THE TIES THAT BIND
Alvaro Pineda had cracked the door to the Racing Hall of Fame when he was killed in a starting-gate accident at Santa Anita on Jan. 18, 1975.
At the time of his death, 25 years ago, Pineda had won 2,731 races and was only 29 years old. Only 21 jockeys had won more races. Among active riders, Pineda ranked 11th. He was ahead of both Angel Cordero, who totaled 7,057 wins when he retired, and Laffit Pincay, who broke Bill Shoemaker’s record with win No. 8,834 five weeks ago.
Three years after Pineda’s death, there was another riding fatality, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Incredibly, the jockey’s name was Robert Pineda--Alvaro’s younger brother. Like Alvaro, Robert Pineda was also a skilled rider with hundreds of wins ahead of him. “What was this boy doing in Maryland?” a trainer at Pimlico asked the day after the tragic four-horse spill. The answer was that years before, Robert Pineda had left the California tracks to escape the lengthy shadow of his more accomplished brother.
Catalina Pineda, 76, and her husband Sixto, 77, have reared eight children. Two of their seven sons died on the racetrack, but their heartbreak didn’t start nor did it end with those deaths. Several years before Alvaro Pineda lost his life at Santa Anita, his brother Tito, 17, was caught in a house fire near Del Mar and didn’t survive. Then in 1998, Jorge Pineda, a former jockey and a brother to the others, was killed during a robbery at his home in Louisville, Ky. He was 49.
The family’s seven sons have been cruelly reduced to three because of accidents and violence. David Pineda, one of the surviving sons, looks at his parents with an enormous pride. This Pineda, 38, also once envisioned a riding career, over the many natural objections of his mother, but his weight, not his mother’s fears, was a deterrent, and he still works as close to the game as he can. He’s a valet in the Santa Anita jockeys’ room, tending to the needs of several riders there.
“My mother and father have been through a lot,” David Pineda said. “One son, two sons, three sons, then four sons. One, two, three, four, they’ve lost them all. My mother suffers from diabetes, and my father has asthma real bad, but they keep on going. They have survived this whole thing. I idolize them for what they have been through.”
David Pineda was working the jockeys’ room at Fairplex Park in Pomona that September day last year when jockey J.C. Gonzalez was killed in a spill. Gonzalez, 23, was the first thoroughbred racing fatality in Southern California since Alvaro Pineda. Gonzalez was younger than either of the Pineda brothers when they died on the track. When Gonzalez came from Mexico, where the star-crossed Pinedas started, in 1996, he was described as the best riding prospect from south of the border since Alvaro Pineda. Sixto Pineda, who rode quarter horses and in unsanctioned match races in Mexico, helped Gonzalez get started in California.
A reporter asked David Pineda for an interview about a week after Gonzalez died and was politely told that it was too soon to talk. Last week, he invited the reporter to his parents’ home in Arcadia. He wanted to show off what indefatigable people they are.
In effect, Catalina Pineda has wallpapered her living room with a shrine to her sons. The whole room is covered with winner’s-circle photos, plaques, awards and portraits. You cannot turn an eye without being reminded of Alvaro, winning a stakes race at Santa Anita; or Jorge, smiling down from a horse at Golden Gate Fields; or Roberto, posing with a horse and its winning owners at Belmont Park.
Interspersed are many religious pictures and statues.
“I pray to God all the time,” Catalina Pineda says, in answer to the question about how she has endured recurring tragedy. “It is not normal what has happened to my family. But I pray to God to get through each day.”
After Alvaro was killed, Robert Pineda’s mother asked him to quit riding. He also had suffered a serious neck injury in a spill in New York, and a doctor told him that to continue riding was at his own peril.
“This is my profession,” David Pineda heard his brother say to their mother. “I’ve got to do it.”
David Pineda was 13 in 1975. On Jan. 18, he and his father, as they liked to do on Saturdays, had gone to the track. This could have been a special day. Alvaro Pineda was down to ride six horses on the card, not an unusual amount of business for the hard-working rider, and one of them was the champion mare Susan’s Girl in the $40,000 feature race.
Catalina Pineda’s cooking was so good that she ran her own restaurant for 17 years in Arcadia. Her tamales were legendary. Trainers Bobby Frankel and Gary Jones would buy them by the dozen and delight their stablehands. David Pineda peddled them on the backstretch, and this day, having sold all his tamales, he and his father went over to the grandstand for the races.
David Pineda was in the tunnel, the one that the horses use to go from the paddock to the racing strip, as the field came out for the fourth race. His brother’s mount was Austin Mittler, a big colt who was winless in three starts. Other jockeys weren’t queuing up to ride Austin Mittler. From the head to the hind quarters, the just-turned 3-year-old was big in all departments. It was a squeeze just to get him into the starting gate, and once wedged in there, he had the look of a Great Dane in a phone booth.
Trainer Buster Millerick thought he had picked the right spot, a modest six-furlong maiden race worth $7,500. Nine other horses were entered, with Austin Mittler having drawn the No. 8 post position. In The Times, Bion Abbott made the colt the 4-1 second choice with the comment, “May stick it out today.”
The lineup of horses was basically unknowns--half of the field had never run before--but the jockeys in the race were an all-star aggregation. Three of them--Bill Shoemaker, Braulio Baeza and Jacinto Vasquez--are Hall of Famers. Three others--Fernando Toro, Jorge Tejeira and Don Pierce--are members of the 3,000-win club.
Toro’s mount, the favored Majestic Wonder, drew No. 9, the post outside Austin Mittler. On the inside of Pineda’s horse, in No. 7, was Galloping Pine, a 19-1 shot, with Vasquez aboard.
The assistant starters loaded Austin Mittler into his stall last, as they sometimes do with edgy gate horses.
“It’s still very painful for me to think about this,” Toro said when asked recently to review the race. Next to each other in the gate, Toro and Pineda were also mates in the jockeys’ room.
“I was mostly paying attention to my horse,” Toro said. “I took a peek to my left and saw [Austin Mittler] going up to the front of the stall. Everything seemed to happen in a split second. Alvaro’s horse seemed to walk in very calm. But then he went up in the air. Alvaro’s head, with his helmet, hit the top of the gate hard. It sounded like a gunshot. It was an ugly sound.”
Other witnesses say that Pineda got off his fractious horse, and stood on the tiny ledge inside the stall. They say that when Austin Mittler flung his oversized head, it clipped Pineda in the back of the skull.
David Pineda, remembering what he was told as a 13-year-old boy, mentioned jockey Paco Mena’s horse, whose name was Black Turk, in the No. 4 stall.
“Paco’s horse was supposed to have acted up,” Pineda said, “and that got the other horse started.”
When Austin Mittler reared, the assistant starters rushed to the stall.
“We need help,” one of them yelled. The ambulance, witnesses said, was a great distance away. It may not have made any difference. From the distant grandstand, the crowd of 36,775 couldn’t tell what was happening, and neither could young David Pineda in the tunnel. All the fans knew, from track announcer Chic Anderson’s announcement, was that there was an unruly horse delaying the start.
“Alvaro’s head was down,” Toro said. “You knew it was bad news. He was bleeding from the mouth and the nose.”
The assistant starters got Pineda out of the stall and away from the confused horse. Some were crying.
“OK, OK,” one of them said as they laid the jockey on the ground. “Don’t move him.”
By now, the other horses were being removed from their stalls and the jockeys were dismounting.
“There was so much blood,” Toro said. “It was like somebody had turned on a hose.”
Pete Pedersen, now a steward at Santa Anita, was a patrol judge on a platform near the finish line.
“It seemed like it took the ambulance a terribly long time to get there,” Pedersen said. “Now the ambulance is right there, and follows the field all the way around the track. It was one of those changes that came about as the result of this.”
Pineda was well-known among horse racing officials for using his whip in the post parade and had been penalized many times by the stewards.
“His philosophy was that it kept horses on their toes, that it would wake them up,” Pedersen said. “But the [official] starters didn’t like it. They thought it just gave a horse an extra reason to act up. In this instance, though, it had nothing to do with what happened. A review showed that he hadn’t hit this horse.”
Austin Mittler was scratched and they ran the race.
“I don’t know how I made it around,” Toro said. “I was shaking so bad. I have no recollection of anything that happened in that race.”
Jorge Tejeira, dismounting from his horse near the finish line, saw David Pineda near the mouth of the tunnel.
“You and your father better get over to the hospital,” Tejeira said. “Alvaro’s hurt bad.”
Jockey Milo Valenzuela and others were at Arcadia Methodist to comfort the family, but Pineda was pronounced dead on arrival. Officially, it was announced that his skull had been crushed when it was forced against the metal bar that runs along the top of each stall.
“I can’t say enough about how much ability Alvaro had,” said Chick McClellan, the agent who booked Pineda’s mounts for 2 1/2 years in California. “He did everything well on a horse. He fit the prototype of a great jockey. He had the body, the stamina and the will. He loved to ride, and he was a great judge of pace. He was one of the very best.”
When Pineda died, he was in the midst of a comeback. He had climbed back to the top of his game, overcoming an admitted drinking problem that had hurt his business. The year before the accident, 1974, he won 224 races and his horses earned $2.1 million, which ranked him 11th on the national money list. He had regained the fierce work ethic that he brought with him from Mexico in the 1960s.
Fernando Toro talked about Pineda’s courage.
“He was very brave,” Toro said. “He was a nice kid who would ride any kind of horse. He was aggressive, but he knew what to do out there.”
At the headquarters of the Jockeys’ Guild in Lexington, Ky., John Giovanni, the guild’s national manager, keeps a sheaf of papers not far from his phone. It’s a list of the jockeys who have been killed in racing or training accidents since 1940. No. 141, the last fatality in Giovanni’s file, is J.C. Gonzalez. No. 99 on Giovanni’s list is Alvaro Pineda. No. 106 is Robert Pineda, who was 25 when he died.
A retired jockey, Giovanni was asked if starting gates have more protective padding than they did 25 years ago.
“The pads are better,” he said. “But gates are still gates, and they have to be heavy to do what they do, so there’s only so much you can add in the way of protection. The biggest advance has come in better helmets. We’ve got a new one now, which is required in Kentucky, that’s lighter than the old Caliente helmet and gives 10 times more protection. Some of the jockeys have been reluctant to use it, but once they see what it does, they’ll change.”
Donna Pineda, Alvaro’s widow, and her two young children brought action against Santa Anita and the helmet manufacturer, but the wrongful-death lawsuits were dismissed. In Maryland, Robert Pineda’s widow was paid almost $300,000 in a private settlement. Her suit charged that his horse was over-medicated with an anti-inflammatory drug.
When word reached the Santa Anita jockeys’ room that Alvaro Pineda had died, Laffit Pincay, who was close to Pineda, took off the rest of his mounts. Toro wanted to take off his rides, but his agent dissuaded him. Toro won the Santa Monica Handicap with Sister Fleet, who was a half-length better than Susan’s Girl, the Pineda horse that was ridden by Sandy Hawley.
Austin Mittler turned out to be the sort of horse that earns a lot of purse money without winning very often. In 1976, he won the Silky Sullivan Handicap at Golden Gate Fields.
Alvaro and Robert Pineda have grave sites in Glendale. Their deceased brothers are buried in Mexico.
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