There hasn't been much good news for Justin Vitek since the end of February, when he found out that his leukemia, which had been in remission, returned. But things may finally be looking up for the veteran jockey, who recently found a bone marrow donor and will have a stem cell transplant later this month.
Vitek, 35, has been undergoing chemotherapy at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center since his doctors told him his leukemia had returned. The last round of Vitek’s chemotherapy treatment is May 10 and nine days later he will go in for his transplant. He is hopeful for a full recovery.
“The doctors said the donor is not a perfect match, but close enough,” said Vitek May 8. “They say they will know in 15 to 25 days after the transplant if it was successful. After that, I have to stay close to the hospital for about 100 days to make sure everything is going OK. I’m hopeful.”
Vitek, who grew up about an hour west of Houston, has many of his friends and family with him during this trying time. He is hoping to return to his home in Sulfur, Ky., to be closer to his daughter, Bree, when his treatments are over. Getting healthy is the only thing on his mind right now.
“The chemo is the hardest part,” Vitek said. “It takes its toll on you and all the people around you. The best way I can describe it is it’s like having the flu for a month. You just feel so horrible all the time and it makes you moody and cranky. It’s no fun, but you have to do it.”
Vitek, who was diagnosed with myelogenous leukemia in February 2008, underwent his initial round of chemotherapy at Louisville’s Jewish Hospital during that year. After months of treatment, in which medical costs were helped offset by an April fundraiser that included many from the Thoroughbred industry, doctors told him the disease had gone into remission. A professional rider since 1993, Vitek returned to the racetrack Feb. 14, 2009 at Turfway Park, getting his first mount in nearly a year.
But after riding only four races, Vitek began feeling ill again. He had more tests done and doctors told him his Leukemia had returned.
“It was devastating,” Vitek said. “It’s hard to keep your spirits up. After a while though, you have to learn to fight.”
Vitek began riding professionally at Sunland Park in New Mexico, and also enjoyed success at Turf Paradise and Emerald Downs. Eventually, he moved east to become a regular on the Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana circuits.
In his career, Vitek has won 739 races from 8,056 mounts. His biggest victory came aboard Miss Pickums in the 2000 Golden Rod (gr. II) at Churchill Downs.