On Feb. 2, 2019, jockey Pedro Terrero was riding a 3-year-old filly in a race at Golden Gate Fields when his mount clipped heels with another horse and Terrero was thrown from the saddle.
The filly, Dreaming About You, was unharmed, but Terrero suffered a massive head injury. He had to be resuscitated on the field and doctors put his odds of survival at less than 5%.
“I passed away,” Terrero said in an interview earlier this month. “My heart stopped working. I stopped breathing. I was bleeding from my ears and from my nose.”
Today, the 37-year-old native of Mexico has not only recovered but is riding again and — improbably after a brush with death and a more than two-year hiatus — he’s having the best year of his career.
“To now be performing at this level is miraculous,” said David Seftel, the track physician, calling it “the longest shot of his life.”
Prior to his injury, Terrero spent a decade holding his own in the middle of the jockey standings on the Northern California circuit, averaging 11% winners and 56 trips to the winner’s circle annually.
In July, a month after he resumed racing, he won the leading rider title at the Alameda County Fair meet in Pleasanton. In August, he won another title at the Santa Rosa meet at Golden Gate Fields. And in October, he won the $75,000 Pike Place Dancer Stakes aboard the 25-1 longshot Vaping Angel.
Terrero, 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds, is known around the racetrack for his fearlessness and his honesty. His quiet, humble nature stands out in a profession overflowing with bravado and swagger. “Maybe I am riding better,” he said. “If I am, maybe it’s because I love what I do and I almost lost it. I really love it. This is my second chance. I’m lucky to be alive and I’m lucky to be riding horses again.”
Manny Badilla, a trainer who’s worked alongside Terrero throughout his career, attributed his comeback to his work ethic. “Terrero is here six days a week and will jog, gallop, work a horse. … He’s doing the Russell Baze act of yesteryear, and he deserves every bit of the success he is having right now. He has earned every bit of it.”
Never afraid to ride horses
When he was a boy, Terrero would mount his father’s horse and race neighbor kids for bragging rights in the fields near his home in a small town called Los Desmontes in Guanajuato. “I’ve been riding animals my whole life — donkeys, mules, horses,” he said.
He started his jockeying career at Golden Gate Fields in 2009, and he still can’t believe he gets to “ride horses as my business.”
While most leading riders rely on consistent support from a big successful barn, Terrero has made a living working for a variety of barns. He’ll ride longshots for family operations with just a horse or two, and he’ll ride for the powerhouse barns at the top of the standings.
“Let’s put it this way,” his agent Jay Robinson said, “there ain’t nobody that won’t ride him.”
Many athletes injured on the job struggle to overcome the fact that their workplaces have become the scene of their trauma. But Terrero said this hasn’t bothered him. “I don’t feel afraid,” he said. “I never feel afraid to ride horses. Never, never, never.”
Lucky to be here
While he has no memory of the incident that nearly killed him, Terrero remembers being awake at the hospital that evening when things took a turn for the worse. Terrero was rushed out of the room and into emergency surgery in which doctors cut into his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain caused by a subdural hematoma. A portion of his skull cap was removed and temporarily implanted in his stomach.
When he woke up from the surgery, he had a tube down his throat and couldn’t speak, but his wife, Miriam, was at his bedside. “She got my hand, she told me, ‘Push my hand if you hear me,’” he said. She asked if he was all right, “and I say ‘yes’ with my hand, and she cried. She was next to me the whole time.”
Terrero was told he could leave the hospital when he could walk on his own, so that is what he focused on. Within days, he had regained enough strength and balance to walk from the bed to the bathroom. It was there, standing in front of the mirror, getting his first glimpse of his scarred head, that the magnitude of his situation hit him. A father of three boys — Pedro, Pablo and Emmanuel — his thoughts turned to his job. He wondered if he’d be able to work again.
When he raised these fears with his doctor, she responded: “Why are you worrying about your job? You need to worry about your life. You are lucky to be here. You got lucky to be alive.”
Terrero stopped asking about racing, but he didn’t stop thinking about the horses. When one doctor told him he’d never again ride for a living, Terrero was heartbroken. “I said, ‘I know there are a lot of jobs, but I love my job.’”
Dr. Seftel, the track physician, said Terrero was “extremely diligent, hard working and dedicated in his rehabilitation,” overcoming significant balance, motor and cognitive deficiencies.
Eventually, Terrero’s doctors told him, “If you feel good and you feel you can do it, you can ride again. You have your helmet.”
In March, Terrero started getting on horses in the mornings at Golden Gate Fields. He began by jogging, but before long he was galloping — just a few minutes a day at first as he built up his strength. Eventually, he took on stronger horses in longer, faster exercises.
“I feel so happy when I ride that first horse,” he said. “It’s a lot of emotion. I feel so comfortable. I feel fit. I don’t feel weak. I don’t feel weird. I’m still thinking about the accident but I’m not afraid. I’m more happy, more comfortable.”
The decision to start racing again wasn’t easy for Terrero and his family. They worried about his safety and if he was ready. “I said, ‘I love you guys, I love my family, but this is in my blood. If I feel like I can do it, I’m not going to stop.’”
When he walks toward the track on race days now, there is a calm, confident comfort visible in his gait. “It’s in my heart. It’s in my mind, and I’ll never forget it,” he said of his injury. “But this is my second chance. This is my life. This is me.”
Originally from the East Coast, Aggie J. Ordonez is an independent horse trainer based at Golden Gate Fields. She has trained horses in the Bay Area for 25 years and is the daughter of elite jockey Pete Anderson.