SMITHFIELD, N.C. — A jockey who grew up in Johnston County died Dec. 25, five days after a quarter horse threw him following a race at California's Los Alamitos Race Course.
Sam Thompson Jr., 36, had been on life support at Los Alamitos Medical Center in Orange County since the Dec. 20 accident.
Thompson's family decided to take him off life support after he began to fail, and he passed away around 3:30 a.m. Thursday.
Thompson grew up in Smithfield on a family farm off Stevens Chapel Road, where he fell in love with horses and, along with his brother, taught himself to ride.
"They got to riding better, and they got a little bigger and kept wanting bigger horses , and they were doing really good, riding money shows, competing in barrel races," Thompson's father, Sam Thompson Sr., said.
Thompson began racing in the 1990s, but his career came to a halt not long after when he broke his back on a race track in Detroit.
"I was going to talk him into quitting riding horses, and (tell him) I'll pay for any college you want to go to," Thompson Sr. said. "And that's the first time he told me: 'Daddy, if I die on the race track, you know I died happy.'"
He eventually recovered, and his natural connection with horses made him a favorite jockey. Soon, horse owners were flying him in their private jets to races, and he graced the cover of many magazines.
Through his career, he won 600 quarter-horse races, including 55 stakes races at Los Alamitos
Thompson was a leader in the jockey's room at Los Alamitos, as a Jockey's Guild senator and room representative, according to race course officials. He helped management in upgrading the jockeys' room and served in the Race Track Chaplaincy of America.
A broken foot forced Thompson to sit out most of the 2008 season, but he had recently been cleared and had won 12 races at Los Alamitos by Dec. 15.
On Dec. 20, Harems Dynasty, a 2-year-old filly starting in her first race, threw Thompson after finishing seventh. She had to be euthanized after breaking a knee.
Thompson's sister, Kim Strickland, said her brother would be cremated. The family has set a memorial service for 2 p.m. Sunday at Stevens Chapel Baptist Church on Stevens Chapel Road in Smithfield.
Los Alamitos Race Course plans to hold a memorial service when the 2009 season begins Jan. 12.
Thompson was able to donate his organs, and his family says they take comfort in knowing he helped give someone else the gift of life on Christmas Day.
"He got to make a career and be happy, and not many people get to do that in life," Strickland said. "He's a hero to all of us."