Friends struggle with Kentucky Derby jockey Miguel Mena’s death in Louisville

Jockey Miguel Mena celebrates after guiding Pool Play to win the Stephen Foster Handicap horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, June 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)

Miguel Mena’s foot never recovered completely. The Peruvian jockey did his racecourse rounds primarily by bicycle three years after breaking eight bones in his right ankle and heel in a fall at the Fair Grounds. Walking was too painful.

Which only adds to the mystery surrounding his demise. On Oct. 31, Mena was fatally struck by a vehicle between the Blankenbaker Parkway and Hurstbourne Lane exits on westbound Interstate-64 in Louisville. He had been heading home when he abruptly exited a Lyft ride and set out on foot.

“I have no idea how or why he got up there or what he was doing,” the jockey’s agent, Tim Hanisch, said. “He didn’t enjoy walking.” It’s incomprehensible. Hopefully, the cops will be able to figure out why.”

Hanisch stated that he had spent the evening with Mena and that they had shared a few beers. The degree of Mena’s drinking was later confirmed by the Jefferson County coroner’s office, which declared his blood alcohol level to be.249, more than three times Kentucky’s legal driving limit:  .08. 

According to Jeffersontown Police Chief Rick Sanders, Mena made some “poor judgments” due to alcohol drinking, and the Lyft driver said he discussed with the jockey before letting him out near the Hurstbourne and Bunsen Parkway intersection.   

Sanders said he believes Mena walked up the ramp to eastbound I-64, successfully across the eastbound lanes of the highway and a concrete barrier, and was then struck in the right westbound lane after reconstructing his movements through interviews with witnesses. According to accident reports, the driver of the vehicle was Rex Ecarma, a former University of Louisville tennis coach who passed a field sobriety test but refused to speak to police.

Mena died of blunt force injuries, according to state medical examiner Dr. Lauren Lippincott.  

He died six days before his 35th birthday, one week after winning the last of his 2,079 victories in a claiming event at Keeneland riding Delta Gamma Cats. Mena’s mounts won more than $72 million, making him the 15th-winningest jockey in Churchill Downs history and a two-time Stephen Foster Stakes winner.

“He didn’t ride the finest horses in the races the last couple of years, but he always gave them a pretty good opportunity,” said fellow jockey Brian Hernandez. “However, when he did get the big break, he made the most of it.”

More: ‘He was an inspiration,’ says the horse racing community after Miguel Mena’s death.

Mena was like a “third brother” to Hernandez, a coworker and rival who he turned to for pre-race analysis and post-race company. For more than a decade, the two men shared a corner of the jockeys room at Churchill Downs. They dined together virtually every day while riding in New Orleans, away from their homes in Kentucky.

“He was always very knowledgeable about horses and knew which horses would be in which races,” Hernandez added. “I believe the best way to phrase it is a really savvy rider; just knowing what horse raced well the last time and understanding what horse he needed to defeat.”

“I could always ask him, ‘What do you think about this horse or that horse?’ and he would always respond with such wisdom. He was one of those men who was always focused on his work.”

Mena, like the brave Cajuns Calvin Borel and Corey Lanerie, had a reputation for riding close to the inside rail to preserve ground. Mena’s 2020 Kentucky Derby mount on ninth-place finisher Necker Island is attributable to this quality, according to trainer Chris Hartman. Mena also finished 20th in the 2010 Derby aboard Backtalk.

Lanerie added, “I thought he was a wonderful rider.” “He was in my way a lot of the time since he rode the rail like me.” Some males aren’t willing to get that close. I’m not sure what it is — maybe they don’t want to get stuck down there. But Miguel and I seem to enjoy it, and he’s terrific at it.”

Mena’s bravery and perseverance were recognized in 2020 when he was designated the inaugural recipient of the Randy Romero Pure Courage Award, which is given to an active jockey who has overcome adversity.

“On days when other riders wouldn’t be there, he was always there,” Hartman added. “He came back from a serious injury that most riders wouldn’t be able to recover from.” I didn’t think he’d be able to recover from it.”

2021 Breeders’ Cup: Post your Classic positions, odds, and entries.

Mena was out of commission for more than seven months before returning to racing, but he maintained an ostensibly happy demeanor, often beginning talks with, “Hey, Cholo,” a Spanish phrase that may be used interchangeably to mean fondness or disdain.

“He never got back to normal after the injury,” Hernandez added, “but he never allowed that get to him.” “He was the type of guy who would declare, ‘Hey Cholo, I ain’t dead yet,’ when things were awful. Everyone was referred to as Cholo by him. He’d get up and shout, ‘Hey Cholo, I ain’t dead yet,’ whenever he won a big one.

His buddies are now hunting for answers that elude them now that he is deceased.

“You’d like to wake up from this nightmare,” Hanisch added.

Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, [email protected]; Twitter: @TimSullivan714


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