SARATOGA SPRINGS — Anne Nafziger will never wash her tan sun hat.
The wide-brimmed topper is decorated with dozens of autographs, names of jockeys who spend their summers at Saratoga Race Course.
Nafziger, who lives in Schenectady, added to her collection on Saturday. A couple hundred racing fans lined up for signatures as part of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund Awareness Day Across America.
Fans who donated $5 received a commemorative “Riders Up!” poster, a red, black and white rendition of a jockey in silhouette. Sixteen jockeys sat in the shade of the Jockey Silks Room Porch and signed posters and other souvenirs.
Some people in line knew the reason behind close encounters with guys like Ramón Dominguez, Jose Ortiz, John Velazquez and Rajiv Maragh. The jockeys’ fund mission is to provide financial assistance to former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic, on-track injuries.
“Donating to the cause,” Nafziger said. “I think the jockeys should have an even better safety net than this.”
Fans in shorts, Hawaiian shirts, gowns, sandals and bright-colored blouses took photos of their favorites and thanked them for their fast trips around the track. Some of the jocks were in street clothes; others wore racing silks and boots they would need for Saturday’s first race.
“It’s incredible how talented they are,” said Randall Johnston of Matawan, New Jersey. “It’s one of the few times you can really give back to the people who give so much to the sport and put themselves in harm’s way. I drove up just for this.”
Vicki Rehberg of Glens Falls, who runs the Winning Silks gift collection — one of the vendors on the race course grounds — brought a refurbished clubhouse chair to the riders’ row. She bought about 30 red-cushioned chairs after the 2018 meet, furniture the New York Racing Association had retired and replaced.
Rehberg installed a new cushion, a collage of jockey silks. The jocks signed the wooden underside of the chair.
Rehberg considers the chairs antiques. For every one she sells, she said, a portion of the proceeds is donated to the jockeys’ fund.
Some autograph seekers are just getting into the game. Christopher Buda of Clifton Park, 4, wore racing goggles as he waited in line with dad Nick.
“He’s obsessed with the jockeys,” Nick said. “He wants to be a jockey, they keep telling him not to grow.”
Christopher kept most of his opinions to himself.
Others were happy to add to memorabilia collections, and share just a few seconds with racing stars. “It’s an honor to meet some of them,” said Henry Connors of Framingham, Massachusetts. “I respect them tremendously.”
Dominguez, a jockey who retired in 2013, believes events like the autograph session are good for jockeys in the saddle and for people in the seats.
“We are one big family,” Dominguez said of the jockey crew, “and we feel fortunate to be in the position to give back and help our fellow riders who, unfortunately, their careers came to an end due to a catastrophic injury.”
For the jockeys, the 45-minute session was more than just fast signatures with black Sharpie markers.
“It’s great, just connecting with the guys and kidding around,” Dominguez said. “And equally important is connecting with the fans, some of whom we have come to know over the years because they come to the track.
“It goes both ways,” Dominguez added. “They’re happy to come and get our autographs and at the same time, we are happy to see them. It’s a great event for so many different reasons.”
On the financial side of the event, every dollar helps.
“The Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund is a 100 percent donation-based charity,” said Nancy LaSala, the president of the national group. “We do not have guaranteed funding, so everything we can do to raise money and bring awareness is our number one objective.”
LaSala said Saratoga has hosted an autograph session for about the last 10 years. She expected donations on Saturday would total between $3,000 and $4,000.
LaSala also said Saratoga’s event was one of several held at race courses around the country on Saturday.
Stacey Loki of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, needed ink on two white jockey fund ball caps. One was for her husband, Tom. The other was for her driver, Ted.
“I’m on a bus tour and I’m giving it to our bus driver,” Loki said. “It’s his birthday.”
For Tom Bassett of Southampton, Massachusetts, 16 jockey names joined an already signature-crowded racing print. Since the early 1990s, Bassett has filled the art piece with racing names such as jockey Eddie Arcaro and stable owner and former NYRA chairman Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr.
“When I get to my next house — we’re going to be retired soon — it’s going to be up on the wall,” Bassett said. “It’s a collector’s print, but I love the sport. These guys are so far superior to any other athletes and they’re so accessible, polite and congenial.”
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]