Saturday, February 14, 2009 12:00 AM
FLORENCE, KY . . . February 14, 2009 . . . He was not the jockey in the winner's circle, but no jockey in any race on any day was a bigger winner than Justin Vitek after Turfway Park's 10th race Saturday. His mount on Model's Memo was his first since being diagnosed with myelogenous leukemia almost exactly a year ago, February 16, 2008.
Model's Memo, herself off since July, dropped back as usual but could not come up with a closing rally and finished last. The result had no impact on the light in Vitek's eyes or the excitement of well-wishers gathered around him.
"It felt great," Vitek said. "She broke a little tardy and got slammed, so it kind of took her out of her game, but it was the first time back—for both of us.
"I wasn't nervous, but I am excited. I wanted to get back not just for myself but for all the people who helped me do it."
After his first round of chemotherapy, Vitek's doctors at Louisville's Jewish Hospital told him the disease was in remission. The longer the remission holds, the less the chance the disease will return.
"After I went into remission, they told me there was a 60 percent chance it would come back. Now the odds are about 40 percent. I guess that makes me 40-to-1," Vitek said before the race with a grin.
While visiting family in Texas during the Christmas holidays, Vitek was able to meet with doctors at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where a bone marrow transplant would be done should one be needed. But his focus is on living, not worrying.
"The doctors told me to go live," Vitek said. They placed no restrictions on his activities, and he began planning his return to race riding. Since mid-November he has been getting on horses in the morning for trainer Tom Drury Jr. at Skylight Training Center in Oldham County, Ky. He had ridden "probably 90 to 95 percent" of Drury's entries for about two years before his diagnosis.
"The Drurys have been great," Vitek said. "Mr. Drury let me get back at my own pace. I've done about all I can do to get fit in the mornings, and compared to racing, mornings get monotonous, so I was ready."