Welcome back Tino
Read the incredible story of Constantino Hernandez below. Seriously injured in a horse race 19 years ago, he is riding as a jockey again.
If you don't follow horse racing, you probably don't know that being a jockey or harness driver is a risky job. Billy Haughton, one of harness racing legends, was killed as a result of a racing accident in 1986. Ted Taylor who drove many horses my father owned, and who Dad did payroll work for in the 1980's, spent almost a year recovering from injuries suffered in a racetrack wreck. Horses are big animals, that are going their fastest, when an accident occurs, its a scary situation.
You amaze me Tino in your ability to come back again. God bless you.
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`Tino? Is that you? Is that really you?''
Ex-jockey Roger Blanco blinked twice. Were his eyes playing tricks on him? Could the person standing in front of him really be Constantino Hernandez, a fellow rider who had escaped with his life but sustained serious head injuries in a 1988 fall at Calder Race Course?
It had to be Hernandez, or a ghost wearing a riding helmet, holding a whip and speaking with a soft, French accent. There was more: Hernandez, 50 and nearly two decades removed from horse racing, told everyone he was attempting a comeback.
''Unbelievable, just incredible,'' said Dan Hurtak, a longtime trainer.
This was the Tino Hernandez who couldn't remember his name, lace his shoes or recognize friends for weeks after the accident. This was the Tino Hernandez who showed up unannounced at Calder months after his fall, thinking there were horses for him to race, only to be told they were fantasies of a fractured mind. This was the Tino Hernandez who had spent the last dozen years working menial jobs at restaurants.
''It was weird when I saw him,'' Blanco recalled of their encounter about six months ago, near the scene of the accident in Calder's stable area. ``It took me back 19 years.''
Blanco remembers the accident as if it happened yesterday. Hernandez recalls nothing of it. For that matter, he says, he doesn't remember a single detail of his life over a two-year span, from six months before the spill to a year and a half afterward.
''My brain was completely knocked out,'' Hernandez said.
BEFORE THE ACCIDENT
Hernandez has no trouble reeling off the basics of his childhood and teenage years: Born in Spain. Moved to France as an infant. Left for jockey school at 14 despite having never set eyes on a horse. Started riding the French tracks at 17. Got discovered by the racing Fustok family and brought to the United States in 1979 as an emerging apprentice. Was trained in American racing technique.
Rode five winners on a December 1981 afternoon at New York's Aqueduct as an apprentice, something not even ''The Kid,'' Steve Cauthen -- famous and fresh off his Triple Crown triumph aboard Affirmed three years earlier -- had managed to accomplish as a ''bug,'' the term for inexperienced riders because of the insect-like asterisk next to their names on track programs.
The racing papers gushed: ``Tino Hernandez suddenly has a grip on the toughest game in the world.''
Never mind that Star Gallant, the talented colt Hernandez had been riding to victories for the Fustoks, was turned over to seasoned Bill Shoemaker right before the 1982 Kentucky Derby. It was part of the business, the price of being a rookie. Hernandez knew his time would come.
It did, in part. While Hernandez would never again get close to the Derby and drifted away from the New York racing spotlight to compete on the less-prestigious circuit extending between Florida and New Jersey, he was considered a successful rider.
Trainers valued him because he was fluent in four languages: French, Spanish, English and ''horse.'' Though his hands are like those belonging to most riders -- bent, gnarled and sandpapery from years of tightly squeezing leather reins -- Hernandez had what are known in racing as ''soft hands'' -- a knack for calming a horse to preserve its strongest kick for the homestretch.
THE SIXTH RACE
He won 581 races and was a top-five rider at Calder when, on his 31st birthday -- April 23, 1988 -- his life careened head-first to the ground, shattering it into pieces.
Hernandez won the first race on the Calder card aboard a Hurtak-trained filly named Vision Lady, then whiled away the next four races inside the jockeys' room, where riders without mounts typically nap, shoot pool or play cards to kill time.
For the sixth race, Hernandez hopped aboard Flying Rice. It was a grass race, his forte. When the starting gates sprang apart, Hernandez inched the horse to a short lead heading down the stretch for the first time before angling him into the first turn.
Then calamity. With no warning or explanation, his horse's legs simply gave out.
Maybe a horseshoe broke free, causing the animal to trip and lose its balance. Perhaps it stepped on an uneven spot in the ground. Whatever the reason, Flying Rice, though uninjured, fell quickly. Replays show Hernandez suspended briefly in mid-air -- helpless -- before landing with a thud next to the horse's neck.
He might have landed on his head. He might have been kicked in the head by the charging horses in his wake as the jockeys tried frantically to make evasive maneuvers. The replays aren't clear. One way or another, Hernandez suffered injuries so extensive that one of the attending physicians at the time said ``it looked like he fought Mike Tyson and Tyson was holding him up the last 2:45.''
''Basically, he tore apart his brain,'' Dr. Stephen Kotzen said in a 1989 newspaper article about Hernandez.
The jockey stopped breathing. The trailing ambulance stopped to drop off a medic, who began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Blanco, who watched the spill unfold on a TV monitor in the jockeys' room, rushed to the track. The next thing Blanco knew, he was inside the ambulance as it took Hernandez from the North Dade track to the hospital.
''He was totally out,'' Blanco said. ``Then he started having convulsions. One of the guys in the ambulance asked if I could help, so I sat on the kid's chest, and every time he jumped, I hit the roof of the ambulance with my head. Nobody thought he was going to make it, including me.''
As the ambulance raced to the hospital, hopping curbs and hugging corners while tilted on two wheels, Blanco said the thought crossed his mind that he should stop riding, that it was too dangerous.
'I said to myself, `This is a sign that I should quit,' '' he said. ``I wished I had.''
Two months later to the day, on June 23, 1988, Blanco went down on a horse at New Jersey's Monmouth Park. The accident left him a paraplegic.
`A LOT OF PRAYING'
That April day, though, Blanco feared the worst for his friend, who was bleeding from the nose, mouth and ears. He waited inside the emergency room with Michelle Hanley (now Michelle Lovell), Hernandez's girlfriend.
''The doctor came out and he just told everybody to do a lot of praying because he didn't think he was going to make it,'' Blanco said.
As Hernandez slowly regained consciousness, he babbled incoherently in French.
But, somehow, Hernandez survived.
''They said I died a couple of times,'' Hernandez said.
He had lesions on both temples and a cerebral hemorrhage. He was diagnosed with visual agnosia, a condition in which the patient is unable to recognize everyday items.
Lovell said Hernandez could not function independently and could barely speak.
''He was like a child for a long time, like an infant,'' she said. ``He knew nothing.''
About 15 months after the spill, he returned to Calder, and trainers could tell he wasn't right.
''He wasn't all there,'' Hurtak said.
Said trainer Phil Gleaves, who often employed Hernandez in the late-1980s: ``He got on a horse for me at Gulfstream one day, but I could tell he wasn't the same rider. He wasn't the same human being. He just didn't have it.''
Ultimately, doctors refused Hernandez permission to ride again, and the jockey disappeared. For 19 years. He sued Calder, blaming the condition of the track. That case was settled out of court.
Hernandez traveled to France to see his father. Together, the two visited Lourdes and sought its healing powers.
''I was depressed because I could not do something I loved so much,'' he said.
He met his current wife, Alina. He never returned to Calder, not even to watch the races, even though he lived within a mile.
But the dream in him never died.
''Little by little, my brain just started to wake up,'' he said. ``Little by little, I learned to be myself and live a normal life.''
YEARNING TO RETURN
A few years ago he started riding horses on a private farm in western Broward County for trainer Adrienne Moore. Before long, the urge to return to racing became too great. He asked his wife, and she said no: ``You have your wife, you have your son.''
Alina Hernandez knew nothing of horse racing, had never seen one or gone to the track. She did knew her husband's story and feared for his safety. Eventually, though, she would give in.
Hernandez started showing up at the barns in the mornings again, working his way back into riding shape. Calder demanded that Hernandez prove his fitness before it would allow him to ride.
The track required him to provide a doctor's release and test his riding skills before stewards to show that he could still handle a 1,200-pound thoroughbred.
On May 28 of this year, Hernandez rode his first race in more than 19 years. He lost.
On Aug. 4, on his 32nd mount since his return, he won aboard Trippin Lightly. He pumped his fist as he crossed the finish line and jockeys doused him with a bucket of water, a tradition usually reserved for riders when they win their first race. He has gone winless since. That he's riding at all is ''a miracle,'' Hurtak says.
For Hernandez, it is as if he stepped out of a time warp. Inside the jockey's room, other riders ogle the white dickie he wears around his neck and underneath his silks. Once mandatory, jockeys stopped wearing those decades ago. Hernandez still uses the two saddles he raced with back in his heyday, including the one strapped on Flying Rice that day in 1988.
''I love the horses,'' he said. ``You can't keep me away from them.''