No amount of rain could dampen the nostalgia, camaraderie and spirit of brotherhood under the big tent during today’s inaugural Jockeys and Jeans barbecue luncheon to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF).
You did not have to be a retired jockey to feel the emotions, but the smiles on the faces of several of the sport’s legends – and those who aspired to such heights – merely hinted at the legacy of accomplishment they all share.
“There were some jockeys I hadn’t seen for 20 years or more,” said Dr. Eddie Donnally, an ex-rider, Eclipse Award-winning writer and now a staff chaplain for Suncoast Hospice and Mease Dunedin Hospital. “I’d walk up to someone thinking, ‘I know this person,’ but I wasn’t sure who they were.
“Then they said their name and I said mine, and all the memories flooded back. There was something so real about it – these people came here on their own dime and we held it in a tent in the middle of a rainstorm on picnic tables. I thought we were doing an audition for (the new movie release) Noah.
“To get together like this and raise money for our brothers and sisters who didn’t walk away like we did makes it so special,” Donnally added.
All the proceeds go to the PDJF, an organization that provides financial assistance to 59 former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries.
Donnally, who rode at Tampa Bay Downs and numerous other tracks, was part of a five-person organizing committee that included six-time Tampa Bay Downs leading rider Mike Manganello, now a steward at Belterra Park (formerly River Downs) in Cincinnati; Barbara Jo Rubin, the first woman jockey to win a pari-mutuel race in the United States, in 1969; and fellow retired jockeys Darrell Brown and Barry Pearl.
“Five of us got together to have a reunion, raise money for the PDJF and sign autographs, and it turned into something better than we imagined,” Manganello said.
Ramon Dominguez, who was forced to retire last year after suffering a brain injury in a spill at Aqueduct, was the featured speaker. Also present and honored were five other jockeys who suffered disabling on-track injuries: Eibar Coa, William Klinke, Julia Brimo, Jose Diaz and Michael Straight, who rode his first winner at Tampa Bay Downs before being paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at Arlington.
“The PDJF relies entirely on the contributions of good people,” Dominguez said in his heartfelt address. “It provides help and raises awareness of the needs of those individuals who have given our fans so many great experiences.”
Dominguez is an unpaid advocate for the work done by the PDJF on behalf of disabled riders, and his unfortunate injury at the peak of his career has raised awareness within the Thoroughbred industry of the long-term effects of concussions and head injuries on jockeys.
Pearl said more than 200 tickets were sold to members of the public. Additional funding for the event came from 17 corporate sponsors. Pearl and Donnally are optimistic the event can become an annual Tampa Bay Downs staple, and they believe other tracks will want to hold similar fund-raisers.
“We think this is doable at a lot of racetracks, and it would be wonderful to continue it here at Tampa Bay Downs,” Donnally said.
About 30 retired jockeys attended the luncheon, including Hall of Fame members Pat Day, Jacinto Vasquez, Walter Blum and Bill Boland – who won the 1950 Kentucky Derby at age 16 on Middleground.
Also attending were female jockey pioneers Rubin, Diane Crump and Mary Russ and at least 8-to-10 former jockeys who live in the Tampa Bay area and/or work at Tampa Bay Downs.
“It was a fun time,” Day said, “and it was certainly enhanced by having riders who were disabled being part of the program. Seeing a man in a wheelchair from a riding accident speaks volumes about the dangers of our sport.”
Like virtually all who attended, Crump – who moved to Oldsmar in 1960 as a young girl and 10 years later became the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby – wore a fulfilled smile from the time she arrived to her departure.
“It’s a special day, and to have it here means a lot because this is like real racing was before it got so big,” she said.
Today’s action. On today’s rain-soaked card, the Downing family enjoyed a productive afternoon, as trainers William Downing and his niece Miranda combined for three victories.
In the first race, William Downing sent out 5-year-old mare Reynolds for her third consecutive victory for breeder-owner Gary Caple. Reynolds was ridden by Harry Vega.
Miranda Downing recorded two victories, the first in the fourth race with a 6-year-old mare she also owns, Queen Yamile. The Florida-bred was ridden by Angel Serpa. Miranda and Serpa also teamed for a victory in the seventh race with 5-year-old gelding Memorys N Dreams.
Serpa added a third victory for himself in the 10th race, the Lambholm South Race of the Week, on 7-year-old gelding Houston Bull for owner Amaty Racing Stables and trainer Herman Wilensky.
Brian Pedroza also rode three winners, scoring in the third race on 4-year-old gelding El Chivo Viejo for owner Shari Palmer and trainer Pedro Fierro and the ninth – the annual Oldsmar Cup – on 4-year-old Florida-bred filly You Bought Her for owners Richard Perkins and Hinsley Racing Stable and trainer David Hinsley. Pedroza added the 11th race on 5-year-old mare Venus de Milo for owner Michael Degrella and trainer Robert R. O’Connor, II.
Trainer Gerald Bennett had two winners, capturing the second race with Daniel J. Dougherty and Winning Stables, Inc.’s 6-year-old gelding Fabledzapper, who was ridden by Antonio Gallardo. That combination repeated in the fifth race with Shamrock Thoroughbreds’ Florida-homebred 4-year-old gelding Lucky Place.
Gallardo’s two victories gives him 87 for the meeting, breaking a tie at the top with Ronnie Allen, Jr.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Sunday with a nine-race card that begins at 12:50 p.m. (gates will open as usual at 11 a.m.). The feature is the eighth race, a $23,200, seven-furlong claiming event for horses 4-years-old-and-upward.
The final legs of the Tampa Turf Test series, originally scheduled for today, have been moved to Wednesday because of heavy rain that forced all turf races to be moved to the main dirt surface. Both of the $32,000 starter handicap races are slated at a mile-and-three-eighths, with the fillies and mares division the fourth race and the colts and geldings division the eighth race.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Easter Sunday, April 20 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.