by John Englehardt
Through the support of many in the horseracing industry, jockey Justin Vitek will have $60,000 to help defray costs stemming from his battle with acute myelogenous leukemia. About 250 horsemen and racing fans gathered at the Kentucky Derby Museum April 21 for dinner, drinks, and live and silent auctions.
“The generosity of the Thoroughbred racing community was overwhelming,” said JoLynn Johnston, who spearheaded the evening event. “In a relatively short amount of time, we were able to procure quality items for the auction from owners, breeders, and equine artists, and with the help of local tracks and several racing publications, we were able to spread the word about the fundraiser that resulted in a great turn out and a wonderful show of backing for Justin.”
A highlight of the evening was a surprise visit by Vitek. He is undergoing a second series of chemotherapy treatments, and doctors approved a brief release from the hospital. As the lights were raised after a viewing of the acclaimed 360-degree Kentucky Derby movie in the grand hall, Texas native Vitek was standing at the podium with a black cowboy hat and suit coat. The audience erupted into a standing ovation.
“I wasn't 100% sure I was going to make it earlier in the day, but I’m running on adrenaline now,” Vitek said as he greeted his many friends. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but I’m determined to beat this thing. Hell, with all these people in my corner, how can’t I?”
From 8,205 career mounts, Vitek has ridden 763 winners, and his mounts have earned more than $9.88 million. His biggest win came in the grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes in 2000 at Churchill Downs aboard Miss Pickums.
Paul McGee, who gave a leg up to Vitek on Miss Pickums, was in attendance, as were trainers Frank Brothers, Ralph Nicks, and Tom Drury, one of the sponsors of the affair. Other major sponsors included WinStar Farm, Helen Alexander, and XpressBet.
Encouragement from the jockey colony came from Hall of Fame rider Pat Day, Robbie Albarado, Calvin Borel, Corey Lanerie, Brian Hernandez Jr., James Lopez, and Jamie Theriot, who sat at a center table and bid generously during the live auction. Albarado went away with a piece of history that was donated to the fundraiser--a halter worn by Triple Crown winner Affirmed that brought a final bid of $4,500.
The auction topper was purchased on behalf of Bill Casner, who made donations to the event. Friends of Casner won a heated bidding war to obtain a signed last saddle used in a win by Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey for $6,600.
AML is a relatively rare and rapidly progressing form of blood cancer that interferes with the production of normal blood cells. The disease is potentially curable, though mortality rates are high in people 60 and older, which are the most likely to have the disease. Survival rates have been shown to increase with youth.
Vitek was born in Houston and grew up in Wallace, Texas. He began his riding career in 1993 at Sunland Park in New Mexico, and after spending several years at Southwest tracks, he moved on to ride on several different circuits, including Southern California, Illinois, and, for most of the last seven years, in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.