In the aftermath of a jockey's death as the result of a massive brain injury July 5 at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, Calif., management has agreed to staff its track ambulance with a licensed paramedic.
Paul Nicolo, safety steward for the California Horse Racing Board at Pleasanton, said July 6 that the ambulance will have all the necessary emergency equipment, such as tracheal tubes and intravenous lines, on board as well. The three-week meet ends July 8.
Nicolo said the fair's license application did not require an ambulance paramedic because it has licensed paramedics on the grounds as part of operating the fair.
That wasn't good enough, contends Darrell Haire, western regional manager for the Jockeys' Guild, to help 33-year-old Jorge Herrera, who died at a nearby trauma center less than two hours after his horrific accident. Haire said he met with management at the Alameda fairgrounds, in the East Bay Area near San Francisco, on the morning of July 6 to voice his concerns.
"It took forever for the paramedics to get to him, at least 10 to 20 minutes before they showed up," Haire said. "What good is it to have paramedics on the grounds if they aren't there when they're needed?"
Rick Pickering, CEO of the Alameda fair and the director of racing, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Nicolo said he was meeting with a California Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator prior to the races July 6, which were to go on as scheduled. A moment of silence was held at the track in observance of Herrera's death. Nicolo said he was satisfied with the track's response to the accident.
"It was a situation where no matter what the response, it would not have been helpful," Nicolo said in reference to Herrera's grave condition.
Haire said the track ambulance, which was staffed by emergency medical technicians, did not have the necessary equipment that might help stabilize a rider in Herrera's situation, such as a tracheal tube to help the stricken rider clear an air passage clogged with blood.
But Haire said he doubts that even the proper medical personnel and equipment could have saved Herrera. The journeyman jockey was catapulted forward when his horse, a 4-year-old gelding in a $5,000 maiden claimer named Morito, clipped heels with a horse to his outside and stumbled badly. Herrera suffered a massive head injury when he struck the ground and may have been kicked in the head by his horse as well.
Herrera was wearing a safety helmet, though it provided little protection in this instance, Haire said.
"The rider, the way he hit the ground, he hit the ground very hard, and he may have been kicked by his own horse, too," Haire said. "As soon as they got to him, they said he was lifeless, bleeding from the eyes, the ears, the head. There was blood everywhere."
A track veterinarian told him that Herrera had only a faint pulse when he departed for the trauma center in Castro Valley in rush hour traffic some 25 minutes after the fall. The facility is about 15 miles west of the fairgrounds off I-580.
"There was nothing going to save him, that's what everyone has told me," Haire said.
"But this has really opened everyone's eyes," Haire added. "If he had needed a tracheal or an IV in order to stabilize him, he couldn't have had it. They didn't have the equipment. They weren't qualified to do what needs to be done. That's crazy!"
Herrera was the first jockey to die on a California racetrack since Quarter Horse rider Sam Thompson at Los Alamitos Racecourse Dec. 25, 2008. The last Thoroughbred jockey to die in a racing accident in the state was J.C. Gonzalez at Fairplex Park Sept. 9, 1999. Herrera's death came 37 years nearly to the day after Juan Gonzalez was the last jockey to suffer a fatal injury at Pleasanton in 1975.
Services for Herrera, who was from Jalisco, Mexico, have not been set. Primarily an exercise rider based in Southern California, he had raced in California, Oregon, and Washington. He won 55 races from 1,010 mounts in a career that began in 2004.
CHRB spokesman Mike Marten said the agency will perform a thorough investigation of the tragedy. He said the CHRB has established a goal of improving ambulance service during training and racing hours. The CHRB's safety committee, during its April meeting, reported that all of the tracks in the state had either improved ambulance service or were in the process of doing so.
"The safety of all riding participants is a principal concern of the Board, which has adopted track safety regulations and approved other regulations and procedures designed to protect riders," the CHRB said in a statement.
Haire said tracks, especially minor ones, need to recognize how dangerous racing is for jockeys.
"That's the reality of the game. Riders are going to be killed," Haire said. "Nowadays, it's all about the money. They talk about all the measures they're taking and how seriously they take rider safety, but it's only words. Show me how sincere you are."