A tear slowly made its way down Lilith Boucher’s left cheek as she stood inside the shedrow at her barn on the grounds of the Springdale Race Course Tuesday morning while talking about her friend and former rider, Jorge Torres.
Minutes earlier, Boucher and her husband, Richard, received the grim news that the Cassatt resident and jockey had passed away earlier that day as the result of injuries sustained in a fall from Malibu Moon in the $25,000 Raymond G. Woolfe Memorial Steeplechase at the Nov. 13, 2010, Colonial Cup Races.
Torres, who turned 25 a month before his spill, was an apprentice steeplechase jockey who had paid his dues and climbed the riding ranks before getting the call in the saddle for a steeplechase event. His ride at Springdale that sunny afternoon was his third over fences.
After having received immediate medical treatment on the race course by attending physicians, Torres was taken via helicopter to Palmetto Health Richland with an assortment of head, neck and other injuries. He reportedly had bouts with pneumonia and continued to battle before succumbing to those maladies at the Columbia hospital.
As recently as mid-March, in the days leading up to the April 2 Carolina Cup Races, Rafael “Rae” Fernandez, Torres’ friend and owner of Malibu Moon, was encouraged by the news he received from the family that Torres was on the road to recovery. That path came to an end in the wee hours Tuesday.
Few outside the family took the news harder than did the Bouchers. Lilith said Torres was “like one of the family.”
Torres worked for the Bouchers for some two years as a groom and exercise rider. They also gave him his first mount in a point-to-point race in Virginia. Torres, however, was far more than an employee. He was a confidant and more importantly, Lilith said, a trusted and devoted friend.
“What better thing can you say about someone than you could trust him with your children?” she asked. “I just don’t think a lot of people knew that Jorge never let anybody down. I don’t mean just about showing up for work or that kind of stuff, but he always showed up as a person. He never disappointed you.”
Torres’ fatality was the first related to a steeplechase race accident in more than 30 years, according to the National Steeplechase Association (NSA), the governing body of the sport in the United States. James Stump died as a result of a fall in a Delaware Park steeplechase race on July 19, 1977.
“We are all saddened to learn of Jorge Torres’ death,” said NSA President Guy Torsilieri in a release. “By all accounts, he was well-liked and had a promising future as a steeplechase jockey.
“Sadly, this accident is a reminder of the dangers inherent in any professional sport. We take pride in our efforts to protect the well-being of our horses and riders, and to be at the forefront of safety initiatives. Always, the safety of our racing participants is our first priority."
A native of Mexico, Torres was making his third start over fences in Camden last November. Two weeks earlier, in the Aiken Fall Meet, he guided the Fernandez-owned and trained Primeru Peru to a third-place finish in a $15,000 maiden hurdle. One race later, he was aboard Malibu Moon in a $10,000 maiden claimer. The pair came home fourth in their final start before Camden.
Torres scored a win on the flat for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, aboard 8-year-old Prince Rahy, in the 1 ½-mile Kershaw Plate, which kicked off the 2010 Carolina Cup card. Torres went to work for Sheppard when the number of horses under the Bouchers’ care was reduced earlier that year.
Torres was usually given some of the harder-to-handle horses in Sheppard’s barn. And the winningest trainer in NSA annals was more than impressed with what he saw from Torres.
“He was the nicest guy and a beautiful rider,” Sheppard said Tuesday while watching his horses train at Springdale. “He probably wasn’t the most stylish rider, from a jockey’s standpoint, but he was a very good, natural horseman. He really had a way with horses … it was remarkable.
“He could ride all the most difficult horses and do it kindly. He worked with them and exuded his own confidence into the horse.”
It was Fernandez who took a chance on Torres, giving him his first start over fences after he was given approval to ride in NSA events by the organization.
“You could see that he was a gifted rider; he has very soft hands,” Fernandez said in an interview with the Chronicle-Independent March 23. “He got the worst horses that Sheppard had and treated them like babies. He did so well with them.”
Fernandez went on to say he was glad to have helped Torres’ dream of riding in a steeplechase race come through by putting him on the backs of his jumpers in Aiken and, then, in Camden.
In the Woolfe Memorial, Torres kept Malibu Moon at the tail end of the staring field of 14 3-year-olds. What seemed like a safe ride all went horribly wrong as the group reached the eighth fence on the second time around, heading down the backside.
Malibu Moon clipped the jump, unseating Torres, who hit the ground, presumably, head first. Since the fall came on the backside of the course, few fans witnessed it. And since Torres and his mount were not in the lead pack, the fall was not captured on film.
To this day, Carolina Cup Racing Association director and former NSA champion jockey Jeff Teter has never seen the spill. On Tuesday, he said it was a sad day for the equine community as well as for Torres’ family and friends.
“Obviously, it’s a very sad time,” Teter said. “You hate to see anybody get hurt, whether it be human or horse. Then, the ultimate of losing your life … it’s very sad. We lost someone who was part of the game and the community, that’s for sure.
“It’s very, very, very disappointing and very, very sad. Everybody is going to feel it, I’m sure.”
In the first days after Torres’ accident, Richard Boucher was hoping against hope that his friend would make a recovery, complete or not, from the fall. His hopes were buoyed in the early stages of Torres’ treatment.
“It’s been a long process since November fifth (13th) or whenever it was,” he said. “I was always pretty hopeful through November, thinking there that he would get some changes for the better and get some movement … You’re always hoping for a miracle, but it seemed like the bare facts were that his brain just sustained too much damage.”
Throughout Torres’ stay, there were different accounts as to his condition. One of the problems was due to the language barrier faced by the jockey’s predominantly Spanish-speaking family.
For Sheppard, seeing someone who was hooked up to a breathing apparatus hit close to home as his late son was in a similar situation several years back. When Sheppard went to visit Torres and check on his condition, he said he was apprised to the jockey’s progress by Torres’ teenage niece.
By last week, Torres’ condition had taken a turn for the worse. Richard Boucher said that when his wife went to visit Torres last Tuesday, the jockey was “clinging to life, basically.”
“Last week, we talked to Jorge’s cousin and she informed us that Jorge’s mother (who had come to Camden from her home in Mexico as soon as she could) had decided to take him off the feeding tube and see what sort of response from that they would get,” Richard Boucher said. “Jorge kept fighting the infections and pneumonia. There just seemed to be a lot of little problems going on with his body that were out of everybody’s control.
“I think his mother, whether it be the right thing or the wrong thing, it’s her son and she had to make the final say. It didn’t seem like he was going to improve from where he was. And, without the food, he was definitely going to struggle because he couldn’t feed himself.”
A week later, the sad news was relayed to the Bouchers from a member of the Torres family. Minutes later, word had started making its way through the barns and throughout the equine community.
While Sheppard said he feared the worst and hoped for the best, he somehow managed to crack a smile when recalling Torres and the time he spent at his barn in Camden. Just a few weeks ago, he and one of his riders, Jill Waterman, were thinking about Torres when one of the horses started acting up.
“It’s a very tragic thing. It is a big loss because not only was he a likeable guy, but he was an important part of our stable,” Sheppard said, before calling out to Waterman, “How many times did we say it this winter, Jill, ‘where is Jorge now that we need him?’ Jill used to make him ride all the ones that she wouldn’t ride.
“We’re really going to miss him. Unfortunately, in life one is exposed to accidents, and that’s what it was, I think.”
Several hundred feet away, in the Bouchers’ barn, Richard was coming in after taking a horse for a morning gallop. He said it was tough day to be working, but working with and tending to the horses was a job that still needed to be done.
A professional steeplechase and flat jockey himself, Boucher said his mind may not have totally been on the task at hand earlier this season at steeplechase meets in Aiken and even at Camden, the first two stops on the NSA schedule. Boucher admitted that in both instances, Torres’ condition was on his mind, not to mention his friend being in his thoughts and prayers.
“It was tougher for me to start riding at the beginning of the year, but now, I’m in the swing of it,” he said. “Going to Aiken and riding those first couple of races, I know that it (Torres’ situation) was in the back of my mind and I probably did not ride like I should have that first weekend and probably that next weekend here in Camden at our home base, so to speak.”
While Boucher’s voice trailed off, his wife battled her emotions and tried to give a glimpse of the kind of person Torres was. She immediately thought of one instance, in particular.
“Just the little things he did …,” she said. “One day at Colonial Downs, where we had 14 horses, he pulled all their manes. I said, ‘Jorge, I have to pay you for that.’ He said to me, ‘No, no. Richard’s letting me stay here with him this week.’
“In this day and age, you might think, well, I’m letting you stay with me for a week and you should do something for me. But nobody else ever thinks that they should so something for you.”
But it is Torres’ smile, his willingness to always lend a hand or be ready with a reassuring word which Lilith Boucher and Torres’ family and friends will miss now that he is gone.
“As a person, Jorge always showed up. We’re all going to miss that,” she said. “I don’t think people outside the Camden area know what a big part of all this that Jorge’s enthusiasm was.”
Helping the Torres family: A fund has been established to defray Torres' medical expenses. Donations to the fund can be sent to the Wachovia Bank branch in Camden. The address is: Jorge Torres Fund, Wachovia Bank, 519 E. DeKalb St., Camden, SC 29020.