Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017 — Having returned from four broken necks to compete at a top level, Ellis Park regular Francisco Torres said Saturday morning that he is retiring from the saddle after 32 years to pursue another career in horse racing.
The catalyst came Nov. 23 — a month after Torres’ return from fractured and dislocated cervical vertebrae and a fractured tailbone — when his Thanksgiving Day Handicap mount suffered a catastrophic leg fracture in mid-stretch. While Torres was able to pull the horse up, he still came off and sustained body soreness, though returning to ride the rest of the long holiday weekend.
“It’s time for me to walk away, and I literally mean walk away,” the 48-year-old Torres, who has four children and four grandchildren, said by phone while driving from Indiana to New Orleans with fiancee Joy Haddock. “I don’t want to be rolled around in a wheelchair for the rest of my life or dead. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful career, and it’s time to go on with the second chapter of my life.”
Torres, the leading rider at Ellis Park in 1997, long has been a fan favorite at Ellis Park, known for his interaction with fans. Among his 3,194 career victories include taking Ellis’ Grade 3 Gardenia (now known as the Groupie Doll) with Lines of Beauty in 1999 and in 1992 with Bungalow).
Torres, whose first broken neck came in 1991, retires with purse earnings of $68,844,983 in North America, not counting a stint riding in Saudi Arabia. His 21 graded-stakes wins include Turfway Park’s $600,000, Grade 2 Spiral Stakes with Globalize in 2000 and the last coming in Churchill Downs’ Grade 3 Louisville Handicap aboard Bullards Alley in 2016.
During a career that started in 1986, Torres also won riding titles at Arlington Park (2012), Hawthorne Race Course (2012), Turfway Park (1999) and at the now-defunct Balmoral racetrack. He rode twice in the Kentucky Derby, as well as in the Preakness Stakes and Breeders’ Cup. He also played jockey Braulio Baeza in the ESPN movie “Ruffian” in 2007.
Torres says his immediate hope is to become a jockey agent, lining up the mounts for and working with what he would like to be an apprentice whom he can mentor. Living in Louisville, Torres said he’d like to stay on his circuit of New Orleans’ Fair Grounds in the winter and rest of year at Kentucky tracks and Indiana Grand.
“I think I can help someone, if I can get a young rider that I can teach as we go along,” he said.
Torres — who always took time to interact with the public —also wants at some point to attend stewards school to get accredited as a racing official. Born in Mexico and raised Chicago, Torres quit school more than 30 years ago to become a jockey but now is close to completing his GED. That’s a goal he made while mending from his latest broken neck and something he wants after years of stressing to his kids and grandkids the importance of education.
The jockey sustained his last broken neck in a spill at the Fair Grounds last March 30. The damaged vertebrae were repaired with eight screws and a titanium plate, and Torres returned on Oct. 24 at Indiana Grand to win his first race back. But when the jockey’s mount, Mesoma, suffered a catastrophic leg fracture in midstretch of the Fair Grounds’ Thanksgiving Day Handicap, Torres says he began rethinking the wisdom of continuing as a jockey. Even so, he rode the remainder of the holiday weekend, including earning his 28th victory in his brief comeback, before taking time off to reflect.
Torres’ neck is fused from his C2 through C7 vertebrae from his various surgeries. While he had no neurological damage and received medical clearance to ride, he acknowledged that his surgeon, Dr. Abhishek Kumar, advised against resuming his dangerous profession.
“They suggested I didn’t return to ride, just because my shot of being paralyzed (in another mishap) was extremely high,” Torres said. “But I wasn’t ready. My heart was still in it. Seventy-five percent of the people didn’t think I’d come back, and the other 25 percent didn’t believe I could come back. I told Joy I still wanted it. When you have a bad spill, it can be another two years or a year down the road before you endure another one. Mine came sooner than I expected. It came on Thanksgiving Day. The next couple of horses I rode, it was in my mind, ‘What if the next horse breaks its leg and I’m not as fortunate?’ I’d pushed the envelope already too many times. Four broken necks, and that’s just the worst of my injuries.
“I realized that I’ve got grandkids, kids, Joy. I’ve got people depending on me. I’ve got a lot to live for, and a lot to give back. The industry has been great to me and my career. I’ve been through, done things, that a lot of riders wished they could do. I believe it was God’s way, telling me, ‘I’ve given you a wonderful career. Time to move on.’ I’ve been at this 35 years. It’s time to give back. I’m going to try to move on with my life on the racetrack. Because it is my life.”
Haddock, who has been to countless hospitals and doctor appointments with Torres over the years, is thrilled with decision.
“I guess God let Cisco go out there again because in his heart wasn’t done,” she said. “If he hadn’t, he would always be thinking, ‘I should have given it another shot.’ It’s just so amazing to me how Cisco had no second thoughts at all about going back to riding, when his kids and I tried every which way to get him to not go back. I finally said, ‘It’s not up to us. You have made up your mind.’ So all we could do then was to support him. We would just pray and pray that God would take care of him.
“It’s really weird how God works. Now Cisco sees it the way the rest of us do: by God’s grace he didn’t get injured.”