A Helping Hand

October 10, 2013
by Gabby Gaudet

Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund’s (MHAF) Executive Director Bobby Lillis set out to create a fundraiser for backstretch workers. The initial plan was to raise money for workers who needed financial help for medical bills, mortgage, food, and the general costs of living. That plan took on a new meaning the morning of September 19 when exercise rider Jose Villegas suffered a permanently debilitating injury after a spill while galloping a two-year-old colt at Laurel Park.   

Jose Villegas has loved horses ever since he can remember. He grew up in Mexico riding (from what he describes) horses very similar to Quarter horses. Nothing professional, just something he enjoyed.

“I used to ride horses in Mexico before I came to the United States,” he said. “I’ve been riding since I was 5-years-old.”

He came to the United States in the early 1990’s and found his first job on the racetrack as a groom at Delaware Park. In 1993 he decided to make the move and find a new job on the Maryland circuit. His journey led him to trainer Richard “Dickie” Small’s outfit.

“I started out as a groom for Dickie at Pimlico,” he said. “One winter, Dickie went out west with a string of horses and his assistant Brenda Jordan ran the barn at Pimlico. One day I asked if I could ride a horse bareback in the shedrow. No saddle, no bit, just a halter and a rope. The horse’s name was Punch Line.”

Jose continued to get on horses in the shedrow until Brenda pitched the idea of having Jose start to gallop horses. Dickie agreed.

“Dickie came to the barn one day and brought me some riding equipment,” he said. “Helmet, boots, everything. From there I started galloping. I didn’t learn the easy way. I learned the hard way, galloping three or four horses a day and also grooming.”

It didn’t take long before Jose became full-time exercise rider and began galloping some of Dickie’s finest stakes horses, even Breeders’ Cup winner Concern.

“He told me to get on the horse and I was like ‘whoa, whoa, whoa,’” he said. “I was so nervous to get on those types of horses but it got better.”

Every rider has his or her favorite horse. It took Jose three seconds to recall his favorite, a graded stakes winning filly who placed in the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga in her final career race. 

“Broad Smile,” he said.  “She was such an amazing filly. She was tough but she would do everything I asked her. She was perfect to gallop, perfect to breeze. She did everything right. She is definitely my favorite.”

Dickie Small is widely known for the quality of riders that graduate from his barn. Jockey Rosie Napravnik came in fresh off the farm and learned how to adapt her talents to the racetrack. Forest Boyce did the same while galloping at Dickie’s barn for almost 6 years throughout high school and college. Jose helped them both.

No words can describe the feeling when you hear bad news about a rider, a horse, or anyone or anything around the racetrack. The racetrack is a close community. You spend day in and day out with similar people every day. They become a second family. 

Jose has a family, a wife Claudia, two sons Russomar (22) and Uriel (8), and a daughter, Amaranto (19) who is currently studying Psychology at Goucher University. Jose’s second family is here at Laurel, Pimlico and Bowie.

Two weeks ago on De Francis Dash Day I asked Rosie Napravnik if she could sign a pair of goggles to be donated for Jose Villegas. Rosie walked back to her box in the woman’s jock’s room and rummaged through her bag. She pulled out a handful of goggles, signed them all and also added a signed pair of her jockey pants to the pile.

Rosie is one of many who’ve donated time, money and items to this event that will be held next Thursday, October 17. I spoke with Bobby Lillis on Tuesday morning to write down the list of other donated items so I could add them to this blog.

….a signed Ramon Dominguez bobble head.

….a 2014 Breeding Season to the sire Scipion from Wayne and Juanita Morris.

….a signed program from jockeys in the 138th Preakness.

…a canvas print photo of Ben’s Cat winning the 2013 Laurel Dash stakes in the rain.

…four tickets to any 2014 Baltimore Orioles game, right by the dugout.

…a photo of Barbaro and the book, both signed by Edgar Prado.

…a framed photo of Dance To Bristol winning the Ballerina from Xavier Perez.

 I eventually ran out of ink. With every stroke of my pen, a new goose bump crept on my arm.  Some know Jose well, some are just acquaintances, others have never met him.   All care greatly.

The event will be held at longtime thoroughbred owner Charles “Chip” Reed’s restaurant The Corner Stable in Columbia, Maryland. Fifteen percent of all proceeds from food and drink will be donated, as well as 150 shots. Order the ribs. You’ll be happy you did.

There will also be a karaoke contest for all of those brave enough to get on stage. It doesn’t matter if you’re good, bad, or terrible, everyone should try it. However, if you don’t feel inclined to do so, you can at least vote. The cost is one dollar per vote and you can vote as many times as you’d like.

The rest of the fundraising info is posted below. It’s going to be a long, busy week with Maryland Million Day looming right around the corner, but please, if you can, come out and support.


Event Info:

When: Thursday, October 17 from 6pm to 9pm.

Where: The Corner Stable
8630 Guilford Road, Columbia, MD  21046

Link: http://www.facebook.com/#!/events/581672541897692/?notif_t=plan_user_joined