PLEASANTON -- Flags waved at half-staff at the Alameda County Fair, as horse jockeys solemnly prepared Friday to pay tribute to one of their own, fallen and killed in an accident during the previous day's race.
Jorge Herrera, 33, one of a scant 140 or so professional jockeys in the state, was known as a dedicated journeyman jockey who kept largely to himself but was considered gentle and sincere by his colleagues.
In the eighth and last race of the day Thursday, Herrera was making his second run of the afternoon when he found himself stuck in a cluster of other riders. He tried to pull out through a hole between the horses, but the gap closed too quickly -- his horse clipped the back legs of the horse in front of it and tumbled down, tossing Herrera to the ground headfirst at somewhere between 35 and 40 miles per hour, professional observers said.
No animals were hurt, but Herrera was knocked unconscious and never woke up. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital in Castro Valley.
Few of the 6,000 people in attendance seemed to notice anything was wrong, fair spokesman Dennis Miller said.
"He fell at the farthest possible part of the track from the grandstands. I don't think anyone could even see it," Miller said Friday. "But there's going to be a pall among all the jockeys and everyone else at the track today."
A moment of silence honored Herrera before the day's racing began, and other tributes to him were in the works,
A sports writer for much of his life, Miller said he's "never seen such a genuine, close-knit people as the horse racing industry. Everyone feels like they're family members. So this hurts a lot today."
Herrera died doing what he loved, said Darrell Haire, the western regional manager of the Jockeys Guild. Haire met the young jockey four or five years ago.
"I think he was trying to get lucky, like a lot of these riders, hoping for a good horse to ride," Haire said.
In more than 1,000 races he'd run since 2004, Herrera had won 55 times. His last win was in 2009, according to the professional jockey website www.equibase.com. In his nine years as a pro, he earned a total of almost $680,000, though in recent years his annual earnings had dwindled. He posted his last victory at the Fresno Race Track in October, and his race earnings were just $4,590 so far this year, the site said.
"So much can happen," Haire said. "You're always trying to be able to run. Jockeys like Jorge, they get up six or seven days a week at 5 o'clock to try to get the opportunity to ride on the best horse you can, warming up the horse. Then you come back in the afternoon for the race. You got to cowboy up all the time."
Local officials haven't tracked down any of Herrera's family members, and he's not believed to have had a wife or children. Haire said he believed Herrera, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, lived with an uncle in Los Angeles County.
"This kid was trying to get rolling, like they all are," Haire said. "He was real quiet, very polite, mostly kept to himself. ... He had a sincere way about him."
Herrera's death came on the 37th anniversary of the last fatality at the Alameda County Fairgrounds. Juan Gonzalez died when he fell on July 5, 1975. The Juan Gonzalez Memorial Stakes, an annual $50,000 race for 2-year-old fillies at the fair, is scheduled for Saturday.
The danger of riding such massive, powerful animals at such intense speeds is always present, Haire said.
"It's there every day," he said, "but you don't think about it. Until a day like this comes. And then you have to."
Contact Sean Maher at 925-943-8013. Follow him on Twitter.com/OneSeanMaher. Rick Hurd contributed to this story.