Soon after crossing the wire aboard Timeless Fashion in the March 13 Tejano Run Stakes at Turfway Park, jockey James Lopez pointed to sky. Indeed, he had an angel over his shoulder.
Timeless Fashion is the last horse ridden to victory by jockey Justin Vitek, who died Jan. 28 at age 36 after a two-year battle with cancer. Vitek was in remission long enough to return to riding for a short time, but last year went back to Texas for treatment.
Lopez and Vitek were friends. It all made for a very emotional winner’s circle ceremony on a day when Turfway hosted an after-the-races memorial service for Vitek, who for many years was based in Kentucky and worked horses for Tom Drury Jr., trainer of Timeless Fashion.
“It means the world to me,” Lopez said after the Tejano Run. “Me and Justin were close, and that was for him. I can’t explain it; it’s very emotional.”
Timeless Fashion broke his maiden in the winter of 2008 in his second career start with Vitek riding. It was Vitek’s last victory.
More than 20 members of Vitek’s family and friends traveled from Texas for the memorial service. Vitek’s mother, Kathy, presented the stakes trophy to Timeless Fashion’s owners, Bob Liedel of R-Cher Family Farms LLC and Judy Miller.
“Everybody’s fighting tears,” Drury said after the race. “This was a whole lot more than just a horse race.”
“It was amazing,” said Jo Lynn Johnston, a longtime friend of Vitek who helped arrange the memorial service. “Kathy Vitek presented the trophy, and then the owners told her to keep it. When James came back (after winning), he lost it, and so did everyone else.”
The owners, Drury, and Lopez had pledged 10% of their earnings from the Tejano Run to the Bree Vitek Education Fund. Bree Vitek is Justin Vitek’s 6-year-old daughter and only child.
Johnston said the memorial service, held in the Racing Club, was standing-room only.
“It was important that it was a celebration of Justin’s life, and that’s what it was,” she said. “(Turfway director of operations) Chip Bach and Turfway did a knockout job putting it together.”
Despite his health, Vitek remained in good spirits and was hoping to return to riding again.
Timeless Fashion, a 6-year-old gelding by Sly Classic out of the Formal Gold mare Added Ruffles, has won four stakes, three of them at Turfway. He has a become a popular horse in Kentucky, never having run a poor race with eight wins, two seconds, two thirds, and two fourths in 14 career starts.
Timeless Fashion was bred in Kentucky by David Hager II. The gelding has earned $271,056 for his connections.