Just four and a half years ago I was working as a barista at a Starbucks in Louisville, Ky., trying to get a break after an acting career cut short and yet just a few days ago I had the pleasure of finishing a 13-day, 7-“city” tour with who I believe is one of the preeminent thinkers in the Thoroughbred industry. As they say, only in America.
And it was our beautiful and remarkable country that served as an appropriate backdrop to a trip that so easily could have gone wrong. The idea for a fundraising “drive” across country to the Breeders' Cup was hatched two weeks prior to our visit with Keeneland, the first stop on the tour to raise money through Breeders' Cup Charities to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and The V Foundation for Cancer Research. In that time, five of six racetracks, TVG and the Breeders' Cup all quickly rallied around the cause and captured our vision. Tens of sponsors were called and agreed to shell out $2,000 each. And two guys who have a general liking for each other but have opposite views on the world (what type of person continues to root for a team that hasn't won the World Series since Teddy Roosevelt was President?) successfully completed 13 days in a car together and are still on speaking terms and managing a growing business.
Each day was an adventure. Spending part of our day with Tom Leach, while not a big deal for this Louisville Cardinals fan, served as great fodder for my many poorly misguided University of Kentucky friends. Getting to meet the father/son duo of Randy and Brandon Meier at Hawthorne made it clear that when this sport is in the family, it stays in the family.
The pain in my thighs two days after the bouncy ball race at Remington Park did not last as long as the emails I still receive laughing about the YouTube video featuring that giant man racing people half his size. The drive to Hobbs, N.M., was a long and arduous one (on a side note, don't stay at the Motel 6 in Amarillo) but led us to a perfectly small racetrack not pretending to be anything more than it is.
Going from the outhouse to the penthouse, we finished the stretch run of our trip through Phoenix and to Las Vegas where the truly spectacular Wynn Hotel accommodated us. We were unsuccessful in our betting there, but our nights of rest there were much needed.
And of course, the Breeders' Cup was topnotch. I've been to several major sporting events yet this event was by far the best. The racing was dramatic, the corned beef sandwich was delicious and I got to meet Bo Derek. Oh, and as one of our Facebook followers said, the mare that won the feature at Santa Anita on Saturday gave quite a performance, too.
But the real magic was in meeting the jockeys at each stop and hearing their stories. They ranged from the tragic to the inspiring, often depending on where they were on their journey back from the brink.
I can't remember a more heart-heavy day than when we visited Michael Straight's hospital room in Chicago. To see a young man who was on his way to accomplishing his vision for his life get it all stripped away, crushed the dreamer in me. He was understandably emotional about what had happened to him with even the idea of moving hospital rooms setting off his ire. And yet through my tears and heartache, I left his room knowing things would be okay for Michael because he is blessed to have such an amazing set of parents by his side. And though I didn't meet his twin brother Matthew, I know that relationship will never be strained. Whether he walk again, whether he ever rides a horse, Michael Straight will come out of this tragedy with a strong purpose for his life.
In Oklahoma City, we met Jo Hays, who will most likely be in her wheelchair for the rest of her life. She was paralyzed in an accident at Remington Park so for her to revisit the scene of the accident must cause her to go through emotions you and I will never understand. And yet she too is blessed with a supportive family network including a strong, quiet husband and several beautiful children. You could see the spirit in her eyes and just how grateful she was for what she had. And yet there was the pain of knowing she could never get back on a horse, at least not a fast one (her words). But pain is not entirely a bad thing for I imagined it is pain that keeps her going on some level, keeps her motivated to enjoy the life she has been given.
Dennis Keehan, who we had the pleasure of meeting at Hawthorne in Chicago, may not have had the support system of others on our journey but his spirit and love for humanity was clear. (Of course, your opinion of someone you share fried green beans and cheese balls with will always be slanted to the positive.) A 64 year-old man, Dennis had already gone through the struggles of accepting the cards dealt to him in his life and had come out the other side a person our industry can be proud of. It is my sincere hope that he has a chance to talk with jockeys like Michael Straight and Julia Brimo, recently injured at Keeneland, as they work their long road back in recovery.
And of course, who could forget Stacy Burton and Jan Hortyk in Phoenix. Turf Paradise management was less than supportive for the fundraising cause, though they did buy us lunch. We decided to reimburse them for the cost; perhaps they can use that money to improve the backside we heard nightmares about.
But any story about the PDJF should begin and end with a tribute to Nancy LaSala. Few organizations are fortunate enough to have her brand of talent and energy leading their cause. Whenever we needed something to make our trip easier, Nancy was on the spot. Every disabled jockey we spoke with sang her praises without hesitation. Dennis Keehan put it best when he referred to her as 'lightning'. Having someone like Nancy in charge should reassure all who want to give to this cause that their money will be used as effectively as possible.
The stories of these disabled jockeys along with the 60 or so others we did not get the pleasure of meeting need to be told. We as an industry must shine a light on these permanently disabled athletes who willingly participated in a dangerous sport—because they loved it, and still do. Sadly, one consistent theme we noticed throughout our trip was how the jockeys felt like second-class citizens in horse racing. When discussing synthetic tracks, several stated that while people thought about the well being of the horse, no one considered what it would be like for a jockey to land on what some of them said was a hard and unforgiving surface.
Ultimately, this is why we chose the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund as one of our charities. We believe the horses need to be taken care of and found homes after their careers in racing are over. We hold horse welfare issues close to our hearts. But things have gotten a little backwards in our thinking as of late with over 50 horse related charities and only a handful of groups concentrating on the jockeys that risk their lives every day. We have forgotten about the people on the back of the horse and what happens to them if tragedy strikes. In an ideal world, there is enough support to go around but if given the choice to only help animals or concentrate solely on people, I will pick a human being every single day of the week.
They are our brothers and sisters.
They deserve our support.
They received it over those thirteen days.
And that, my friends, is very good news.
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