By Taryn Hartman
March 01, 2011
The burgundy Chevy Suburban sped around the dirt track at Aqueduct Racetrack all day on Feb. 13, trailing the ambulance that chased the pack of thoroughbreds as they circled the mile-long oval in each of the day’s nine races.
The SUV’s tires made a neat, near-perfect circle in the dirt each time it returned to the finish line between races, tracing the same donut-shaped pattern as it spun its grill to face the track and await the next start. Dr. Anthony Verderosa, the track’s chief examining veterinarian, rode inside. In the middle of the afternoon’s last race, the truck finally stopped.
Race favorite Honor Ernesto had just taken the lead from Footmark as the nine-horse field of New York-bred 3-year-old maidens—horses without a career win—entered the track’s far turn. In the middle of the turn, Tommy Karakorum was quickly gaining on the outside when Honor Ernesto’s front two legs buckled beneath him, and the gelding fell to the ground, apprentice jockey Charlie Amaro vaulting over his head and crashing to the dirt below. Amaro’s body rolled in the opposite direction of his mount, and he managed to dodge the eight horses following closely behind them. Honor Ernesto wasn’t as lucky.
In a flurry of hooves and dirt, the gelding struggled several times to scramble back to his feet, but he couldn’t escape the trailing horses, which ran over him three times. The frenzied three seconds ended with four riders on the ground and just three of their mounts—Soft Parade, Trinity Warrior and Rightuplynn’salley—making it to the finish line.
Honor Ernesto suffered a fractured left knee and fractures to both front sesamoid bones, which are behind a horse’s fetlock joint above its ankle. Verderosa euthanized the gelding on the track.
“They might be 1,000-pound animals, but they’re very fragile. Their feet are like toothpicks,” said jockey Jacqueline Davis, whose horse Aegean Storm hurdled the fallen Honor Ernesto and went on to finish a close second to winner Tommy Karakorum in the six-furlong race.
“Their feet are as thick as…they’re not much bigger than my bicep,” the 4-foot-10-inch, 103-pound Davis added after the race.
That Sunday had been a clear, mild day, and the track was fast. Immediately following the race, Davis said it was “real cuppy and dry,” and that the cause of the spill that unfolded in front of her “could’ve been anything. I don’t know for sure because it just happened, so I haven’t heard anything, but it’s scary.”
In the days after the spill, however, the people close to Honor Ernesto had a hard time piecing together exactly what happened in the middle of the turn for home. “I don’t know if there was a hole in the track, I don’t know what happened. It all happened so fast,” said Eduardo Jones, Honor Ernesto’s trainer, on Feb. 16 after returning to the track to pick up the horse’s bridle and equipment.
“I thought he was going to win the race,” Jones said in a phone interview. “He was very sharp. He was the best-looking horse in the race.”
Honor Ernesto entered his final race with $5,544 in lifetime earnings. He had started four races in his career, all at Aqueduct, with no wins, one second, and two third-place finishes. The morning line odds had him at 3-1, the favorite for the $19,000 purse.
Amaro was a race-day substitution for apprentice Tyler Kaplan, 17, who missed his four scheduled races on Feb. 13 after he suffered a concussion when a horse rolled over him and kicked him during a workout the previous morning. Kaplan had ridden Honor Ernesto in races on Jan. 6 and Jan. 16, and he said in a phone interview that he saw a sharp difference in the horse’s behavior between the two rides.
“He felt great, he warmed up nice,” Kaplan said of the Jan. 6 race, where the pair finished third. Kaplan said the only problem that day was getting Honor Ernesto to go into the gate. In his second race on the horse, “He was worse going in the gate,” Kaplan said. “When we went out of the gate, he wasn’t as keen or adamant to go to the front” as he’d been ten days earlier.
“He didn’t warm up like he did before, he was just kinda sluggish, not as energetic,” Kaplan added. “I don’t know if something had been building up since then.”
Kaplan said he last spoke with Jones the afternoon of Feb. 12, before he withdrew from the next day’s races and when Honor Ernesto was already the favorite. “I thought for sure we would be able to win, and I think it’s a shame that he broke his legs and went down like that,” Kaplan said. “He was quick, and he gave you everything he had. I think that might be what caused him to break down.”
Jones said Honor Ernesto hadn’t shown any signs of problems with his front legs: “There’s no way, if I knew he was in jeopardy, I would’ve run this horse. I loved this horse.”
Honor Ernesto was the offspring of sire Here’s Zealous—which also sired Davis’s horse, Aegean Storm—and dam In Honor of Kim. Both parents were great-grandchildren of racing legend Secretariat and also came from the Native Dancer bloodline that permeates thoroughbred racing; a 2008 Wall Street Journal story reported that some breeders estimate that 75 percent of all thoroughbreds in the United States share the bloodline. All 20 horses in that year’s Kentucky Derby were descendants of Native Dancer, one of the sport’s great sires who won the Preakness and Belmont, two-thirds of racing’s Triple Crown, in 1953. The “Gray Ghost,” as he was known, Native Dancer had to retire a year later with foot and lower leg injuries. Could there be a connection nearly 50 years later, with Honor Ernesto? There likely is no answer.
Honor Ernesto’s fatal breakdown was Aqueduct’s second of 2011. Track spokeswoman Ashley Herriman declined to provide the track’s annual averages for fatal breakdowns. But in June 2009, the New York Times reported that 20 horses suffered fatal breakdowns in workouts or races at Aqueduct in the first five months of that year.
Amaro and fellow apprentice Brian Pedroza, who had been atop Rightuplynn’salley, were taken by ambulance from the track to Jamaica Hospital. The track announced Feb. 14 that X-rays showed neither had suffered serious injuries.
Jockeys Nazario Alvarado, who had been riding Soft Parade, and Abel Lezcano, on Trinity Warrior, returned to the paddock in a pickup truck. Alvarado was rotating his right shoulder back and forth on his way into the jockeys’ locker room, but neither was seriously injured.
Amaro was scheduled for two races at Aqueduct on Feb. 16, the track’s first day open after its scheduled dark days of Monday and Tuesday, but didn’t ride in either; one of the horses was a scratch and the other he elected not to ride, according to Herriman.
“After something like that, even if there’s nothing broken, it takes a lot out of your body” to hit the ground after falling from a mount, Herriman said. She said it was “likely that he just felt banged up.”
Lezcano was riding Feb. 16 and scheduled for five races. Alvarado was not scheduled to ride. Herriman said she wasn’t sure if Alvarado’s absence had anything to do with the previous Sunday’s spill.
Pedroza announced through his agent Steve Rushing earlier in that week that he planned to take two weeks off from riding, although Herriman said in an e-mail message that all four jockeys were scheduled to ride on Feb. 19, which would have been the firsttime the four men involved in the spill rode together. Only Pedroza
and Lezcano ended up riding; the day’s final seven races were cancelled due to high winds at the track.
Davis said spills are an inherent risk in a jockey’s job. “We gotta put all that type of thing on the back burner, on the back of our mind, because with our job, it’s not a matter of if we’re gonna go down, it’s when,” she said after the race. “You just don’t think about that. You know you’re gonna break a bone in this business. It’s just, knock on wood, I haven’t done it yet.”