Photo: Don August / HRN
The Pleasanton Fair was all set for a big weekend to conclude its 100th year.
Three Stakes races are scheduled the final two days and great weather and big crowds are expected to end the 13 day meet.
That was until the 8th race on Thursday.
A $5,000 claiming race ended the card in tragedy when jockey Jorge Herrera fell from his mount and died from his injuries. The head injuries suffered were significant and witness’ say Herrera never had a chance to survive. I watched the race on my computer as I do all races I don’t attend. Of course no information is ever available on a replay show so it wasn’t until a few hours later that I found out through the all mighty Facebook, that Herrera had passed away.
I sat stunned. I never met Jorge as he had just arrived recently from working horses down south. The fact that I never met him didn’t ease the pain of a loss of life in the industry I write about. This is sports. You’re not supposed to die playing sports.
I had planned on not going to the races until the weekend, but obviously I had to go Friday because I wanted to write a piece on it. But how should I do it?
News reports had already stated the facts and I’m tired of those stories that have same old quotes about how everyone knows the risks. I decided to go the jockeys themselves. I’m fortunate to have a very good relationship with most all of the jockey colony, covering them as I do.
It was easy. I would go into the jockeys room and just ask their feelings on what happened.
Easy…... Yeah right.
The room was far different than usual. The joking and banter that goes on daily was replaced with quiet talking. The smiling faces I encounter on a weekly basis, were replaced with clenched jaws and saddened eyes.
For once, I was speechless.
I really didn’t know what to say. The questions seemed so unimportant. All I could muster up is a few, “how are you doings?” The fraternity had lost family member. And everyone was feeling the effects. This was no time to stick a tape recorder in their face.
The guys went about their business of preparing for the days races, adding in a group prayer with the Chaplin and a pep talk by the stewards. Then there was the moment of silence in the winners circle, to which we all went out for, to the clicking of what seemed to be the paparazzi following a celebrity.
Once back in the room, I talked briefly with Russell Baze, who as the ultimate professional and leader, spoke freely about how the jockeys were pretty good at putting the dangers of riding in the back of their heads for the love of their sport. He then agreed to be the spokesman for the throngs of media that wanted to get a jockey’s thoughts on the tragedy.
I sought out one of the younger riders, knowing they had never been through anything like this. Juan Sanchez, an apprentice at the fairs, has been riding for just under a year. I was surprised to find out even he, had been associated with Herrera in the past.
“Yesterday was hard for me to believe when they said he was dead,” Sanchez said. “I met him last year at Fresno and went out a few times with him. When I got my license, we used to stay together in a tack room. He helped me. When they said he was dead I couldn’t believe, I thought maybe he was just hurt or something. Then they confirmed it. I still cant’ believe it.”
Jockey Jockey Catalino Martinez (below) reflects on the tragedy between races.
Disbelief seemed to be present to all that had a friendship with the jockey from when he rode the fair circuit last year. From longtime friend Diego Sanchez to his valet Joe Hernandez, they all seemed to shake their head when talking about him. His record wasn’t stellar, he had 55 career wins over 8 years but that didn’t matter. He touched many and left happy memories to all.
The jockey’s accident was met with a few ironies. Herrera’s death came exactly 37 years to the day that jockey Juan T. Gonzalez lost his life on the same track, July 5th 1975. Herrera fell to the track at the end of the backstretch, nearly the same spot the last tragic bay area spill happened when Michael Martinez went down at Golden Gate Fields two years ago. Martinez is currently confined to a wheelchair.
And finally this weekend‘s stakes races include the Juan Gonzalez Memorial and the Jack Robinson Handicap for quarter horses. Robinson was another jockey to lose his life in a race in 1973 at the Solano County Fair in Vallejo. One of Robinsons daughters, DeDe is the paddock judge at Pleasanton that sent Herrera onto the track for his final race.
“This really hit home for me,” Robinson said. “I know it sounds silly, but it’s something we never thought of until it happened to my dad. I stayed away for 7 or 8 years, I could hardly watch a race. This is just such a sad thing.”
Sunday, the fourth race will be named in Herrera’s honor. No matter who wins the race, there will be a lot of people happy to see their friend and fellow jockey honored. Herrera made it to the Pleasanton winners circle one time in his career when he won on Magic Potion in July of 2009. Sunday, he will be there again in memory.