They Never Ride Alone : MacBeth Memorial Fund Established to Help Those Who Suffer Serious Injuries
In the summer of 1986, actor Tim Conway was paid $5,000 for a promotional appearance at the Twin Cities’ Canterbury Downs in connection with the first running of what was then the St. Paul Derby.
Conway decided to give the money to some needy jockeys. The son of an Irish-born horse trainer, Conway grew up dreaming of becoming a jockey, but the closest he ever came was as an exercise rider at tracks around Cleveland. Then comedy called.
A horse owner in California, Conway went to his friend, jockey Chris McCarron, with the idea of donating the $5,000.
“There was no fund available,” McCarron said. “I’m a member of the Jockeys’ Guild, and at the time we had 36 jocks who were permanently disabled. I suggested to Tim that he split up the money and give every one of those guys something at Christmas time.”
For Conway, handing a jockey in a wheelchair 1/36th of $5,000 wasn’t enough. He began talking with McCarron and the jockey’s wife, Judy, about starting a permanent fund, collecting money that would help riders when they are injured in what Conway calls “the most dangerous occupation in the world.”
While they were still sorting out the paperwork, the McCarrons had lunch near Santa Anita with Don MacBeth, an East Coast jockey who was in town to accept the George Woolf Memorial Award. Chris McCarron was still on crutches, recovering from a five-horse spill in which he had suffered a shattered
thigh bone four months before.
“If I’ve got enough strength, I’ll help you get this (fund) started,” MacBeth said. MacBeth, 37, was dying of cancer. He was a pasty-faced, gaunt figure in the sunshine at Santa Anita that day, accepting his award. A week later, he was dead.
Now it is almost five years later, and the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund is an industry fixture. Tony DeFranco, the fund administrator who works in a bungalow behind Conway’s home in the San Fernando Valley, said that the MacBeth fund has helped more than 300 jockeys.
“Jockeys Across America Day,” a national fund-raiser supported this year by 55 tracks in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, has raised more than $200,000 in the last three years. Fred Stone, the equine artist, has contributed $70,000 through proceeds from the sales of portraits of Secretariat and Bill Shoemaker.
The dollar numbers are still small, however, compared to the bills that jockeys face when they are thrown and trampled by horses. Many of their injuries can be called catastrophic. They are not salaried athletes, earning only when they are riding.
McCarron has gone down more than once, running up medical bills in five figures in recent years. But he is at the top of the financial ladder, capable of earning about $1 million per year and able to afford $20,000 annual premiums on extensive insurance for him and his family.
Benny Narvaez, 27, hadn’t yet ridden any top horses when he was involved in a five-horse pileup at Tampa Bay Downs early last year. Having recently arrived from Puerto Rico, Narvaez had ridden only a few horses before scoring his first victory the day before the accident, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. He has a wife and four children.
The Jockeys’ Guild, which represents about 95% of the nation’s riders, has accident insurance, but because of a rule that troubles McCarron, a guild director, Narvaez wasn’t eligible. A jockey must win a race before he can apply for guild membership, and since Narvaez had only won the day before the tragedy, there had not been time to enroll him in the insurance program.
Tampa Bay Downs’ insurance was good for about $50,000. In California, DeFranco was contacted at MacBeth Fund headquarters and he responded immediately. The Narvaezes are now living in a four-bedroom mobile home and Narvaez is driving a specially equipped van.
“The only thing that could make me walk again is a miracle,” Narvaez said. “I believe that that miracle will come one day. I really think I will walk again.”
Fred Stone was at Saratoga four years ago, about to go to breakfast with Dick Lundy, the trainer of one of Stone’s horses, after morning workouts. They asked Kate Rivers, an exercise rider, to join them. She said she had one last horse to work and rode off. But the stirrups broke and the horse fell, crushing Rivers, the mother of two small children. She became a paraplegic.
Through Stone’s contribution, the MacBeth fund was able to pay some of Rivers’ medical bills and buy her a special van.
“We’re legitimate, we’re honest, and we have credibility,” says DeFranco, a longtime horseplayer and former New Jersey public-school administrator who was associated with Conway before the MacBeth fund began.
“We take impeccable care about the way we use our funds. We respond quickly, usually wiring the money to a jockey the same day he contacts us. Pat Love of our staff is available for counseling. The areas we help the most in are trailer homes, cosmetic surgery and prostheses. But we only have so much money to go around. I like to think of us as a big Band-Aid.”
Last week, DeFranco and McCarron shuddered when they heard that Hollywood Park was contributing $200,000 to the Bill Shoemaker Foundation and $25,000 to the MacBeth fund. Last summer, the newly created Shoemaker foundation made the MacBeth fund its first recipient with a $25,000 donation and the MacBeth fund will also be receiving, DeFranco said, $15,000 from Hollywood Park Charities, an auxiliary of the race track.
“We thought we were doing OK until the Shoemaker foundation came along,” DeFranco said. “We work our tails off to raise $100,000, getting jockeys at other tracks to have foot races, giving up their mount fees for a day and through other means, and then the Shoemaker people came along and put together all that money so quickly.”
The Shoemaker foundation was started by R.D. Hubbard, chairman of the board at Hollywood Park, after Bill Shoemaker, the Hall of Fame jockey-turned-trainer, was left a quadriplegic by injuries suffered in an automobile accident last April. From a wheelchair, Shoemaker resumed training horses this fall. Shoemaker’s medical bills have been estimated at more than $1 million.
Shoemaker served as president of the Jockeys’ Guild for 16 years and John Giovanni, current national manager of the guild, said that Shoemaker lacks disability benefits because of a guild rule that precludes accidents in which alcohol or drugs are involved.
“I believe Shoe was the guy who seconded the motion on that rule,” Giovanni said.
Blood tests indicated that Shoemaker was legally drunk at the time of his accident.
At Hollywood Park in July, a $250-per-plate black-tie dinner and auction that included breeding rights to Nureyev and other stallions raised more than $1 million for the Shoemaker foundation. Hubbard, who has said that Shoemaker himself will be the foundation’s major benefactor, estimated that the fund will reach $2 million by next year.
“In a way, we (the MacBeth fund) are in competition (with the Shoemaker foundation),” McCarron said. “It’s sticky for me, because I want to support both. There’s also a third fund I’m behind--the Disabled Riders Fund of the Jockeys’ Guild. We’re all after the donor dollar. The MacBeth fund has a broader span, and I believe it asks for less. But as long as people just give to one of the three, I’m happy.”
One donor--Fritz Hawn, an owner-breeder and former board member at Del Mar--gave $200,000 to the Shoemaker foundation. By comparison, many of the donations to the MacBeth fund are small change.
The Santa Anita jockeys play an annual benefit softball game--Don MacBeth’s daughter, Tiffany, has attended for the last three years. Dave Johnson, a horse racing announcer, has donated some of his commercial fees. At three balls for $2, Laurel Race Course raised $630 as fans took shots at their least-favorite jockeys, sending them into a dunking tub. Conway has donated profits from racing videos and one of his hobbies--woodworking--has resulted in the sale of lamps, plaques and hat racks.
“I’ve seen Tim bolt from the Turf Club at the track, following a jockey all the way to the hospital emergency room,” DeFranco said.
Says Conway: “They are the gutsiest people you can imagine.”
Before an audience, though, it’s open season. Conway has a routine during which he shows slides of horsemen, then captions them with ridiculous asides. Click. A shot of Pat Valenzuela, holding up five fingers, comes on the screen. “That’s Pat Valenzuela the day he rode four winners,” Conway says. Click. A shot of an empty banquet room appears. “That’s the night of the Gary Stevens testimonial.”
Conway enjoys telling the story of the MacBeth fund helping a jockey whose problem couldn’t be classified as catastrophic. The rider was coming down the stretch, urging his horse on, when his false teeth fell out, lost forever in the sandy loam.
“We got him a new set of choppers,” Conway said.