Members of Saratoga Spring's racing community came together Sunday night for an event that, while generally carefree and fun, also serves as a poignant reminder of the dangers and risks professional horse racing jockeys face.
The Saratoga Jockeys Karaoke contest was held at Vapor night club at the Saratoga Casino Hotel Sunday evening. Proceeds from the annual event go to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys' Fund (PDJF).
Long time NYRA track announcer Tom Durkin acted as Sunday's emcee, while trainers Mark Casse, Mark Hennig, Graham Motion and D. Wayne Lukas served as judges.
Many jockeys who are hurt on the job, sometimes catastrophically so, desperately need an organization that can at least give them some form of support, in whatever way they need it, after their career has come to an abrupt end, explained Terry Meyocks during Sunday's event. Meyocks, the former New York Racing Association president, is the current president and chief executive officer of Jockey's Guild Inc., an organization that advocates and provides financial support to jockeys.
With the high cost of medical bills, medications, housing and other expenses, Meyocks said, a stipend of $1,000 enough is often not enough financial compensation for a disabled jockey to stay afloat.
"That's nothing. That's peanuts," Meyocks said.
While PDJF does not have a guaranteed source of funding, Sunday's karaoke event, along with other annual events, provide some much needed relief to those the organization serves. The karaoke event itself often raises upwards of $100,000.
While Vapor has been hosting the event for at least eight years, the event has been held annually for at least 12, Meyocks said. Next month, PDJF will host its inaugural jockey karaoke fundraiser in California.
And while the karaoke event is a source of fun, Meyock pointed out that it would be even better if the racing industry as a whole moved to act in a way that is more supportive of disabled jockeys.
"The industry could, and should do better," he said.
Shea Leparoux was preparing to perform a duet on Sunday with her husband, renowned jockey Julien Leparoux. She pointed out that while the event is fun and supportive every year, always at the back of everyone's mind is the fact that a career-ending fall could happen to anyone at any time, which is why it's so important to raise awareness.
"It's a great cause, and we're proud to be a part of it. But that's the reality of this industry," she said.
Hall of Famer John Velazquez was preparing to bring his A game to the singing competition, determined, he said, to outshine his counterparts in California.
"It's nice they're trying, but we're the best," he joked prior to the start of the performances. But jokes aside, he added, the fact that PDJF has no source of guaranteed funding makes events like the jockey karaoke contest critical.
Junior Alvarado was gearing up for a double-edged performance on Sunday: not only was he going to sing a song from hip-hop band The Black Eyed Peas, but a tune by Mötley Crüe as we;;.
His peers voted him "most improved" singer from last year, an honor which Alvarado was ready to take seriously, he said. But the night for him was about making sure there was someone present to take care of, and give back to, jockeys who need help during times of difficulty.
"Sometimes, all you have is your family. From this, you get a little peace of mind. I really love it. I've been on the other side so many times," he said.
East Greenbush native and former jockey Michael Straight, who was paralyzed from the waist down following a 2009 racing accident, said that every little bit raised on Sunday night would help permanently disabled jockeys.
"Medical bills, medical equipment, you name it. Anything helps to make sure we're okay," he said. The competition, which Straight pointed out has grown year after year and raised more and more money, is something all jockeys take seriously because they all acknowledge how the dangers of the job don't discriminate.
"Every one of them knows that it could be them tomorrow. They know that," he said.
It also doesn't hurt to see his friends and peers having a good time.
"I enjoy watching these boys act like fools," he joked.