By Teresa Genaro, Forbes.com
The horse racing world turns its eyes toward Southern California this weekend, when the Breeders’ Cup takes over Santa Anita Park for two days of world class racing with championship implications on the line.
Joined by their elite European counterparts, North America’s top jockeys, horses, and trainers will compete on Friday and Saturday in Breeders’ Cup races offering almost $25 million in purses, culminating in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday evening at 8 pm Eastern time on NBC. (The Breeders’ Cup is a freelance client for whom I occasionally write race previews and recaps.
To illustrate the dangers of being a jockey, it is often pointed out that riding horses is one of the few occupations in which an ambulance follows you around as you do your job. That danger was brought painfully home earlier this month, when 18-year-old jockey Juan Saez was killed in a racing accident at Indiana Grand.
They compete against each other multiple times on the track every day, but the risks of the job also bring jockeys together, to raise money for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, to advance the causes of the Jockeys Guild, and to lobby for safer working conditions and medical insurance.
Earlier this year, I was asked to explore the possibility of shooting a “You Can Play” project video with the jockey colony at Saratoga Race Course, which boasts the top riders in the country for its seven-week summer meet. Despite racing six days a week and attending innumerable charity events at night, not a single jockey declined.
“They’re really in tune to social issues and think beyond themselves,” said Richard Migliore, a former jockey himself who won the Eclipse Award for best apprentice rider in 1981, when he was 17. Migliore is currently a racing analyst for the New York Racing Association tracks of Saratoga, Belmont Park, and Aqueduct Racetrack, in addition to appearing on MSG, Fox Sports, and HRTV broadcasts, and it was he who approached the Saratoga jockeys about participating. “Like any other professional athlete, there’s a certain amount of selfishness involved, but these guys are very selfless. They make me very proud of them.”
The You Can Play Project was founded two years ago by Patrick Burke, Brian Kitts, and Glenn Witman, “dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.” You Can Play began with one video, in which Burke and his father Brian, the president of the Calgary Flames who has been an executive with several NHL teams and in the league office, explained the establishment of the organization, founded to carry on the legacy of Brendan Burke, Patrick’s brother and Brian’s son, who worked for the rights of gay athletes in hockey.
The Saratoga jockeys and the New York Racing Association are the first in racing to publicly support You Can Play; the project wouldn’t have been possible without NYRA’s support and the contributions of cinematographers Mitch Levites and Joe Calderone.
“I would offer that the State of New York is a world-renowned beacon of diversity, equality and tolerance,” said John Durso, NYRA’s director of communications and media relations. “We are proud to reflect these important values at the New York Racing Association, and honored to play an important role in supporting this groundbreaking initiative.”
Many of the jockeys in this video will hit the track this weekend at Santa Anita; others will ride in New York or Kentucky or Florida. New York was the first jockey colony to support You Can Play, but let’s hope it won’t be the last.