An exercise rider and part-time trainer died Friday morning after he was thrown from a horse during training at Belmont Park, the New York Racing Association said.
Juan Vazquez, 39, of Elmont, was riding a 2-year-old colt named Global Warrior when he hit the horse once on its right side to finish up the workout and the animal suddenly ducked into the inside rail, said the horse's trainer, Bruce Brown.
"The horse hit the fence and that's what caused Juan to lose his balance, and he fell off on the other side of the fence," said Brown, of Floral Park. "It was just a freak accident."
The colt continued running after Vazquez fell to the ground, said Brown's assistant, Maria Marrone, who watched the tragedy unfold from the stands. Marrone ran to Vazquez, but when she got to him she said he was unconscious.
"I'm in shock," Marrone said. "I can't believe he's not here anymore."
The fall occurred about 8 a.m., some 10 minutes into the workout.
Vazquez mounted the young colt, which he had done before without any problems, Brown said.
"Riders, they fall off horses a lot," Brown said. "This is all just how he landed."
Vazquez was taken by ambulance to North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, where he was pronounced dead, said Jenny Kellner, a spokeswoman for the NYRA, which operates New York's three largest thoroughbred horse racing tracks, including Belmont.
"This is an extremely rare and unusual incident," she said.
The last time a horseman died at one of New York's racing tracks was 2008, Kellner said. At the time, Parker Buckley, 40, a former jockey, tumbled off a young thoroughbred during a training session in Saratoga Springs, according to a news account. Doctors found blood on Buckley's brain, but it's not clear if he died from injuries sustained during the fall or from a pre-existing medical condition.
Nassau police are investigating Vazquez's death.
In addition to working as an exercise rider, Vazquez had trained several horses on his own, Brown and Marrone said.
"Juan was one of my best riders," said Brown, who has close to 40 horses. "He's gotten on pretty much every horse I have."
Friday began like every other day when Vazquez showed up for work at 5:30 a.m. sharp, Marrone said. The crew talked. They joked. They laughed.
"He was a nice man," Marrone said. "He was always happy. He was smiling."