LQHBA Insider - By Martha Claussen September  21, 2017

JOCKEY WIVES STANDING BESIDE THE MEN THEY LOVE

There is a famous quote that states "behind every great man there is a great woman". Hopefully every person reading this nods their heads accordingly! Jockey wives everywhere face unique challenges and sacrifices. The wonderful group of Louisiana spouses go above and beyond with their love, encouragement and steadfast support of their husbands and the racing industry.

Juggling Family

Anna Lujan is one of many young jockey wives who have the difficult task of juggling being a devoted spouse and raising a family. She and her husband, Alfonso, have three children and make their home in Texas.

Traveling with babies is easy, according to Anna, but changed once their oldest reached school age.

"Our kiddos are a blessing," she said. "Having young children, traveling is fun until the dreaded time to start kindergarten, and that's when the mama hen begins her stay at home."

The Lujans are committed to their children's education and well being, which meant less traveling. Anna admits that is hard when you are used to being with your spouse all the time.

"Fortunately, Alfonso, is probably the best hubby God could have sent me," she said. "He works harder than anyone I know and puts in 110% for his 3 children and I."

David Alvarez's wife, Wendy, is another young woman who juggles supporting her husband and raising three children. She knows very well about the highs and lows of marriage to a jockey.

Her husband has had his share of accidents, and she shares the difficulty in being there for him, but reassuring her children that their father will be okay. She's done a pretty good job, as I saw David take a flying somersault over his mount in trials for the Sam Houston Futurity. Twenty minutes later, I saw the Alvarez children calmly sitting on a bench. When I inquired about their dad, David Jr, who is almost 10, nonchalantly replied "He's fine."

Summer is a good time for the jockey wives with young children, as they can spend considerably more time together.

"We love it and he's so happy to be with his family," said Wendy.

On July 4, the entire Alvarez clan was at Delta Downs when David won the $318,120 Firecracker Futurity aboard Not Pretty Perry. Wendy is one of the more vocal jockey wives and whooped and hollered as he neared the wire. The kids were thrilled for their dad, but a little worried about Wendy.

"Mom, did you hurt your voice?" her daughter Emily asked.

Life on the Road

Louisiana offers four race meets each year, and three of them, Louisiana Downs, Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs run for 46-days. That translates into a lot of work to relocate and settle in for the riders and their wives.

Dedria Watson, the wife of Donald Watson, is a veteran in organizing, packing and moving three to four times each year, and she does it with a smile!

"Life on the road is fun, but far from easy," admits Dedria. "You must set a plan. Gas, camper note, lot rent, travel expense, hurricane evacuation money, cancelation of races due to cold weather, and managing two places to live (home and on the road) is not easy."

Some meets have four days of racing; others have less, so Dedria notes that days off can be rather boring.

"I appreciate (Louisiana Downs) Chaplin Jimmy Sistrunk introducing me to a whole different way of living on the road and getting me involved with the many charity programs that the church does for our jockeys," she added.

Some wives cannot accompany their husbands on the circuit full time. Monica Watson has been married to her husband, Patrick for 23 years. She works full-time at Delta Downs, and remains in their Lake Charles home year round. The veteran rider has attempted retirement twice, but is always drawn back to the saddle. These days he is riding for top Louisiana horseman Kenny Roberts, and enjoying a career resurgence.

"Retirement was just not for Patrick," explained Monica. "He's doing well and things are great right now."

So when Patrick is away from home for the remainder of this year, Monica knows he will have a strong support group there for him.

"What makes this life so special is the people in the racing community," said Monica. "We are true family."

Injuries

Every athlete is forced to deal with the untimely threat of an injury, but jockeys have the unique distinction of having an ambulance follow them each time they are in action!

Kathy Lavergne, wife of rider Danny Lavergne, could write a medical journal on injuries associated with race riding. Before they were even married, she recalled an early morning training accident in which a horse rocked forward, and instantly hit Danny so hard that he suffered a broken nose, his eye socket, jaw, and pallet. Since that accident, there have been many more. She gives a heart wrenching perspective of what it is like for a jockey wife.

"When a horse goes down in a race, there is a sound the crowd makes," said Kathy. "It is like a gasp mixed with soft screams and groans. To everyone else it means a horse has gone down. To us jockey wives it is like an alarm that means one of our lives may have just changed forever. Our minds and bodies kick in to overdrive and we run blindly to help."

The majority of professional athletes are paid when they are injured or rehabilitating from surgery. That is not the case with jockeys. Kathy Lavergne explains that because their livelihood depends on winning races, many return to action sooner than advised.

"I have seen jockeys who are told they cannot ride for eight weeks, cut their casts off or throw down their crutches and talk their doctors into releasing them to ride," she said. "Danny has been riding with a wound on his leg 8 inches long by 2¾ wide. He doesn’t complain; he just does what he has to do to get back in the saddle."

Anna Lujan, who was home with her children in Texas, adds her account of a bad accident Alfonso had last October at Evangeline Downs.

"I got the dreaded phone call at 9:30 at night informing me that my husband was on his way to the hospital and is having trouble breathing," recalled Anna. "What do I do? Pack my kids up and start the six hour drive; the longest drive of my life!"

The injuries are there, but balanced with the incredible rush of pride when a jockey wins a big race and is surrounded by their wife and family in the winner's circle.

"All I know is that although at times I am on pins and needles watching him race just hoping he gets to the finish line safe, I still get goose bumps seeing how extraordinary he is doing what he loves to do," said Anna.

Faith in God

Sharon Hamilton is the wife of the very successful Louisiana jockey, John Hamilton, who at 51, is at the top of his game.

She notes that through the years, it has been difficult at times and has its pros and cons, but all in all, it has been a blessing. They have built lasting relationships with many people and have had the great fortune to travel together and experience the grandeur of some beautiful racetracks around the country. She enjoys the smaller, more close-knit community in the Quarter Horse industry and appreciates the friendly faces wherever they go.

"As the wife of a horseman, I will say that Prayer and a Greater Understanding are the two most important tools that we have utilized in order to survive and endure the nature of this industry," said Sharon. "It has, however, been the ride of our lives, forever engraving itself in our hearts as an industry that we want to continue to grow and support. We appreciate everyone involved in our success and we thank God."

Charitable Endeavors

Rhonda Johnson Cox met her future husband, Eddie, back in 1991at Manor Downs near Austin. Friends for over a decade, they got more serious in 2003, when Rhonda worked for trainer Matt Baker, who Eddie rode for. Rhonda is now a jockey agent; Eddie broke his neck last year and was forced to retire from riding, and is transitioning into training.

Rhonda is a high energy person and an organizer extraordinaire. She states that Dedria Watson got her involved in fundraising efforts, but they have so much fun together that it just doesn't seem like work!

She is also a fan of Chaplain Jimmy Sistrunk in Shreveport and admired the great work he has done. Rhonda and Dedria banded together to do the shopping for meals cooked following church as well as organizing weekly Bingo nights. The events are open to all members of the backside to give them a fun evening to socialize and win great prizes.

In addition to those activities, Rhonda cites the many ways in which the jockey wives provide outreach to local community efforts, including disabled children, 4-H Youth Days and assistance to the elderly.

Each year at Louisiana Downs, the riders go to Shriners Children's Hospital in Shreveport . Rhonda and Dedria assemble goodie bags for all the kids and organize stick horse races.

The two wives are working on starting a non-profit organization called Winners Circle Of Faith to assist Louisiana jockeys.

Last December, several riders and their wives as well as several horsemen joined forces to raise funds for injured jockeys Alfonso Lujan and Eddie Cox. A sizable sum was raised in the activities, which included a silent auction, raffle and Jambalaya plate lunches.

Of course, credit goes to the owners, trainers and breeders who also get behind charitable events to lend their support to injured riders.

Deep and Lasting Bonds

It's doubtful that the wives of lawyers or accountants in a firm forge the strong bonds that the wives of jockeys do. They spend four to five hours together on race nights, talking and watching over their kids.

Diana Vallejo is engaged to Antonio Alberto and relocated from California to Louisiana with her fiancé. Just 22 years-old, she admits she was nervous about moving across the country where she had no connections or family. Those fears subsided immediately when she arrived.

"Everyone was so welcoming," said Diana. "They took me under their wing and were so loving and helpful."

When one of their husbands goes down in a spill, it might as well be all of their husbands as they are there immediately for each other.

"When something happens to one of our guys, the wives are here," said Rhonda. "Together, if a wife isn't here to go to the hospital with them, one of us will go and serve as the go between. We all know that horrible feeling of seeing them go down, but not knowing how badly injured our husbands are."

Tony Patterson, executive director of the Louisiana Quarter Horse Breeders Association (LQHBA) adds his praise.

"Even those of us in the industry cannot really imagine the challenges these ladies face," said Patterson. "We all acknowledge how important jockeys are to our sport. We need to add our thanks to the wives for their oftentimes unheralded role in supporting their husbands."

Delta Downs will wrap up their meet on July 11 and many of the riders will head to Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Just remember that although they ride the horses, and pose for a photo following their victory, some of the true winners are the women behind these great athletes! So next time you are at the racetrack, please give a nice round of applause for the wonderful jockey wives!

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The LQHBA Insider is a monthly feature written by Martha Claussen for www.lqhba.com. She served as publicity director at Sam Houston Race Park for ten years. She continues to be active in writing, fan education and Quarter Horse racing publicity in Texas, Louisiana and other regions in North America.