Jockey Justin Vitek, a native of Wallace, Texas, who found his greatest success on Midwest circuits, succumbed to acute myelogenous leukemia on the morning of Jan. 28 at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He was 36.
Vitek, who was diagnosed with the rare and rapidly-progressing form of blood cancer in February 2008, had battled to maintain the riding career he launched in 1993 at Sunland Park in New Mexico. He returned from multiple chemotherapy and stem cell treatments in 2009 to ride in four races at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., but suffered a relapse and had been in declining health for several months before his death.
Those who knew Vitek remembered him as a determined competitor who loved the racing industry. From 8,205 career mounts at tracks across the country, he had 763 winners with earnings of more than $9.88 million. His biggest victory came aboard the Paul McGee-trained Miss Pickums in the 2000 edition of the Golden Rod Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs.
Tom Drury, a Kentucky-based trainer who helped Vitek with his 2009 comeback, said he was inspired by the jockey’s determination and heart.
“When he made it back for this last go-round to ride the few horses he rode, three were mine and one ran in Frankie Brothers’ name,” Drury said. “He was pretty well-convinced that he was going to ride again, and if he was going to stop he was going to stop on his terms. That within itself just says so much about his character. He was the kind of rider that every time you threw him up on a horse, you knew you were going to get 110%. He was competitive; you knew he was there to win races. When he got the right opportunity and the right horse he was going to come running and get the job done for you. He was a good, solid, all-around rider, and not only that, but he was a genuinely good person, very kind-hearted.”
Brothers, who remembered Vitek as "a prince of a guy" and a talented rider, was also amazed at the rider's tenacity and dedication as he fought his way back into race riding.
"He was like a lot of guys who probably didn’t get as many opportunities as he should have," Brothers said. "He was a hard worker, he loved the horses tremendously, and you wouldn’t have thought he’d get strong enough after the chemo, but he just kept coming out every morning. He just tried his damndest to get there every day, and I have a great amount of respect for him. He loved the horses as much as anybody. It was his life.”
Jockey James Lopez attributed Vitek's strong will to a boundless love for the sport.
“He loved to ride, he was a really good rider, and he loved the game and the loved the people that were in it," said Lopez. "When he came back in 2009 I was in Tampa but I talked to him on a day-to-day basis and it was a struggle. At first he would get on a horse and it’d take him half an hour to recover and get his legs back to get on another horse. So it was a slow process but like I said he loved the game. I knew he would make it back to ride but it broke my heart because I knew he was struggling, and I didn’t think he would ride for very long. I used to tell him he had more heart than sense."
Besides a strong will to ride and compete, Vitek was known for his generous and positive spirit.
"He’d give you the shirt off his back, and if it was his last one he’d still give it to you,” said Lopez. “Anything and everything he could do for you, he’d do it.”
“He was like family to us; the kindest, gentlest guy you’d ever meet, gracious and polite, thankful for everything,” said Jeff Johnston, regional representative for the Jockeys’ Guild. Vitek would stay with Johnson when he rode at River Downs or Turfway Park.
“He was very solid, great to ride with,” said Hall of Fame rider Pat Day. “He was very courteous, had good hands on a horse, and really made no mistakes. He was always a competitor but conducted himself well in the jocks’ room. He was always friendly, always upbeat, always had a smile on his face. You knew he enjoyed what he was doing.”
Vitek is survived by his 6-year-old daughter Bree and his mother Kelly. A memorial service will also be held in the near future at Turfway.