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The Ties That Bind

25 Years After Jockey Alvaro Pineda Died at Santa Anita, His Family Stays Close to Horse Racing

January 17, 2000|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alvaro Pineda had cracked the door to the Racing Hall of Fame when he was killed in a starting-gate accident at Santa Anita on Jan. 18, 1975.

At the time of his death, 25 years ago, Pineda had won 2,731 races and was only 29 years old. Only 21 jockeys had won more races. Among active riders, Pineda ranked 11th. He was ahead of both Angel Cordero, who totaled 7,057 wins when he retired, and Laffit Pincay, who broke Bill Shoemaker's record with win No. 8,834 five weeks ago.

Three years after Pineda's death, there was another riding fatality, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Incredibly, the jockey's name was Robert Pineda--Alvaro's younger brother. Like Alvaro, Robert Pineda was also a skilled rider with hundreds of wins ahead of him. "What was this boy doing in Maryland?" a trainer at Pimlico asked the day after the tragic four-horse spill. The answer was that years before, Robert Pineda had left the California tracks to escape the lengthy shadow of his more accomplished brother.

Catalina Pineda, 76, and her husband Sixto, 77, have reared eight children. Two of their seven sons died on the racetrack, but their heartbreak didn't start nor did it end with those deaths. Several years before Alvaro Pineda lost his life at Santa Anita, his brother Tito, 17, was caught in a house fire near Del Mar and didn't survive. Then in 1998, Jorge Pineda, a former jockey and a brother to the others, was killed during a robbery at his home in Louisville, Ky. He was 49.

The family's seven sons have been cruelly reduced to three because of accidents and violence. David Pineda, one of the surviving sons, looks at his parents with an enormous pride. This Pineda, 38, also once envisioned a riding career, over the many natural objections of his mother, but his weight, not his mother's fears, was a deterrent, and he still works as close to the game as he can. He's a valet in the Santa Anita jockeys' room, tending to the needs of several riders there.

"My mother and father have been through a lot," David Pineda said. "One son, two sons, three sons, then four sons. One, two, three, four, they've lost them all. My mother suffers from diabetes, and my father has asthma real bad, but they keep on going. They have survived this whole thing. I idolize them for what they have been through."

David Pineda was working the jockeys' room at Fairplex Park in Pomona that September day last year when jockey J.C. Gonzalez was killed in a spill. Gonzalez, 23, was the first thoroughbred racing fatality in Southern California since Alvaro Pineda. Gonzalez was younger than either of the Pineda brothers when they died on the track. When Gonzalez came from Mexico, where the star-crossed Pinedas started, in 1996, he was described as the best riding prospect from south of the border since Alvaro Pineda. Sixto Pineda, who rode quarter horses and in unsanctioned match races in Mexico, helped Gonzalez get started in California.

A reporter asked David Pineda for an interview about a week after Gonzalez died and was politely told that it was too soon to talk. Last week, he invited the reporter to his parents' home in Arcadia. He wanted to show off what indefatigable people they are.

In effect, Catalina Pineda has wallpapered her living room with a shrine to her sons. The whole room is covered with winner's-circle photos, plaques, awards and portraits. You cannot turn an eye without being reminded of Alvaro, winning a stakes race at Santa Anita; or Jorge, smiling down from a horse at Golden Gate Fields; or Roberto, posing with a horse and its winning owners at Belmont Park.

Interspersed are many religious pictures and statues.

"I pray to God all the time," Catalina Pineda says, in answer to the question about how she has endured recurring tragedy. "It is not normal what has happened to my family. But I pray to God to get through each day."

After Alvaro was killed, Robert Pineda's mother asked him to quit riding. He also had suffered a serious neck injury in a spill in New York, and a doctor told him that to continue riding was at his own peril.

"This is my profession," David Pineda heard his brother say to their mother. "I've got to do it."

David Pineda was 13 in 1975. On Jan. 18, he and his father, as they liked to do on Saturdays, had gone to the track. This could have been a special day. Alvaro Pineda was down to ride six horses on the card, not an unusual amount of business for the hard-working rider, and one of them was the champion mare Susan's Girl in the $40,000 feature race.

Catalina Pineda's cooking was so good that she ran her own restaurant for 17 years in Arcadia. Her tamales were legendary. Trainers Bobby Frankel and Gary Jones would buy them by the dozen and delight their stablehands. David Pineda peddled them on the backstretch, and this day, having sold all his tamales, he and his father went over to the grandstand for the races.

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