Stickney, IL--At Sportsman’s Park, on April 25, 1964, exactly 45 years ago, Dennis Keehan’s brief career as a thoroughbred jockey came to an abrupt halt. That was the day Keehan was thrown from his mount, “a gutsy, hard-trying type” named Red Streamer. Those were the words Keehan used to describe the horse that clipped heels on the far turn that fateful day, and left the young athlete a paraplegic.
Sadly, but realistically, Keehan’s story does not stand alone in the annals of horse racing. For all that is exciting about the game, danger lurks at every turn, and through its long history, scores of jockeys have either died, or been left permanently disabled as a result of injuries suffered on the job.
“For crying out loud, because of this organization, I’m able to maintain myself, pay all my rent, live by myself and take care of myself,” said Keenan, a native of Chicago, and a winner of 81 races during his nine-months as a jockey. “Before this came into play, it was a scrape. I had to get help from my mom and dad, and basically I was just making it. Now, I’m comfortable, I hate to say it, at a time when everyone else is going through so much.”
As a member of the Jockey’s Guild at the time of his injury, Keenan received checks amounting to $100 a month, and in the forty-plus years since, his monthly stipend had grown only to $500 dollars a month, prompting action by the likes of race track owners, horsemen, jockeys and racing organizations -who together formed the PDJF in May of 2006.
“Prior to 2006 only the Jockey’s Guild was providing some assistance to individuals who were permanently disabled, and of course, they were only providing help to those who were members of the Guild,” said Nancy La Sala, board chair of the PDJF, and wife of longtime Hawthorne jockey Jerry La Sala. “So there were a lot of jockeys out there that got seriously injured who were not Jockey’s Guild members, that were pretty much struggling on their own.” It was the Jockeys Guild Board of Directors in 2006 who felt that no jockey should have to face such a life and are grateful to have the opportunity to work with the industry to create this fund.
Keehan, like all the other recipients, now gets $1,000 a month from the PDJF, twice his previous remuneration. The price of admission is, of course, certainly a steep one, but the PDJF considers an individual qualified if the injury (catastrophic) occurred on the racetrack and has left that individual medically incapacitated.
“When people identify permanent disabilities they always look at that wheelchair,” said La Sala.” But we do have a high number of severe head-injury recipients. They might include seizures, diminished short and long term memories, and some have reverted back to early grades of reading ability.”
While the names of the 60 jockeys who benefit from the PDJF are too numerous to list, they do include the likes of Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s regular pilot, and other familiar industry names such as Jack Fires, Gary Birzer and Vincent Amico.
“Each of these individuals have varying needs,” continued La Sala. “The vast majority of our recipients are getting anywhere in fixed income (Social Security) from $400-$1200 a month to live on…Many of them have high prescription drug costs and have issues maintaining their basic medical needs. There are many who are still raising children ten-years-old and younger living on this fixed income. What kind of opportunity do these people have to plan for their children’s future?”
With an outlay of $60,000 a month, it begs the question, how much money is in the fund and where does the money come from?
“Currently in the operating fund we have approximately $560,000, so you can understand we don’t have a lot of months in reserve,” said La Sala. “Anybody who gets a profit earned from horse racing, I would hope would get involved with their fair share of this.
“As much as raising funds is important—it’s needed, we live for it—but the bigger part of this is awareness of the program—who we help and why we help—and getting others to get involved. We do have some situations that people leave legacy requests and other things because they believe in what we’re doing and understand how important this is. If people would like to make a contribution that would be greatly appreciated.
Magnanimous contributions from Edgar Prado, who auctioned off his Barbaro saddle and gave all the proceeds to the PDJF ($220,000), and Frank Calabrese, who gave $200,000 to the Disabled Jockeys Endowment, go a long way toward assuring the continued viability of the PDJF, but more help is assuredly needed.
“I don’t need a lot. I’m by myself and I don’t need fancy stuff or extravagance to get through life,” said Keehan, who since his injury has established quite the reputation as a pool shark. “But some of the other riders with kids and stuff, this has got to be a great, great help for them.
“I went into this game knowing that I was gonna break something and maybe never get up. The nine months I rode I still have memories, when things get tough, that pick me up and pull me through. I liked what I did and when it was over I had to find another life.”
The Permanently Disabled Jockey’s Fund would like to always be there to lend a helping hand.
Donations can be sent to PDJF, P.O. Box 803, Elmhurst, IL 60126, or to learn more go to http://www.pdjf.org.