Cup of Coffee: Jockey Love

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The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund hosted its annual Jockey Karaoke fundraiser Monday night at the Vapor Night Club at Saratoga Casino and Raceway.

First the facts.

Incorporated in 2006, the PDJF provides financial assistance to nearly 60 jockeys who have suffered catastrophic career-ending injuries on the track. It’s not a pension plan, an insurance plan or the Jockey’s Guild, it’s simply a charity that tries to help jockeys injured in the line of battle. It has disbursed over $3 million since its founding. Richard Migliore, Ramon Dominguez, Jerry Bailey, they don’t collect from the PDJF. Relying on donations, the charity serves as a lifeline for guys like Gary Birzer, Stacy Burton and Tony Diugopolski. The charity relies on donations. The goal is an endowment. That might not ever happen.

Now for the night.

Funny, what happens when it’s for a good cause. In a moment of colliding worlds, trainers, jockeys, owners, agents, fans, exercise riders, grooms, writers, valets, NYRA staff and anybody else who likes the races came out to support the charity, enjoy a night out and have a good laugh. For the most part, jockeys can’t sing, although Mike Luzzi and Rajiv Maragh pulled it off. Joel Rosario makes moves on a racetrack like a laser, hand him a microphone in front of a crowd and he was suddenly hesitant, suddenly fallible, he sings like a bug boy, but with a smile and a laugh.

All in all, money was raised, glasses were raised and love was dispersed.

Lots of love. 

Joe Sharp and Rosie Napravnik sung and danced, flirted and spun to Time of My Life. It was comical and beautiful all at the same time. Thoroughbred racing’s Johnny and Baby. Rosie even wore the dress. That’s love.

Martin Schwartz outgunned Michael Dilger and Emily Meier for Ramon Dominguez’s hand-crafted rocking horse with a final bid of $22,000. Told that Schwartz would have gone to $32,000, Dilger laughed, “I wasn’t ready to find out.” Schwartz promptly stood up and said he’d donate $10,000 to the Fund, if others matched it. Bill Punk pledged $2,500, others came in with $100s. I think they reached their goal. I hope they did. That’s love.

Jockey Michael Straight, in a wheelchair, talked about life before and life after his accident. I remember he and his brother, hounding jockeys for autographs, wearing goggles on their baseball hats, they dreamed of being jockeys. When asked about his attitude, his words were honest, searing, “I’m a jockey.” That’s love.

Andrew Lakeman, paralyzed in a fall, now trains horses to stay in the game. He sung for the cause. That’s love.

Dave Erb, 89, talked about riding Needles and Swaps. He came out to support the riders. Brothers in arms, no matter the generation. That’s love.

In appreciation of what they do, Bruno De Julio donned a cowboy hat and belted Bon Jovi’s “Wanted, Dead or Alive.” He was actually pretty good. That’s love.

As the party broke up and the lights flickered to life, Leo and Joan O’Brien danced. Daughter Leona rolled her eyes. Son in law Johnny shrugged his shoulders. That’s love.

Nancy and Jerry LaSala continued to push the rock up the hill, organizing and running another fundraiser. That’s love.

Mike Hushion came out at night. Harry Rice pulled out a 20 and put it in the donation bag. That’s love.

Rajiv Maragh, in white jeans, sunglasses and a black tank top with I Heart Nueva York on it, bounced around the stage, over-powering Rosario, who didn’t mind. That’s love.

Tom Durkin, in pink pants, black shirt, sunglasses and fedora, donated his time. That’s love.

Ramon Dominguez walked onto the stage and instantly received a standing ovation. “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is the jockeys will continue to sing. The bad news is the jockeys will continue to sing.” The recently retired legend spoke about how important the PDJF is to all the riders it helps. He read notes from some of the jockeys who survive on the monthly checks. As Ramon spoke, the room went silent, tears welled, the classiest jockey of them all continued to awe us. He always had timing. Still does. That’s love.

As Ramon spoke, Alice Clapham and I walked over to the silent auction table and put our names on things we didn’t need. Anybody want a $310 signed print of Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes? That’s love.

By the end, all the jockeys joined in a rollicking rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.” The tune was there somewhere, the words hung in the air, “…Don’t stop believin’…Hold on to the feelin’…Streetlights, people…Don’t stop believin’…It goes on and on and on…Some will win…Some will lose…”

All bounced and pumped their fists, two bounced from wheel chairs. The delicate balance of their profession, of their lives, never so apparent. That’s love.