John Velazquez and I finished our interview with 10 minutes to post for the fifth race at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
I stayed at the jocks’ room because Irad Ortiz Jr. was riding the fifth, and I wanted to talk to him, too.
Velazquez said his brother Juan was among those who sprinted onto the track at Camarero in Puerto Rico a week ago after jockey Carlos Pizarro got his face smashed up.
A day later, Pizarro, a humble 33-year-old family man who never stayed out late at night and was at the track at 5 each morning, was dead.
Before I could talk to Ortiz, who knew Pizarro well, Ortiz and his mount, Broad Rule, missed trampling the tumbling body of Rosario Montanez by who knows how many inches.
Montanez will be in the hospital for who knows how many days to get his smashed-up face repaired, along with treatment for rib and pelvis injuries.
No one should need a reminder of how dangerous — sometimes deadly — the jockey profession is, but if so, that reality was on chilling display at Saratoga on Saturday.
An hour after the jockey colony gathered in the winner’s enclosure for a moment of silence in honor of Pizarro, the young Montanez, a San Diego native who was a finalist for the 2011 apprentice Eclipse Award, was crumpled on the main track just past the three-eighths pole.
“Some people don’t understand that. They think, ‘Oh, they have fun because they ride horses,’” Ortiz said. “They don’t realize how dangerous it is. It’s dangerous even when you’re walking the horse.
“He can flip. Anytime when you get on a horse.”
The Saratoga and Arlington Park jockey colonies each asked for a moment of silence for Pizarro on Saturday.
He was working a horse when another spooked and took off, crashing into Pizarro’s horse and sending him to the deck.
John Velazquez’s mother is in Saratoga and had spoken to Juan about Pizarro’s accident. When his brother got to Pizarro, there was blood coming out of Pizarro’s nose and ears, and his lower jaw had been shoved over at an awkward angle.
“But he was conscious and talking,” John Velaquez said. “The only thing he was complaining about was he couldn’t breathe.”
Ortiz soon heard about it and called Pizarro’s agent.
“He said he’s alright, bleeding a little bit,” Ortiz said. “Then when I called him later, he said they had to put a tube in and he couldn’t breathe too good. Then he got more bad and bad and bad.”
Velazquez, a Hall of Famer and chairman of the board of directors of the Jockeys’ Guild, said advances in safer helmets have been accelerating, albeit slowly, but it takes time and money.
Also, the guild launched the Jockey Injury Database in April to compile the details of all injuries with the aim of finding ways to prevent them.
The nature of the job, though, dictates that a helmet and flak jacket can only do so much.
The physical forces at work are incredible.
In the fifth race, Montanez’s mount, Piquant, was inside Be Bullish as they got into the grandstand turn. Piquant’s right hind hoof clipped the left front of Be Bullish, jolting Piquant’s head down and to the right as he stumbled badly.
Montanez catapulted over his horse’s head and rolled under him as Piquant gathered his feet to take off by himself along the outside rail.
In a bang-bang piece of footwork, first Frazil and jockey Cornelio Velasquez, then Broad Rule and Ortiz danced over Montanez and may have clipped him a bit.
“The jock fell and it was just too quick,” Ortiz said. “I tried [to steer clear], but it was too quick.”
These spills and injuries don’t discriminate between reckless riders and those who are more professional, because the unpredictability of the animals they ride can cancel all that out.
Ortiz said Pizarro, one of the most consistent riders in the Camarero standings, was known for his ability to balance aggressive riding with safe riding.
He was also just a good guy.
“When I was in the school [Escuela Vocacional Hipica], sometimes he’d give me a ride when I didn’t have a car,” Ortiz said. “He’s that kind of person who is unbelievable. Great person, personality, everything.
“He rode straight all the time, one of those type of jocks you don’t see too much. Disciplined, perfect … he had everything.”