Former jockey James Lopez died Aug. 8 in San Antonio, Texas, from complications of gall bladder surgery and other health issues, according to his mother, Bonnie Lopez. He was 43. The San Antonio native grew up on the Louisiana and Kentucky racing circuits where his father, Joe R. Lopez, plied his trade as a jockey. His grandfather, Santos Lopez, was also a Quarter Horse jockey and later a trainer. James Lopez began galloping horses at 12, and then at 16, against his father's wishes, quit school and took out his jockey's license. He rode his first winner in 1995 at Retama Park. As with many jockeys, injuries sidelined him at times. In March 2005 at Turfway Park, Lopez shattered a collarbone when a horse fell on him leaving the gate. The injury forced Lopez out of the saddle, and during his time away, he worked building scaffolding for oil rigs and laying ceramic tile. He also used the time to study for the General Educational Development test and earned his high school equivalency diploma. He returned to riding in 2007 at Ellis Park and won with his first mount back.
Over his career, Lopez won riding titles at Oaklawn Park, Louisiana Downs, and Turfway and notched four graded stakes victories, the last of which was the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) on General Quarters at Tampa Bay Downs in 2009. His career as a jockey ended in October 2011, having ridden to victory 1,077 times from 9,434 Thoroughbred mounts. His horses made more than $21.7 million. Following his riding career, he took up art and occasionally spoke to a group of other athletes and individuals experiencing the effects of head injuries, one of the numerous challenges he experienced from a career on horseback. "It's very hard for jockeys to admit to having some kind of brain injury," said Bonnie Lopez. "They'd rather deal with it on their own." In recent years, Lopez galloped horses for trainers Tom Proctor and Tommy Drury. He played a role in Art Collector's preparations last summer when the colt won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and Runhappy Ellis Park Derby for Drury and owner/breeder Bruce Lunsford. "I don't know one person that doesn't have a kind story to tell about James. He had a heart of gold," Drury said. "I actually read this online, that somebody said he had a kind soul, and I would certainly agree with that. That was James to a T. He wore his heart on his sleeve, just an all-around good guy. It's like losing a family member, in my case, more like a little brother. It's been shocking, and I am still finding the words to even talk about it." He is survived by his mother; his father, Joe; a brother, Jeffrey; stepbrothers, John and Joe; and a son, James Aaron. He also leaves behind many close friends, including Savannah Henry. He will be cremated, his mother said. Other arrangements are pending.