Friday, August 21, 2009
A Guest Post by Rudolph Valier Alvarado
Seven years ago while I was reading Laura Hillenbrand’s masterpiece, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I came across the name Joe Hernandez. Growing up on a West Texas farm where we raised greyhounds I had never heard the name before, and I certainly had no idea about Hernandez’ claim to fame. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the reference and by Hernandez’ accomplishments. Having taught Latino history, I knew that Hernandez had achieved notoriety at a time when a great number of Latinos were being repatriated to Mexico due to America’s Great Depression. I wondered what it was about Joe that had allowed him to succeed.
Before undertaking my research, I looked up Joe’s obituary. It noted that he had been the voice of Santa Anita for over 34 years and had called 15,587 races in a row. There was nothing about how his indelible streak had ended. When research showed that Joe fainted at the microphone and died a few days later, I knew that I was going to write Joe’s life story.
Going into the project, I imagined that I would meet Joe’s family; they would give me all the details I needed, and in a matter of a year or two I’d have a finished book. It was not to be. Sure, they knew about Joe’s professional life, but they knew very little about his personal life. The family didn’t even know for sure where Joe was born. Throughout his life, Joe told folks that he was born in Missouri and then later claimed to be born in San Francisco. It was not true. The San Francisco Joe knew as a young child was not a city by a bay; it was a river that flowed near a small mining town in southestern Arizona where Joe Hernandez was actually born.
As my research progressed, I learned that Joe had not only frabricated where he was born but that he had preserved his life story in the media of the day the way he wanted it remembered. It was a story that was peppered with fact and fiction. For example, he never shared the fact that he had married as a young man and that his first wife was the mother of his children. Instead, Joe claimed that his second wife was their mother. In yet another instance, Joe claimed to be a member of a large family; it was not true. He was orphaned as a child and was soon separated from his sister, Josefa, never to see her again.
Together with Joe’s son, Father Frank Hernandez, S.J., a Jesuit priest for over 50 years, I was able to separate fact from fiction and discover the truth behind Joe’s life story. When I was finished with three sample chapters, I dutifully sent them off to top equine publishers. They turned me down saying that Joe’s story was outdated; some even doubted that anyone would even remember Joe Hernandez. Time proved these Doubting Thomases wrong. People in and out of the Throroughbred horse racing industry certainly remembered Joe, and horse racing fans were more than willing to read the story of his life, so much so that a Special Edition will be released in early September. What makes me proudest, however, is that because of my book talk has started to simmer in regards to nominating Joe for inclusion into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Ironically enough, it wouldn’t be Joe’s ability as a race caller that might get him in but his contributions to the profession as a radio and televsion broadcaster. Somehow, I don’t think that Joe would mind. He was after all a jack-of-all-trades, who aside from being a race caller was also an accomplished sportswriter, a jockey’s agent, a buyer's agent, a bloodstock agent, an importer of thoroughbreds, an owner of thoroughbreds, a film patrol innovator, as well as a teleivision and radio producer and personality. He composed music and was an actor, as well as a philanthropist, who gave freely and often of his time and money to a variety of causes.
Even so, if ever a writer needed validation that his time was well spent and his story was well-written it came for me in Lexington, Kentucky, in April 2009 when “my little book,” as I like to call it, on Joe Hernandez won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, an award that recognizes thoroughbred horse racing’s book of the year. I was surprised and overwhelmed with joy when it was announced that I’d won. At that moment, I thought about the day when I came across Joe’s name for the first time as well as the people I’d met along the route of this incredable journey. Laura Hillenbrand introduced me to Joe Hernandez, but Joe Hernandez introduced me to the world of thoroughbred horse racing, and for this I will always be grateful.
Alvarado is author of The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez: The Voice of Santa Anita. The Special Edition will be released in early September. The book, which includes a CD of Joe’s famous calls, including his last call, can be pre-ordered at: www.voiceofsantaanita.com.