Together, they represent racing’s elite.
But on Thursday night at the Meadowlands, Hall of Fame memberships, trophies and riding titles will be secondary to the mission of Craig Perret and a group of jockeys he calls “real people” just trying to help their fellow horsemen.
Louisiana natives Perret, Kent Desormeaux, Mark Guidry, Eddie Martin and Eddie Delahoussaye will join Gary Stevens, Joe Bravo and team of local riders in an invitational fundraiser at the Meadowlands to benefit Louisiana horsemen affected by Hurricane Katrina.
The riders will square off in four races – the third, fourth, sixth and seventh – on a racing program that starts at 7:30 p.m. The competing jockeys will donate their riding fees from the selected races and the Meadowlands will contribute $10,000 toward the fundraising effort. Donations from the Katrina Jockey Invitational Challenge will go to directly to Louisiana horsemen through the Race Track Chaplaincy of America.
“These are six guys who are standing up,” said Perret, who is originally from New Orleans. “Gary is not from there, Joe Bravo is not, but these are men that are standing up because they are real people. They come to every cause. I’m proud to know them; I consider them my family. They’re there to do what is the right thing. It’s not about the money or material things, it’s about putting people back into their lives. Where do you start? Everything you’ve worked for your whole life is gone in the blink of an eye. My family’s shattered. How do you start rebuilding after that? All we can do is give them the faith and courage that we’ll help them get back on their feet. I appreciate the Meadowlands creating something that helps us do that.”
The riders will be available to speak with fans and sign autographs for fans who make a donation to the Katrina Fund between 7 and 11 p.m.
“I want the fans to meet and know each one of us as people,” Perret said. “We were lucky to make a great career because we had the talent to do it. We’re there for everybody. I want to meet them and talk with them as people. Whatever they can do will be greatly appreciated.”
Perret has 23 family members displaced by Katrina.
“Thank God they’re all safe,” Perret said. “I went through eight days trying to contact friends and family. I couldn’t reach anybody. There was no signal in or out. They were shipped from state to state. It’s a lot easier for me to understand it. I lived [Hurricane] Camille, but I didn’t live Katrina, my family did. Kent Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, Eddie Martin, Joe Bravo, Mark Guidry– they’re my family and they’re putting their lives on hold to help people. My family is pretty shattered out. They put roots in the ground, raised a family and in the blink of an eye it’s gone. They are devastated. All I can do is be strong enough to help them know it will be okay. I love them all [the jockeys], They’re there for the right reasons, to help people who need help. Whatever it takes to put a show on and help those people, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Desormeaux, who was born in Maurice, Louisiana, also has someone close to his heart working through the devastation.
“I have a first cousin [Blair Hebert], it’s through him that I first got involved with horses through the 4-H,” he explained. “His home is underwater. He and his wife are living at his mother-in-law’s house. It’s horrible. They have a brand new baby and a two-year-old and they’re sleeping on couches until their home dries out. I have a classmate with a herd of horses, and they couldn’t find them all. Some of them drowned, and they still can’t find them all. I feel fortunate to say that everyone was safe. The rest is lumber and they can rebuild, but they just don’t have the wherewithal to do it.
“I can’t wait to raise some money and put it in their hands,” Desormeaux continued. “I’m looking forward to helping them rebuild their lives. I’d like to first thank the Meadowlands. Through their facility, we’re going to raise funds for these people. We also have to thank the local [jockey] colony. They’re donating as much as us. Those local boys are giving up their rides to help donate to the cause.”
Mark Guidry’s family was spared by a matter of miles.
“I was in Chicago watching on television,” recalled Guidry, who was born in Lafayette, Louisiana. “I lived it with Craig, calling him every day. My family lives in the middle of the state and they were spared from Katrina and Rita, but I put myself in their shoes. The riders always come to the aid, they’re all good people. We are not all from Louisiana, but we all know someone from there. For us to pull it together for this particular night is a big deal and I’m pleased to be part of it.”
Though they are not rooted in Louisiana, their racing kinship has connected Gary Stevens and Joe Bravo to the devastation.
“I don’t have any family there, but I have a lot of ‘brothers’ in the New Orleans area,” Stevens said. “So many stars – equine, trainers, jockeys – come from there. Their world has been turned into chaos. I am happy to help out. It’s a great cause.
“People watch us on simulcast every day and I know they enjoy it, but I’m not so interested in watching me ride but also mingling with [the fans], signing autographs and letting them know how to help,” Stevens continued. “There is no appearance fee. One hundred percent of our money is going to the horsemen affected by Katrina directly.”
“I’m just happy that we were able to pull this together,” Bravo said. “I have to put myself into their shoes. The horsemen were living a nice life down there, and then overnight, their area was turned into a third world country.
“This is a great experience to get these great riders to come out here,” Bravo added. “We want the fans to know that these are some of the best riders in the world and you’re going to have a great time watching them ride. I’m donating whatever I make in those races but it is going to be a great time to watch them. [The Meadowlands riders] were glad to see people around the country coming together.”