(Photo by Wendy Frederick Romero)
Guests and friends were able to sign a book before they paid their respects to Erath Hall of Fame Jockey Randy Romero.
Remembering Randy Romero: Huge crowd pays final respect to Hall of Fame jockey
ERATH — Nathan Granger rose slowly out of his chair three rows from the stage and made his way to the podium Tuesday at the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church Religious Center.
Once there, he braced himself and finally unfolded his hand-scribbled notes.
The emotions of the moment were hard to fight back for Granger and also for those in the huge crowd of mourners who had come to pay their final respects to hometown hero and horse racing Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero.
Romero, 61, died Aug. 28 after a long battle with cancer and almost too many other medical ailments to count. By Romero’s estimation, he suffered about 35 severe accidents as a jockey, requiring more than 25 surgeries.
In one freak accident in 1983, he suffered burns over 80 percent of his body when a bulb inside a sauna hotbox exploded. He survived that accident, but while recovering, he required blood transfusions, which were later determined to have been tainted with hepatitis C, which severely damaged his liver. He also lost a kidney in 2008 and required dialysis.
Romero was placed on a donor’s list for a kidney/liver transplant until 2015, when doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in his stomach. He was given a year to live at that point. He lived four.
Tuesday’s memorial service drew people from every walk of life and from many different parts of the state and the country, all of them there to celebrate the life of one of the most beloved individuals to ever come from this tiny, close-knit Cajun community just north of Vermilion Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
As one of those mourners later said: “All these people loved Randy and Randy loved all of them.”
Granger was just one of a number of those to speak following a Mass held next door at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
He struggled to gain control of his emotions, not the one time before the beginning, but a few other times as well.
Later, he told a friend: “that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
When Granger finally did compose himself, the words and the anecdotes started to flow, some of them easier- and lighter - than others.
Even Romero, from his perch in Heaven, had to smile - and shed some tears - at what Granger had to say about his good friend: what a magnificent rider his friend was; but even more so, who Romero was, what courage he possessed, his strength and compassion, his love for life and, finally, his love for others.
Forgotten for the moment - actually well over one hour - was Romero’s 4,294 career victories, the $75,264,198 in career winnings, the three Breeder’s Cup victories, the riding titles at 10 different race tracks around the country and the inclusion in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame (2010) and Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2005).
Somehow those things didn’t matter.
What did matter was Randy Romero and the person he was.
“Randy had a big heart,” Granger said. “I never met anybody with a bigger smile and a better attitude.”
Then Granger told a story that melted the hearts of everyone in the room.
“My family went through a very tough time not that long ago,” he said, referring to his family’s battle with cancer. His son, Ross, died of the disease in 2016.
“When we were going through that, we’d get calls all day long from people, all wanting to help. You can’t take or return them all, but when Randy called, I called him back.
“He’d always say: ‘How’s your boy. I’d say: ‘He’s good. He’s good.’
“And Randy would say: “I’d take his place if I could.’’
“And I’d say ‘I know you would.
“And every time he saw Ross and his mom at church, he’d grab Ross by the shirt and say: ‘You gonna make it; you’re tough. You gonna make it.’”
He became such an inspiration to Ross, said Granger, that it made a crucial difference in Ross’ life.
“My son told me one day: ‘You know, Dad, that’s pretty nice of Mr. Randy (saying those things). He’s dying, isn’t he?’
“I said: ‘Yes, son, he’s been dying for a long time, but he’s living!’
Then, Granger, his voice cracking with emotion, said: “I’m telling you, it helped turn the corner for my son’s attitude for the rest of his journey and I’ll always be grateful to Randy for that.”
There were lighter moments, of course, but Granger’s remembrance of that particular occasion told more about Romero and his impact on people than any other possibly could.
Described as fearless, Romero burst onto the racing scene at an early age, learning his trade at the numerous bush tracks in Acadiana before graduating to Evangeline Downs - where he still holds the season record for victories (136), Jefferson Downs, the Fair Grounds - another record for victories (181), Louisiana Downs, Delta Downs and then going national and riding at tracks from New York to California.
“I remember when Randy called me and asked how I thought he’d do riding in California,” Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye recalled. “I told him that he’d fit in fine.”
But Romero was impatient, and at nationally-celebrated tracks like Santa Anita and Del Mar, the list of world-class jockeys was deep.
Romero gave it six months and loved California, said Delahoussaye, “but he said he had to be the top dog.”
“You’ve got to admire a guy like that,” said Delahoussaye, who became a close friend up until the end. “He left and became the top dog at Keenland, New York and a lot of other tracks.
“He was such a great guy. He was a guy you had to admire because to tell you the truth, with all he went through, I don’t think I could have done it.”
Mark Guidry, another renowned jockey, remembered Romero as “a guy who loved people and one who people loved.”
“I don’t think there was anyone who ever met Randy who didn’t love him. He just had that way about him.”
One of those people was Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. McGaughey wasn’t able to attend Tuesday’s service, but Granger recalled a chance encounter with the Hall of Famer in 2010 on the eve of Romero’s induction into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
“I like to go to the track early in the morning and watch the workouts,” Granger recalled. “Every time I go somewhere, I wear a Ragin’ Cajun shirt of some kind.
“That morning, Shug walks by, sees the shirt and says, ‘You guys here for Randy?’’
Granger said he told McGaughey he and his friends were indeed there for Romero’s induction and the trainer replied: “You know, I’ve been writing a letter every year to the Hall of fame (on Romero’s behalf) and I told them last year that if they didn’t put Randy in then they needed to take me out!
“That’s a Hall of Fame trainer and he’s still training today. That’s how much respect he had for Randy.”
On the track, Romero’s most notable victories were the ones in the Breeder’s Cup. He won back-to-back Breeder’s Cups Distaffs in 1987 (Sacahuista) and 1988 (Personal Ensign). He also won again in 1989 on Go for Wand in the Juvenile Fillies.
He once won five races in a row at Keeneland Park and won four stakes races on one card at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
Perhaps his most significant notoriety, however, came from a race that he didn’t win. It went on to be the inspiration for the Hollywood movie Casey’s Shadow.
It also had a significant influence on Granger’s life.
“I go back to 1975,” Granger recalled. “I was seven years old, and it was Labor Day weekend. Me and my family were sitting around the TV and my brother was holding the rabbit ears. We only had one station and we were watching the All-American Futurity, a quarter horse race.
“I remember my dad yelling at my brother: “Stand more to your left...no your right... Now raise your arm...
“Because we were there to watch Rocket’s Magic and watch our own Randy Romero ride in the All-American Futurity. That was a poignant moment in my life and our town’s history.
“I remember him (Romero) losing, finishing third and me being the mature guy I was, I fell on the floor crying.
“Then, I remember my dad and what he said. I can’t remember five poignant things my dad told me in my life, but I remember that as if it were yesterday. He said: “That just shows you what you can do if you dream big and work hard.’
“I never forgot that.”
It was remembrances like that one, along with the courage and love Romero showed to everyone that most people spoke of Tuesday.
It was fitting.