Jockey Joe Jernigan remembered for outgoing personality

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Joe Jernigan, pictured here during a horse race at the Neshoba County Fair last week, died on Thursday after suffering multiple injuries in a spill during a race at the fair last Friday. 

Terry Wayne Vance described Joe Jernigan as both an excellent jockey and an even better human being.

Jernigan suffered multiple injuries after taking a bad spill last Friday during a horse race at the Neshoba County Fair and was taken to Neshoba General Hospital before eventually being airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

He died Thursday, and Vance said Jernigan’s passing will be felt hard by those who knew him.

“The racing world lost a good guy and a good horseman,” Vance said. “He will be missed by a lot of people.”

After beginning in match racing, Jernigan moved to South Louisiana in the early 1990s to become a professional rider, competing at the Delta Downs Race Tracak in Vinton, La.

In 1,879 career starts in quarter horse racing, he tallied 188 first-place finishes, 232 second-place finishes and 191 third-place finishes. In thoroughbred racing, he finished in first 49 times, second 45 times and third 52 times in 578 starts.

Vance said it’s not common for jockeys to compete in both quarter horse and thoroughbred races, but Jernigan was able to do both well.

“He was successful right from the beginning, and he worked as hard as anyone I have ever seen at the track,” Vance said. “He had a great personality and was happy all the time.”

Following a short professional career, Jernigan retired from professional racing and moved back to Mississippi in order to spend more time with his family. He still rode in match races occasionally and eventually rode every year at the Neshoba County Fair.

Jernigan’s passing marks the second time in seven years that a jockey died after falling during a race at the Neshoba County Fair. Blaine Little died from injuries sustained after a fall in August 2012. Vance said a key difference in Little’s accident and Jernigan’s was the ground being wet during Jernigan’s race.

“They claimed they put a different surface on the track called a weather track,” Vance said. “I was there (July 28 and 29), and it looked good, but it wasn’t raining then. There were also two thoroughbred races before Joe’s which go a lot slower, whereas Joe’s race was with quarter horses, which is wide open and fast.”

Back when he was a jockey at the Neshoba County Fair in the 1970s and ’80s, Vance said races would often be called following rain, and he hopes the decision-makers will consider canceling races in the future if the ground is too wet.

“(Jernigan’s) horse’s feet just slipped out from under him,” Vance explained. “Somewhere, someone needs to make that call from now on.”

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