07/06/2012 3:06PM

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.