Looking forward to the future of journalism

Death of a troubled jockey

Photo courtesy of Mark Griffith
Photo courtesy of Mark Griffith

Last week, sports editor Brad Lehman asked me to look into the death of Mark Pace, a 58-year-old jockey who died Oct. 18 at an Oklahoma racetrack. Brad wanted to know how this old jockey, who had little recent experience racing, ended up on that horse.

Finding the answer was difficult because it turned out Pace was a drifter who hadn’t spoken to many of his family members in years. I looked up public records about Pace but he appeared to have no set address. His Texas ID card was issued in 2007 with a listed address of 910 W. Commerce St. in San Antonio. That’s the address of a homeless shelter operated by SAMMinistries.

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The address on his license application with the Texas Racing Commission listed an address in Denton, Texas that turned out to be the home of his aunt and uncle. But on the phone, they told me they hadn’t seen or spoken with Pace in about a decade.

The only way to tell Pace’s story would be to find people who were around him in his final months. I found a helpful story by a local newspaper, the Sequoyah County Times. The article identified a friend, Jesse Cowan, who had traveled with Pace. The chaplain at the racetrack where Pace died gave me Cowan’s phone number, and he helped me put the pieces together in this story that ran Saturday:

DEVINE — A few months before jockey Mark Pace died Sunday at a racetrack in Oklahoma, he was washing dishes and sleeping on a back porch at Charlie’s II family restaurant, a popular cafe in this small town south of San Antonio.

“He just wandered into town one day,” said restaurant owner Charles Cupp, who was surprised by Pace’s petite size. “He was little bitty. Looked like a stray dog.”

Pace’s weathered face made him appear older than his 58 years. He had hitchhiked to Devine, and Cupp didn’t know much about him, other than he was polite, willing to work, and homeless. His nickname was Pepper.

One day at work, Pace mentioned he used to be a jockey. Cupp knew a horse owner in town, Jesse Cowan, who was looking for riders. Cupp arranged for them to meet.

Cowan and Pace quickly became friends. Cowan gave Pace a place to stay at his ranch near Devine, and Pace exercised Cowan’s horses around a practice track.

Racing horses offered a fresh beginning for Pace, who seemed to be searching for something in life he never could quite find.

“He was wanting to do things and get a life back,” said Cowan, 62.

So the real tragedy about Pace, a drifter who never set down roots in any one place for very long, was that he had finally found a home of sorts. And that happiness was cut short.

The comments on the story are interesting. Some readers thought it was a great story about an unfortunate soul. One reader, who was apparently a friend of Pace, said the story was too sensational. Here’s what I wrote back:

Thanks for the feedback on this story. It’s a sad tale in many ways. To “friend,” I don’t think this is a sensational or shameful story at all. It’s an honest story about a troubled man, who had flaws and strengths like the rest of us. My assignment was to find out how this old, out-of-practice jockey ended up on that horse. What I learned is that Mark was a drifter who finally found a home. And then he died doing what made him happy. That was his story. It’s sad, but it’s the truth, and that’s what I have to write. Thanks for reading.