Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero, who fought numerous ailments for decades during and after a sensational riding career, died early Thursday at his home in Louisiana. He was 61.
Romero had been battling kidney and liver disease even before his retirement, which came in 1999 after 4,294 winners and $75 million in mount earnings. Further beset by cancer in recent years, Romero had been in hospice care at his home since June.
A riding prodigy whose early years provided a heartwarming storyline to the 1978 movie “Casey’s Shadow,” Romero had a major role in some of the most memorable major races of a generation ago. He rode Personal Ensign to a dramatic, last-gasp victory in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs, keeping the Hall of Fame filly unbeaten, and was aboard another Hall of Fame filly, Go for Wand, when she broke down in deep stretch of the 1990 BC Distaff at Belmont Park.
Romero estimated he broke about 25 bones and underwent about 30 surgeries related to his riding career. In 1983, he suffered burns over 60 percent of his body in a hotbox fire in the Oaklawn Park jockeys’ room. He believed he contracted hepatitis C from a subsequent surgery from that incident, leading to his chronic problems with his liver and kidneys. He had undergone three-day-a-week dialysis treatment for much of the last 15 years or so.
At his induction into the Hall of Fame in August 2010 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Romero was greeted with long and loud applause by a deeply appreciative, standing-room-only crowd that was acutely aware of how his life and career had undergone exhilarating highs and debilitating lows.
“This is a dream come true,” Romero said in his thick Louisiana accent. “I've finally, finally made it.”
Born Dec. 22, 1957, in Erath, La., Romero was the son of Lloyd Romero, a Louisiana state trooper who trained Quarter Horses before turning to Thoroughbreds. Riding competitively at Louisiana “bush” tracks at a very young age, Randy Romero officially began his riding career in age 16 at Evangeline Downs and quickly became a star on Midwest circuits, ultimately basing himself primarily on the East Coast during his peak years. Nicknamed “the Ragin’ Cajun,” Romero won riding titles at 10 different tracks, including Belmont, Keeneland, Gulfstream, and Fair Grounds.
His boyhood served as material for “Casey’s Shadow,” a popular, Disney-like tearjerker starring Walter Matthau as the Cajun trainer and father, Lloyd Bourdelle.
Earlier this year, as his health worsened, Romero told his longtime friend and confidant Eddie Donnally: “I know God is going to be with me no matter what. And I know prayers help.”
Among his fellow racetrackers, Romero invariably sported a positive outward attitude despite his litany of injuries and illnesses.
Among Romero’s survivors are his mother, Joyce; his ex-wife Cricket; his son, Randy II; and four brothers and sisters, including Gerald Romero, who retired from his Thoroughbred training career in 2014. Randy and Gerald are one of just three jockey-trainer brother combinations to participate in the Kentucky Derby, having teamed with Dixieland Heat, 12th in the 1993 running.