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Adan Perez, lost at the track

5/17/2012

If he were a racehorse, of course, his name would be better remembered now. That's one of the thoughts that's been hard to shake in the days since Adan Fabian Perez, a 48-year-old groom from Guatemala, turned up dead in Barn 8 on the backstretch of Churchill Downs on May 6, just 10 hours after the running of this year's Kentucky Derby. It was hard to miss how some TV news reporters filmed their stand-up reports outside Gate 1 to get the heroic, life-sized statue of Barbaro in the background, his neck and front legs straining forward in full gallop, his hooves forever frozen in midair.

It was six years ago that Barbaro arrived at the same Pimlico track in Baltimore where the Preakness will again be run this week, soon to die a tragic death. He was fresh off a victory at the Kentucky Derby by the largest margin in 60 years, and big things were predicted for him in the last two legs of the Triple Crown. But he broke down during the Preakness, and by the time the 3-year-old colt died eight months later, the tear-soaked story of Barbaro and his trainer, Michael Matz, was well-known. So were the extraordinary effort and expense that Matz and Barbaro's owners went to try to save the horse. At times, the drama turned into a national vigil.

But Perez? He was an unknown groom for trainer Cecil Borel, brother of three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel, who rode Take Charge Indy in this year's Derby.

Because neither Perez nor his 19-year-old son Wilson (who also works as a groom at Churchill Downs for a different trainer) had enough money in the bank, Wilson was not able to put the casket carrying his father's remains on a plane back to Guatemala until Tuesday of this week. His mother and six siblings all still live there. They had been waiting nine days since the coroner's autopsy was complete.

A Louisville funeral home waived its $700 fee to help the Perez family, and various other track and horsemen groups pitched in the remaining $6,749 that was needed to pay the bills on the U.S. side, says Rev. Ken Boehm, the racetrack chaplain at Churchill Downs who has helped young Wilson with arrangements. Boehm is expecting a similarly priced charge from the South American side where the casket arrived, and says, "I feel pretty confident we have the funds now to cover it."

Wilson Perez told police investigators that he last spoke to his father at about 11:30 the Saturday night the Derby was run, after a long day of work for both of them. There was the usual partying on the backstretch after the big race, but the elder Perez told his son he was at a restaurant off the grounds having dinner with friends. Everything was "normal" just like every time he called, Wilson also told police. But just 5½ hours later, at about 4:51 a.m., a security guard found the elder Perez's battered body in a back area of an empty horse barn that is shared by two trainers he did not work for.

The cinderblock barn where Perez was found hugs the backstretch rail of the track, and sits no more than 150 yards from where there was a rousing celebration going on for I'll Have Another, the Derby winner. The surveillance cameras that guard the expensive horses were rolling, as usual. The area was crowded. Credentials were still supposedly needed to get in and out of the grounds, which is why Wilson Perez has told people he strongly believes the killer is among the 600-some stablehands who work there.

"It has to be someone who lives here," Wilson told CNN correspondent Ed Lavandera in the only interview he has given so far.

The police quickly ruled Perez's death a homicide based on his injuries. But they have released scant details since, withholding even Perez's precise cause of death to protect the investigation. "I wish I could tell you differently, but we're still in the same position as the time that it happened: no suspects and no arrests," Louisville Metro Police spokesman Dwight Mitchell said Wednesday.

Wilson Perez had the grim chore of identifying his father's body. The two of them lived in separate rooms in the stables on the backside of Churchill Downs, a grid-like area made up of dusty roads and dozens of barns housing more than a thousand horses.

Horse racing is called "the sport of kings." But the high-stakes glamour of Derby week underscores a great contrast. A low-paid underclass of grooms and stablehands, hot walkers and exercise riders who usually earn no more than $250 to $800 a week prop up the sport by handling the backbreaking dirty work for owners, jockeys and trainers. Many migrate from track to track with the racing meets and share rooms or little apartments on the grounds. Others sleep right in the stables.

In the first few hours after word raced around the track that a body had been found after the Derby, Cecil Borel wasn't sure what had happened. He told a Louisville Courier-Journal reporter who caught him on the phone, "I've got one groom who is missing, but I'm not sure where he's at." Once the bad news was confirmed, a shaken Borel released a statement through the track that read, in part:

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of Mr. Perez. He was a kind, hard-working man who took pride in his job, loved the horses he cared for and had no enemies that we are aware of. We hope that a full investigation will lead police to whomever committed this terrible crime, and that the individual or individuals responsible for this brutal act of violence will be brought to justice."

Boehm, the racetrack chaplain, says the elder Perez was a quiet man who arrived at Churchill Downs in 2008. Boehm says Perez showed up only occasionally at Monday night services that are held at the track in lieu of Sunday worship because Sundays are a race day. Boehm knew him only a little. "But part of me saying I did not know him well is a good thing," Boehm explains, "because if our stewards or security officers had problem with him, they'd have said to him, 'You have to go in some sort of diversionary program, go see the chaplain.' But he didn't get into trouble. I would also see him or his son here occasionally at the food pantry and clothing closet that we run."

The Monday track chapel service that was held the day after Perez's body was found was turned into an impromptu memorial for him after police announced he had been murdered. An estimated 150 people attended. Boehm made some remarks, quoting Galatians 6:2, telling the congregation to "carry each other's burdens." Wilson was there, and Boehm asked people, "Come on up and place an arm on him, place a hand on him and let him know that you care about him." And many of them did, including the Borel brothers, whom Boehm says were "visibly emotional."

But that service will be the only one for Adan Perez that will be held here in the States.

Wilson has his reasons.

He told CNN last week he's haunted by thoughts that his father's killer "is wandering around here."

When Boehm asked him this week if he'd like to bring his father to the track chapel for a funeral before flying his remains home, "Wilson said, 'No. Because I don't want the person who did this to be able to come and pay final respects to my father.' He said he didn't want to dishonor his father [by risking that] … He said, 'I'm going to remember my dad the way he was.'"

The caravan of horsemen and fans and media that always follows the Triple Crown circuit has now moved on to Pimlico.

The day after Wilson put his father's casket on the plane back to Guatemala, the drawing was held for the post positions for Saturday's Preakness.

The drawing went on without Matz, Barbaro's former trainer, who scratched his Derby horse Union Rags after it finished seventh in the race.

Life on the backstretch at Churchill Downs has swung back into the usual workaday routine of 4 a.m. wake-up calls and sundown quitting times. But some nervous tension remains. "How much, I couldn't tell you," says Jerry Hissam, an agent who works for Calvin Borel and also handles Cecil Borel's bookings. "Cecil would have to speak for himself, and that's not going to happen. It's been a shock. And we still don't know anything from police."

Thousands of words, and tears, have been spilt over the years for what Barbaro might have been.

In Adan Perez's case, not so much. There was that brief statement from Cecil Borel, Rev. Boehm's remarks and what Wilson told CNN: "He was a good father. Everything he knew, he passed on to me."

But an infinity of possibilities is lost anytime anyone dies as young as Adan Perez did. Especially when he or she leaves behind a spouse and seven children. Some of the day-after news stories -- the ones that talked breezily about how the bourbon and finery had been put away just before the Perez's body was found, or how the still-unsolved murder is something "out of an episode of 'Law & Order'" or "a Dick Francis novel" felt callous, even a bit profane. This loss is real.

"Mr. Perez was a father and brother and, obviously, a son of someone," Louisville Police Lt. Barry Wilkerson said. "It's our duty to find out who did this."

Police urge anyone with any information on Perez's murder to call their anonymous tip line: 1-866-649-4479.

Whether they catch the killer(s) or not, Wilson Perez has been through more than you'd wish on anyone, let alone a kid of 19. And all because he, among all of Adan's seven children, was the only one who successfully implored his father to let him join him in the States two years ago. Wilson says he just missed him. He thought it would be nice to work side by side. And even now, incredible as it may sound, Wilson continues to work at Churchill Downs though he has those chilling thoughts that his father's killer may still be wandering nearby.

Perez insists he has no plans to leave.

He can't be 100 percent sure of this -- not anymore. But he's told people he thinks his father would have wanted it that way.