CHRB Releases Report on Rider's Death

Findings dispute charge of slow paramedic response in fatal spill at Pleasanton.

More than six months after pledging a thorough investigation into the death of jockey Jorge Herrera, the California Horse Racing Board released a summary of its findings Jan. 10.

Herrera, 33, was killed in the final race July 5 at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton after the horse he was riding, Morito, clipped heels with another horse and catapulted the rider forward head-first. The jockey was either kicked in the head or stepped on by a horse, possibly the one he was riding, according to the summary.

The report from Dan Dailey, CHRB's supervising special investigator for northern enforcement, disputed statements from witnesses to the accident that it took paramedics up to as long as 20 minutes to come to the aid of the stricken rider. The report found that paramedics were on the scene in three minutes and 18 seconds from the time of Herrera's spill, citing a filmed review of events.

The probe was conducted by the CHRB, Alameda County Sheriff deputies, the Alameda County coroner, and the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The summary was delayed in part by the retirement of the CHRB supervisor of Northern California's investigative unit, Rad Coulter, who left Oct. 31 without issuing the final report, according to Kirk Breed, the board's executive director.

Herrera, from Jalisco, Mexico, was an exercise rider and journeyman jockey who had raced in California, Oregon, and Washington. He won 55 races during his career from 1,008 mounts, but rode sparingly in recent years after getting his start in 2004.

The report found that the track was in compliance with the conditions of its operating license, although county paramedics were not in the ambulance that follows the horses during the races at Pleasanton. The track is located in the East Bay Area near San Francisco.

There was not a license requirement that paramedics be in the ambulance during races, Breed said. Following Herrera's death, however, there was a dispute among some racing officials and Rick Pickering, the Alameda fair CEO who was in charge of racing, as to whether there was an agreement in place that paramedics would staff the vehicle during the three-week meet, Breed said. 

The ambulance was instead manned by a pair of basic emergency medical technicians who were the first on the scene, according to the report, along with Dr. Sarah Sporer, the track's fitness veterinarian.

They attempted to clear an airway for Herrera, who was bleeding profusely, but were unsuccessful. The paramedics, who were stationed at a firehouse adjacent to the track on the north side of the grandstand, responded but were also unsuccessful at stabilizing the jockey's breathing.

Twenty-one minutes after his fall, Herrera was loaded into the ambulance for transport to the Eden Medical Center Trauma Unit in Castro Valley, according to the report. During the approximate 15-mile trip, which began shortly before 5:30 p.m., paramedics administered CPR and other life support measures, the report said. Herrera succumbed to his injuries at the trauma center a short time later.

The Alameda County coroner listed the cause of Herrera's death as blunt head trauma. It said he sustained two transverse basilar skull fractures with acute subarachnoid hemorrhage, and a subcutaneous hematoma of the right temporal subcutaneous tissue.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, there were accusations by Darrell Haire, western regional manager for the the Jockeys' Guild, that the EMTs were unprepared to conduct life-saving techniques. Haire also objected to the length of time it took paramedics to get to Herrera.

During a meeting the following morning with the track stewards, Pickering, and others, Haire said tempers flared and Pickering became quite defensive.

"When all of this happened, I went up there right away," Haire said. "It was so sad and everybody's emotions were running so high. Some things were said. But I wanted everything to be as safe as can be for our riders. That meant making sure that the ambulance had the proper personnel."

He added, "In this situation, I don't think George's life could have been saved."

But Haire said he thinks the way it was handled "opened some eyes." He added that he is happy that the CHRB has been pushing for paramedics for its ambulance units at its tracks both during morning workout hours and during racing.

"Riders have a dangerous life," he said, "but I want to thank the commission for making it as safe as possible."

Herrera, who was not married, lived with an uncle in Monrovia, Calif., near Santa Anita Park, Haire said. The jockey's mother and sister live in Mexico. The family has received some death benefits from workers' compensation and a Guild life insurance policy, though Haire could not specify the amount.

According to the Equibase race chart of the $5,000 maiden claiming race at five furlongs, Morito came out slightly while racing between horses near the half-mile pole. The gelding clipped heels with Tribal Sun, and stumbled badly, throwing Herrera.

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 the death of Juan Gonzalez, the last jockey to suffer a fatal injury at Pleasanton in 1975.