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Torres making progress; fundraisers set for Cup

Posted: March 31, 2011 4:25 p.m.
Updated: April 1, 2011 5:00 a.m.

On a rainy Thursday morning, the sky never looked so beautiful from Rafael "Ray" Fernandez’s perspective.

Two days before Saturday’s 79th running of the Carolina Cup Steeplechase Races, the Thoroughbred owner-trainer was completing his morning chores outside a stable located on the grounds of the Springdale Race Course when he spotted a visitor walking toward him.

"Good morning," Fernandez said with an ear-to-ear grin. "We got great news on Jorge yesterday."

The Jorge to whom Fernandez was referring is Jorge Torres, a 26-year-old steeplechase jockey and Cassatt resident, who was critically injured with head, neck and bodily maladies, after having been thrown from his mount, Malibu Moon, in the Nov. 13 Raymond G. Woolfe Memorial Chase at last fall’s Colonial Cup. The jumper is owned and trained by Fernandez, a resident of Monroe, N.C.

Since that time, Torres has been treated at Palmetto Health Richland in Columbia. The apprentice jockey was kept in intensive care since the time of his fall. His breathing was being aided by a ventilator, at first, and was being fed through tubes.

After more than four months of uncertainty, however, Torres’ family and his closest friends finally heard the news they had been waiting to hear on Wednesday. Nobody was more excited about sharing the good news than was Fernandez, who is organizing a "5k Run for Jorge" at the Springdale Race Course on Sunday, April 10.

"I called Martha, Jorge’s cousin, yesterday," Fernandez said, "to let her know that we’re going to have a table set up in the infield (where donations made be made to the "Jorge Torres Assistance Fund") and she told me that they did a neurological test and, they brought in an expert, on Monday. They did tests on him with claps and they asked him to follow certain responses. And they predict that within six months, he should be at 90 percent."

After relaying that message, Fernandez took a deep breath and a sparkle came into his eyes.

"In a year from this (Carolina) Cup," he exclaimed, "he should be at 100 percent, if he continues his treatment and it goes the way it should go.

"It’s like a complete miracle. I always had faith that it would happen, even though you have your up and down times through this. That’s the way it stands and as of Monday, they will release him from the intensive care unit and move him back to a room on the seventh floor."

Fernandez, who gave Torres his first starts on a steeplechaser aboard Primero Peru and then on Malibu Moon in last October’s Aiken Fall Meet, has made countless trips to visit his friend in the hospital. When offering Torres the chance to ride his horses, Fernandez said he was happy to help make a dream come true for a young rider who had paid his dues and climbed the ladder in the jockey business.

Now, with things beginning to improve as to Torres’ recovery, Fernandez is asking that others follow suit.

"I suggest that everybody go to see him, visit him and talk to him," he said. "If you are a rider and you have problem horses, ask him questions as to how to fix them, just get his brain to work for stimulation because that’s what Jorge thought about 24/7. If you can stop by, you are more than welcome to visit him."

Torres first started learning to ride horses under the watchful eye of Camden-based trainer Kevin Conto, who breaks young horses. From there, Torres worked as an exercise rider for Kip Elser’s Kirkwood Stables in Camden before moving over to the steeplechase side of the sport.

Wanting to try and become a jump jockey, Torres took a job with Camden-based trainer Lilith and Richard Boucher’s barn. Richard, a veteran flat and steeplechase jockey, helped teach Torres about the sport. The husband and wife team also gave Torres his first starts over fences, taking him to point-to-point races in Virginia. Not long after, he won over fences in those non-sanctioned races.

Torres later found his way into the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, riding horses which included Eclipse Award-winning flat horses Forever Together and Informed Decision, among others, as he continued to hone his steeplechase skills. In the 2010 Carolina Cup, Torres kicked off the day’s card by winning The Kershaw flat race on the Sheppard-trained Prince Rahy.

Saturday, a little more than a year after that victory and at the site of his spill in the fall, there will be reminders of the battle which Torres continues to fight both in the infield as well as in the paddock area of the Springdale Race Course.

At last Saturday’s National Steeplechase Association season-opening meet in Aiken, acclaimed photographer Catherine French gathered the jockeys at the meet together for a group photo. The picture will be made into a poster and will be on sale for a donation with all money going toward the "Jorge Torres Assistance Fund" at Saturday’s Carolina Cup.

The photos will be signed by the jockeys, who will make themselves available at a "meet and greet" in a booth set up beside the paddock. Also at the booth, the Bouchers’ two young daughters will be selling cookies, which they made, with all proceeds being turned over to the fund. There will also be signups sheets and T-shirts ($25) for sale for the "A Run for Jorge 5k" run/walk.

Fernandez himself will be selling shirts and registering runners/walkers at a booth in the infield.

Fernandez hopes to have the jockeys’ "meet and greet" set up for either prior to or, following the races. He said all the riders are supporting their friend and his cause.

"They’re the face of our races," Fernandez said of the jockeys. "You don’t see us as trainers, owners and grooms, but you do get to see (the jockeys.) And we’d like to get them out in the forefront so that we can have a tighter, more loyal fan base and let people get to know them because these guys are, literally, putting their life out on the line to entertain people.

"They are all really nice people and you can ask them questions about riding and so forth. We’d like to do that for the rest of the year at all the places we go to and try and put a face on the NSA."

"A Run for Jorge 5k":

Runners and walkers will take to the course beginning at 2 p.m.

The 5k run and walk will be contested over the grounds of the Springdale Race Course. Pre-registration is $25 with participants being charged $30 if they register the day of the event. The winner of the race will receive an exclusive pass for two people to the 2011 running of the Marion DuPont Scott Colonial Cup Steeplechase to be run Saturday, Nov. 19.

Runners and/or walkers who would like to travel the course with their dog(s) may do so, but they must start at the back of the pack.

Registration materials will be on sale at booths located on the grounds of the Springdale Race Course on Saturday. Commemorative race T-shirts will also be on sale for $25. All money will go to the "Jorge Torres Assistance Fund."

For more information on the run, in addition to the booths on Saturday, please send an e-mail to: arunforjorge5k@aol.com.

In order to help Torres and his family with the bills associated with his hospital stay and recovery, family members of the injured jockey have set up the "Jorge Torres Assistance Fund," through Wachovia Bank. Anyone wishing to donate to the cause may bring and/or send in a donation to any bank branch.

The inaugural "A Run for Jorge" 5k runs and walk will be held on Sunday, April 10 over the Springdale Race Course in Camden.

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