The riding career of James Lopez came to a premature end in 2011, shortly after a horse flipped over on him in the paddock at Indiana Downs and kicked him in the head.
He rode one more race several weeks later at Turfway Park and had difficulty pulling up his mount afterward. “I was having trouble with my breathing and my balance. Everything was off,” he recalled earlier this week.
Lopez, who suffered several concussions during his career, was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and advised to give up being a jockey. He still experiences short-term memory loss, anxiety and occasional mood swings and cannot work full-time due to his disability.
“My neurologist told me I needed to stop riding, because if I had another accident I'd either be in a coma or. …” he said, his voice trailing off.
The 37-year-old native of San Antonio, Texas, has turned to art to fill his idle time. Lopez plans to exhibit some of his pencil and oil pastel drawings Saturday during the horsemen's luncheon in the Picnic Pavilion Area before the Florida Cup XIV card at Tampa Bay Downs.
“It's my release. I've been drawing since I was in fifth grade, and I've always had a knack for it,” said Lopez, who won the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs aboard General Quarters in 2009. “God blessed me with two talents; one I can't do anymore, but I have the other to fall back on.”
The Florida Cup XIV horsemen's luncheon begins at noon. Post time for the first of 12 races Saturday is 12:27 p.m.
In addition to Lopez's exhibit, the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America will conduct a silent auction of numerous items, including the following:
· A framed painting of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah by Tom Chapman.
· A giclee print of American Pharoah's Triple Crown victories.
· Barnwood art by Natalie Stanley.
· Horseshoe art by David Frangos.
· A Daily Racing Form gift basket.
· Various other gift baskets.
Also on display will be several hand-painted sculptures of jockeys and horses by Alec Hughes, a former trainer and gallop rider who painted the jockey statues outside the entrance to the track's VIP Room in the colors of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and Florida Oaks winners.
Meanwhile, in the Grandstand, Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc. (TROT) will conduct a 50-50 cash raffle to benefit the organization, which is dedicated to the safe retirement from racing, rehabilitation, retraining and re-homing of the racing Thoroughbreds at Tampa Bay Downs.
The majority of Lopez's drawings are equine-related, although he has several with dark themes. “It's hard for me to show some even to my friends, because they don't understand where it comes from,” Lopez said.
His fiancée, Savannah Henry, gave him a drafting table for Christmas, which he describes as “the best present ever.”
“He would spend all day drawing if he could,” she said.
“It's pure joy,” Lopez said of his hobby. “I love doing it, just like riding. Completing a drawing gives me the same sense of accomplishment. I experiment a lot; I've learned my techniques through trial and error. I would like to do this as a business, if I can,” he added.
Lopez has not set a price on any of his drawings, but hopes to attract attention from attendees interested in commissioning him for a work. “I'm excited and nervous (about exhibiting),” he said. “It's pretty much my heart and soul in these pictures, which is a vulnerable feeling, but I'm eager to put myself out there.”
Admittedly not an impartial critic, Henry is awed by Lopez's talent. “He did just a doodle of a horse's eye, but I'm in love with it,” she said. “I told him, you have got to finish the rest of the head, because I'm dying to see what he looks like.”
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