The Chandelier Room in the Turf Club at was packed Sunday. It was like Big 'Cap Day during horse racing’s heyday, or a current-day Breeders’ Cup. Only people were sitting on the staircases. It was that crowded. There were maybe 500 people crammed into the room.
The occasion was a memorial service for former jockey Alex Maese, who died June 14 at the age of 83 due to a staph infection that followed routine back surgery.
Maese’s riding career spanned nearly 30 years, from 1952-1981. In 1966, he won Santa Anita’s prestigious George Woolf Award, which goes to a jockey “who demonstrates high standards of personal and professional conduct, on and off the race track.”
The size of the crowd was testament to Maese’s popularity.
“Everybody loved my father, and he loved everybody,” said Alex Maese Jr., the oldest of Maese’s five children and one of the many speakers at the memorial.
“Humble and authentic” were words used by friend Mike Sigler and others.
His daughter Suzanne pointed out he was also “a quiet man.”
I got to know Alex because we both went to the same gym, Arcadia Fitness on Duarte Road at First Avenue.
I can vouch that he was humble, authentic and quiet. It took a while to get him to open up, but still, during our many conversations, he never mentioned he had won the George Woolf Award.
I had to ask.
But I very much enjoyed talking with Alex. He had lots of stories, usually dealing with horse racing but not always. Not too long ago he told me he played football at Anaheim High (he graduated in 1947) and implied that he was pretty good.
I was a bit surprised, considering he was so small, even for a jockey. But I had to believe him because, well, I had come to realize he was indeed humble and authentic. He never bothered to tell me he had been inducted into the Orange County Hall of Fame in 1986.
The first speaker at the memorial, Jerry Woodward, the president of the Anaheim High School Alumni Association, provided some insight into Alex Maese, the football player.
He was an outstanding 103-pound tailback on the C team and got a varsity letter as a kicker. He had learned the proper kicking techniques from a master, the late Ben Agajanian, who personally coached many of the best kickers in the NFL.
Just recently, when Maese was in the hospital, Woodward presented him with a special Anaheim High Alumni jacket, which was on display at the memorial.
The emcee at the memorial was Mike Willman, Santa Anita’s director or publicity. Others speakers included Lauren Maese, a granddaughter, nephew Anthony Peralta, nieces Vicki Vasquez and Michele Matteson, Jon Salata, who was Maesa’s best man when he married his wife of 52 years, Rosemarie, and former jockey Ray York, who has the distinction of riding in seven decades. York rode his first race in 1949 and his last, a claiming race at Santa Anita, on Jan. 14, 2000. York also rode the 1954 Kentucky Derby winner, Determine.
Most of the speakers referred to Maese by his nickname, Barney, or Barn for short. Daughter Suzanne explained his middle name was Boniface and that his mother called him “Boni Google Eyes” because of his good looks, and Barney was derived from that.
Suzanne said she was always very proud of her father and that “he instilled in me that I was very special,” and how that had given her the confidence to succeed in life.
Maese’s widow, Rosemarie, has to be as popular as her husband. The lines to talk with her and give her a hug were almost at long as the one for the buffet that followed the memorial.
There were a number of celebrities at the memorial, including Hall of Fame jockeys Laffit Pincay Jr. and Eddie Delahoussaye and two-time gold-meial winning Olympic diver Sammy Lee.
Alex, a longtime San Marino resident, is also survived by nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations can be made to San Marino High School Athletics in memory of Alex Maese, c/0 SMHS, 2701 Huntington Drive, San Marino 91108.