Last Friday, the National Museum of Racing announced that jockey Randy Romero had been elected to its Hall of Fame. Romero had suffered through several previous rounds of being nominated without being elected, and as reported by Jay Privman in Daily Racing Form, Romero said of his election, “It’s a great honor. I’m so, so happy. Dreams do come true.”
Romero would know: Breeders’ Cup winner, leading rider at multiple tracks in multiple years, regular rider of the undefeated Personal Ensign, he’s experienced the best that Thoroughbred racing has to offer. He’s also experienced the sport’s nightmares.
Randy Romero’s Remarkable Ride, written by Bill Heller and released shortly before Romero’s election, details the jockey’s many travails and successes over the course of a 26-year professional riding career. Beginning with Romero’s childhood in Erath, Louisiana, Heller traces Romero’s journey from the bush tracks of Cajun country to the most well-known tracks in the country.
From its opening chapter, the book is a testament to Romero’s strength and fortitude in overcoming myriad accidents, injuries, and illnesses. On the first page of the book, Heller lists twelve of Romero’s body parts that were broken or punctured in the first seven years of his career, setting the stage for the theme of determination and recovery that permeates the book.
For racing fans that know Romero and his career, reading the book is an exercise in both anticipation and dread. We know that lurking out there, beyond the horror of the sweat box accident that left him with burns over 60% of his body, is the story of Personal Ensign, the horse that Romero rode in all but one of her 13 starts. She brought him his greatest glory, the win in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and the most exciting race in that event’s history.
Disconcertingly, Heller gets us to the Distaff starting gate…then ends the chapter and takes us back to two years, to detail Romero’s successes in 1987 and 1988. Does the detour create suspense? A little…but at a cost. I skimmed this interpolating chapter, impatient to get to the account of that thrilling Distaff, and a little annoyed at having to wait for it. This chapter is an example of Heller’s exhaustive approach to chronicling Romero’s career; at times, sections can read like lists of horses ridden, races won, titles achieved.
When we finally get to that exhilarating win in the Distaff, Heller takes us through the race step by step, attributing Personal Ensign’s win to Romero’s ride that day. Narratively, emotionally, it is the high point of the book.
But reveling in Personal Ensign’s Distaff triumph is quickly followed by the unease of knowing what comes next. And in the account of the 1990 Breeders’ Cup, Heller plays it straight: in less than a full chapter, he takes us from the first time Romero breezed Go for Wand to her horrific breakdown in the stretch at Belmont.
And perhaps, in these two fillies we find the metaphor for Romero’s career: like Personal Ensign, and with her, he achieved the pinnacle of success. Like Go for Wand, and with her, he experienced the worst that racing has to offer, both in her breakdown and in his own many infirmities that on more than one occasion threatened his life.
Today requiring dialysis three times a week in order to survive, Romero has stayed connected to racing since his retirement, working as a jockey’s agent, galloping horses for Dallas Stewart. The book details the way that Romero overcame an abusive father, estrangement from his family, and the dreadful physical rigors of being a jockey; the closing lines emphasize his toughness, and the book itself is a paean to Romero’s tenacity and strength.
A sense of never Romero’s never being quite appreciated pervades Randy Romero’s Remarkable Ride; that its release coincides with his election to the Hall of Fame offers, one suspects, more than a little redemption and vindication to the jockey that made more comebacks than the Who. Despite hardship and injury, setbacks and sickness, Randy Romero is still living the dream.
Randy Romero’s Remarkable Ride, by Bill Heller. Pelican Publishing Company. 221 pages.
This Saturday, June 5, Belmont Stakes day, Bill Heller and Randy Romero will sign copies of the book in front of the NYRA store on the second floor of the clubhouse throughout the day. The book will be available for purchase for $25 in the NYRA store.