clickin' around on the tube, safe at home after doing some chores, and up came the Jorge Herrera Memorial. I was frozen for a moment... other than that Russell Baze win it I can only say that it's so nice that they put this race together for Jorge, and so quickly. Now I need to ask is there a fund for Jorges' Family? Bless 'em all.
mfunicello More than 1 year ago
Brilliant writing Mr. Hovdey. this is the reason I never ever complain about a jockeys ride They put their lives on the line every day they ride, I think they have earned the right to be above any kind of criticism.
Dave Schuler More than 1 year ago
yep , only they know if the hole closed or what (i have been in those deals on motorcycles)and went down -rip- jorge-hope owners @ trainers dont get mad all the time at them-lolk-DS-go p val
Marc Wickliffe More than 1 year ago
I was there at Pleasanton, July 5th,1975 to see the accident going into the club house turn that instantly took the life of Juan Gonzalez. When the valet who was first on the scene took off his hat and threw it too the ground, it signaled to me, and every pair of eyes in the grandstand: He's gone. As the author implies, 37 years can sometimes seem like yesterday.
Candice de Stefano More than 1 year ago
Dear Jay Hovdey , Incredible writing along with incredible statistics that are rarely known or shared with the world of racing no less the public! When we celebrate great races, 1st class race tracks, one day yearly should be a memorial celebrating our race riders who gave there all for the sport they loved and worked! I will personally reach out to the Herrera family as they find strength and support in each other for truly a loss of a strong young man. Candice de Stefano, Bloodstock International