Jockey Rafael Bejarano won his comeback race Wednesday at Turfway Park after more than four weeks on the sidelines, but only after he was involved in an incident on a Lima, Peru-to-Miami flight that sparked an FBI investigation.
Traveling on American Airlines Flight 918, Bejarano was returning to the United States on Tuesday after a lengthy stay in Peru, where he was visiting his family while healing from rib injuries incurred in an Aug. 14 spill at Saratoga. Two hours into the flight, he was involved in a dispute with a 56-year-old Japanese national who had been acting strangely for a good deal of the flight, authorities said.
The situation developed when the older man sat down next to the jockey, made a comment about Bejarano's personal hygiene, and sprayed him with perfume, investigators said. When Bejarano took out an iPod in an attempt to ignore the other passenger, the older man began to elbow him violently.
"When he pulled out his iPod, the guy went nuts, thinking it was dangerous for the plane," said Julio Espinosa, a local agent who met Bejarano at the airport in Louisville, Ky., the next day.
Bejarano called for assistance, and crew members were able to separate the two passengers for the remainder of the flight. When the plane arrived in Miami at about 6 a.m. EDT Sept. 27, both men were detained for questioning. Because the altercation took place over international waters, the FBI handled the investigation.
"It wasn't a big deal, really," Espinosa said. "After the flight, they asked Rafael if he wanted to press charges, but...Rafael's not the type to try to get money out of someone, especially since he wasn't hurt by the incident."
Witnesses told the Miami Herald
the older man had been acting strangely during the entire flight, even lying down in the aisle to pour a glass of water on his head at one point. He had been prevented from boarding an earlier flight out of Lima at the beginning of the week after exhibiting similar "unusual behavior" in the airport, according to published reports.
"I didn't really understand what was wrong when the guy started hitting me," Bejarano said. "Maybe he was on medicine or something and felt crazy at the moment. I don't know, but I think he had something wrong with his mind, you know? I just tried to protect myself and everybody tried to relax the guy, and that was it."
Both men were released following the investigation, and Bejarano returned to racing at Turfway that night with a 6 ¾-length win aboard Hit the Hardwood for trainer Craig Holstein in the third race.
"I had a really good time in Peru, I got to do a lot of traveling," he said. "I feel great, I'm happy to come back normal and put some time in at Turfway to get ready for Keeneland."