By Kristin Bednarski
Feb. 14 was a relatively normal day for Justin Vitek, although the jockey felt a little more fatigued than usual after riding in several races at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. Normally a strong competitor, Vitek was unaware that two days later he would be diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a fast-growing form of cancer.
Like most horsemen, Vitek would traditionally awake around 5 a.m. to begin a long day at the track. This dedicated lifestyle is all he’s known since he graduated high school—and it wasn’t until recently that he began to lose his early-to-rise mentality. Following a spill Dec. 20 at Turfway Park (in which he was involved but not seriously injured), he began to suffer consistent headaches.
“They were just never going away,” Vitek said. “After that spill I always seemed sick. I didn’t feel that energy I used to have.”
Getting up early became increasingly difficult, but the 34-year-old Vitek continued riding. It wasn’t until Feb. 15 that the jockey finally saw a doctor.
“My blood count was one-third of what I was supposed to have,” Vitek recalled. “I just thought I was dehydrated; I never thought of this. Of course, you pray that it’s not (cancer) but you just learn to deal with it.”
Although Vitek adapted a new attitude to deal with his condition, staying away from the racetrack is still hard for someone who became involved with racing as an 18-year-old. A native of Texas, the jockey started breaking and training horses with close friends Sean Wright and Edwin Eppenauer, who helped him begin his career.
“I’m a competitive person,” Vitek said. “Not only are you able to have fun and compete (as a jockey), but you’re also able to make money and meet a lot of great people.”
Vitek began riding at Sunland Park in New Mexico and eventually moved east where he started racing at Hoosier Park in Indiana. He soon made enough connections to stay in the area and race regularly in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.
“Justin’s work ethic is as good as any human being I’ve met in my life,” said trainer Thomas Drury Jr. “He may ride the last race but will be there the next morning to breeze horses.”
According to The Jockey Club, this work ethic earned Vitek 739 victories from 8,052 mounts. Among his 27 stakes wins, his biggest win came in the 2000 Golden Rod Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs aboard Jay Emm Ess Stable’s Miss Pickums for trainer Paul McGee.
“The greater rewards are always exciting and everything,” said Vitek. “But some of the smaller ones are just as rewarding, just doing something that made you feel right, whether you figured out something about a horse or learned a quirk.”
Vitek has undergone multiple chemotherapy treatments, some of which lasted up to 24 hours. Despite his high level of fitness, on tough days it is a chore for him to just get to the bathroom.
“I would feel down,” he said. “But about the time I got down a friend would call. The support from friends and family, at the racetrack and personal family, has been overwhelming.”
Get-well cards and pictures of horses decorate Vitek’s room where he is consistently accompanied by friends and family, including his 4-year-old daughter, Bree.
Acute myelogenous leukemia is the most common type of Leukemia and is curable, but because the disease spreads quickly it is important to treat it aggressively. So far in Vitek’s case doctors like what they see, but additional treatments will be required to rid the body of any remaining cancer cells and bring the blood count back to normal.
Vitek will remain in the hospital and out of the saddle while treatments continue. Despite his condition, he is cheerful, and said that he is already anxious to ride again.
“I just want to go back to work,” said the jockey. “It’s all I know, really. I only take vacations when I’m sick.”
Friends and family of the jockey have planned fundraisers during Turfway Park’s annual crawfish boil March 18, and at the Kentucky Derby Museum April 21. In addition, The Justin Vitek Benefit Account has been set up at PNC Bank, 9519 US Hwy 42 Prospect, KY 40243.
For more information contact Sean Wright at (512) 557-2874.