An internet search helped architect, artist and sports historian/memorabilia collector Manuel Hinojosa discover Hall of Fame jockey Herberto “Herbie” Hinojosa, the Brownsville native who rode in the Belmont and Preakness stakes and whose mounts earned nearly $18 million in a career spanning 50 years.
Herbie Hinojosa, who was 83, died in December in Brownsville. He started riding race horses at about age 8 at a ranch in El Ranchito near San Benito. Eventually, he rode at all the best racetracks in the United States and Canada, Manuel Hinojosa said.
Manuel Hinojosa is the district architect for the Brownsville Independent School District, and also a part owner of Doubleday Bar of Champions in Port Isabel, a sports bar where his extensive memorabilia collection and gallery of sports art drawn by him are on display.
Hinojosa is also a member of the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame, and that’s how he discovered Herbie Hinojosa.
“One of our responsibilities is to bring in new honorees, and that’s how I came across this person. I was Googling Brownsville sports figures and his name came up, Herbie Hinojosa of Brownsville. When I started looking at all the things he’s done, I started thinking who is this guy and the more I started investigating the more interesting he got. He was like a little jewel hiding in there, and I wanted to pull it out and look a little closer,” Manuel Hinojosa said.
His investigation eventually led him to the front door of a home in Southmost where Herbie Hinojosa had moved in 2001 to take care of his mother. After she passed away, he stayed in Brownsville.
Herbie Hinojosa’s riding career starts at about age 8 when Gilmore Ledbetter, a farmer along the river in El Ranchito who raced horses, ties him on the back of one with a sack of rocks for balance and teaches him to ride.
“He started so young, he was just a natural,” Hinojosa said.
There’s much more to the story. It starts in 1952 when Herbie was a student at Longoria Elementary in Brownsville. By the time he’s 16, Herbie has left the Rio Grande Valley on a path that leads to big-time horse racing. Hinojosa visited Herbie regularly for seven years before he passed away and helped him re-live early memories. He’s writing a book about the jockey, now in manuscript form and being edited, he said.
Gilmore’s farm was right across the river from a ranch owned by Juan N. Guerra, the first of the Mexican cartel bosses, who had stables and a quarter-mile racetrack.
“They would cross the horses to race on this ranch. Gilmore Ledbetter would race the horses on this side, but his promoters were the police chief of Matamoros, the mayor and Juan N. Guerra,” Hinojosa said. He said there was also a racetrack next to the market square in Matamoros.
“So the people that ran Matamoros were the ones that ran the races. The public works director would collect the money. It was a racket,” Hinojosa, a Mission native, said. “I know people from Mission that would drive from Mission to watch the races. This was back in the ‘50s.”
One time he and Herbie were driving around Brownsville when Herbie saw the Gateway International Bridge. He remembered an ex-Matamoros mayor named Elizondo being assassinated gangland style nearby with him in the car late at night after a race. Another car whisked Herbie back to Brownsville.
“What did you do?” Manuel Hinojosa asked Herbie. “I laid on the floor and cried. I was a little kid,” he said.
The story, with a picture of a bullet-riddled 1952 Ford, made the front page of The Brownsville Herald the next day and for weeks, minus Herbie. “The entire Matamoros police department ended up being arrested. This was in May or June of 1952. I looked it up,” Hinojosa said. (The actual date is May 28, 1952, according to the newspapers.com archive).
Ledbetter would take Herbie to ride in races in Monterrey and Saltillo in Mexico and Premont and Goliad in South Texas. “They would put Herbie in a sack and parade the horse with a heavier guy. Of course they won all the races,” he said.
As Herbie Hinojosa began to win more and more races, Ledbetter took him where the money was, to quarter horse tracks in Ruidoso, New Mexico, Albuquerque, and eventually to Los Alamitos, Calif., where he rode for Walt Disney and Roy Rodgers before switching to thoroughbreds at racetracks in the Midwest and on the East and West coasts in the 1960s.
Herbie Hinojosa rode against Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Bill Shoemaker, Milo Valenzuela and others at Belmont, Park, Pimico Race Course, Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. He was inducted into the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
by Gary Long