This week marked the tenth anniversary of the day that permanently changed the life of jockey Michael Straight. On Aug. 26, 2009, Straight was riding in the eighth race at Arlington Park when his mount, Im No Gentleman, clipped heels with another horse and fell, throwing Straight to the ground and causing serious head and spinal injuries. A decade on, Straight has come a long way after being paralyzed from the waist down.
“Ten years, that's a big number,” he said. “I'm really happy with life right now. Staying active really helps me out. I try to watch out for my health. It's difficult sometimes, but I have to put that first.”
Thanks to an exoskeleton apparatus, Straight is able to walk for short periods each day.
“It has a step counter on it and I just walked my 200,000th step,” he said. “I Googled how far that was and it said that was close to 100 miles.”
Another machine helps him stand for a couple of hours at a time. In his new base in Jacksonville, Fla., he has found an adaptable sports program that lets him play wheelchair soccer, basketball, rugby, golf, even surf despite his paralysis.
Straight said he is forever grateful to the organizations that helped him get this far, including the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, The Jockeys Guild, and The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, but he couldn't have gotten to this point without the help of another, often-unrecognized group: The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation.
“Anything that the Jockeys' Guild will not cover, I always have the Jockey Club to turn to,” he said. “With the Guild you need to have prescriptions for stuff, and a lot of medical needs you can't get prescriptions for. They helped me out tremendously when we bought my exoskeleton. I know anything I need, I can turn to them. They help out so much.”
The Safety Net Foundation was formed in 1943 thanks to donations from Aqueduct, Belmont, Empire City, Jamaica, and Saratoga as a way to help anyone in the Thoroughbred industry who finds themselves in need. Since 1943, a number of government programs and non-profit groups have sprung up looking to address specific challenges that may face riders, farm workers, or backstretch employees, but the Safety Net Foundation fills a gap where those entities may be unable to address a need.
For example, the PDJF's aid is limited to former jockeys and by necessity limits its aid to those living with a disability, typically due to a single catastrophic event, not those who may be out of work temporarily or those who may be dealing with an accumulation of non-disabling injuries. Workers' compensation insurance is really designed to address injuries a worker may suffer on the job, but doesn't cover illness. Some groups focus their resources on a limited geographic region. Other forms of assistance may not cover non-prescription items, of which Straight said there are many — therapeutic equipment, living expenses, and more. Most recently, Straight said the Foundation helped pay for repairs to his truck, which has to be specially modified to make it accessible to him.
Shannon Kelly, development manager for the Safety Net Foundation, said a bad bout of the flu or a broken hand can be profoundly problematic to a groom or hotwalker who can't work for a few weeks. Luckily, the Safety Net Foundation is able to provide assistance of all kinds.
“Our assistance comes in many forms,” she said. “We have a monthly assistance program for those who need help for an extended period of time. Often this help is put towards basic living expenses. We also assist with one time grants, whether it's to help towards an outstanding medical bill, therapeutic equipment, etc.”
Kelly processes and vets applications herself and can often get assistance to an applicant in just a couple of weeks — much quicker than government assistance programs can. She follows up on each applicant, too, making sure they get back on their feet if they've been suffering from a health issue.
A key component of the Safety Net Foundation's work is confidentiality. The group does not reveal the identities of anyone it provides aid to, or the identities of any applicants. (Straight volunteered to have his name and story shared in this article, as a longtime public advocate for the program.)
“We like our recipients to know that they can come to us in their time of need and we will do all we can to help them and they do not need to feel embarrassed and ashamed,” said Kelly. “The people we help, horses are their life. They care for our horses, and we care for them. For many we quite literally are their safety net. Some do not have anywhere else to turn.”
The Foundation works closely with The Jockeys Guild, horsemen's groups and racetrack chaplaincies to identify people who may need help – and many people have not heard of it before. The Safety Net Foundation is one of two charitable groups operated by The Jockey Club, the other being the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, which funds equine health and safety research. Grayson has been at the forefront of publicity and fundraising efforts for many years and plays a critical role in advancing veterinary science. Kelly and others hope to make the public more aware of the Safety Net Foundation in the coming years.
“We are a small organization and our work is confidential so I think we've remained under the radar for that reason,” said Kelly. “Quietly working hard for the industry. But in the age of social media and the Internet, it is important to be visible — not just for those who would want to apply for help but also to potential donors.”
The Safety Net Foundation has so far been able to fulfill all approved grant applications, giving away roughly $500,000 a year since the mid-1980s, without turning anyone away. The risk in becoming more well-known is the group could find itself overwhelmed with more requests and not enough donors. The 501(c)(3) organization has no permanent source of funding and relies on donations from Jockey Club members and an endowment to continue supporting its work.
“We have many generous regular donors from all parts of the racing industry who support what we do,” said Kelly. “The Fashionable Fillies Luncheon is our annual fundraiser and a crucial one to our fundraising efforts. We hope to raise awareness for this great event and expand upon it. My goal is to bring this event also to the West Coast and engage our community out there.”
Trustee D.G. Van Clief is hopeful the industry will step up as the group becomes more widely recognized.
“I'd like to think that we can expand our fundraising activities,” he said. “I think all of us would aspire to growing that so we can give more.
“My experience within the industry with regards to charitable giving is there are a lot of needs. There is a hand out all the time. Because we are, compared to some, a fairly small industry, we are also always challenged to find more resources, I think it's tough to raise money and there are limits. With the Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation, I think that's a factor, but there are also others. We've suffered from a lack of recognition, understanding, and awareness. People used to get the Jockey Club Foundation (the Safety Net Foundation's moniker before it was renamed) mixed up with the Jockey Club Grayson Foundation. We're overcoming that handicap a little bit at this point.”
Van Clief, who spent much of his career in racing administration, retired from the boards of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Breeders' Cup in 2006. He remains on the Virginia Racing Commission and has kept up his involvement with the Safety Net Foundation because he believes so steadfastly in its mission.
“It has done such a good job of taking care of the people in our industry who need our help the most,” he said. “In our case, we are involved helping beneficiaries on a national basis from coast to coast and we're available for any kind of need.”
For Kelly, the commitment to the Safety Net Foundation is personal.
“I was born into horse racing,” she said. “My grandfather was Hall of Fame trainer TJ Kelly. My uncles were trainers, as was my dad, he is now the Clerk of Scales. In my position at the Safety Net, I get to help these people who are integral in the sport that brought my family such joy and success. I care deeply for those in the racing community, and I am so glad that our Foundation exists.”
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