03/15/2012 1:03PM

Fair Grounds: Perrodin and family come to grips with his cancer

Louis Hodges Jr.
Jockey E.J. Perrodin discovered he had lung cancer just days after he announced his retirement from racing last month at age 55.

Trainer Pat Mouton and jockey E.J. “Tee Joe” Perrodin are married to sisters, and for years Tee Joe has ridden Mouton horses. On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the day before Perrodin was to ride for Mouton at Fair Grounds, Mouton called Perrodin to see if he wanted to ride anything that weekend. Perrodin, 55 and nearing the end of a long career, sometimes turned down the weekend mounts, choosing instead to drive home to Haughton, La., and spend a couple of days with his wife, Lisa, and 7-year-old son, Devin.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you put someone else on those horses for me,’ ” Mouton said. “I said, ‘How about the one Thursday?’ And he said, ‘No, you’d better put someone else on that one, too.’ In the 27 years I’ve ridden him, Joe had never said something like that. When he took off that mount, I knew right then and there something was wrong.”

That Thursday, Perrodin visited the Fair Grounds stewards to explain his upcoming absence. He told them he was retiring after almost four decades as a jockey. It was something he had pondered in recent months. Now he was hanging up his tack.

Friday, Perrodin drove the 350 miles from New Orleans to Haughton, his truck chaotically heaped with his belongings. Home, he bent to hug his young son. Perrodin fell and could not rise. His wife found him on the ground.

“I thought the dog had knocked him over,” Lisa Perrodin said. “He said, ‘Don’t you dare call an ambulance. I’m just tired.’ ”

The next week, Perrodin went to see a doctor. The diagnosis came quickly, stunningly: adenocarcinoma. Perrodin, a longtime smoker who had quit, had a large tumor in his lung. The cancer had progressed to stage 4, usually a point of no return. It had metastasized and spread into his brain.

“When he got home from New Orleans that evening, it had to be god and a multitude of angels that steered his truck,” Lisa Perrodin said, “because he hasn’t driven since, and he can’t drive at all now.”

Tee Joe Perrodin is having radiation treatment this week but otherwise stays at home. The tumor in his lungs is being left as is, his wife said, but the hope is that minimizing the effect of the cancer in his brain will boost his quality of life and give him more time with his family. No one is talking about a cure or about anything other than a sad, tragic retirement.

“He’s doing OK,” Lisa Perrodin said. “He’s a real trooper. It’s probably more depressing than anything.”

Tumor pressure on the left side of Perrodin’s brain has weakened the right side of his body. He can get around, his wife said, but it’s not easy. Similarly, the cancer has affected mental processes: Perrodin can speak, but words come slowly and with difficulty.

“He knows what he wants to say, but he can’t find the words,” Lisa Perrodin said. “Some days are good days, some days are not so good.”

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Mouton and Perrodin’s wife said Perrodin didn’t have an inkling he was ill at the time he decided to retire.

“This really blind-sided him,” Lisa Perrodin said. “I think he thought he was struggling with some aches and pains, just thinking he was getting older.”

“I look back on it, and he looked like the same old Tee Joe to me,” said Shane Sellers, 45, another Fair Grounds-based jockey who, like Perrodin, came up in central Louisiana. “I knew he had quit smoking a couple of years ago. He’s always been skinny like a rail, and he’s got 30 years of punishment on the body from making weight and everything. He’s looking old, but we are old. I was saying to myself, ‘All right, T, I know you saved your money, and it’s about time to stop.’ But no, we never saw anything in his riding. If you rode up to him, you weren’t going to an empty saddle towel. He could still get one home.”

Perrodin, from Rayne, La., rode the bush tracks when he was a kid. To the next generation of Louisiana riders, like Sellers, Perrodin was a household name. Perrodin ventured to parts of the Midwest during the earlier portion of his career, finding success at tracks such as the defunct Detroit Race Course, but he chose mainly to stay close to home, in Louisiana. That decision limited his national exposure, but Perrodin still won 3,083 sanctioned races, and he is one of only a handful of jockeys who have won six races on one Fair Grounds card.

Perrodin’s plight is bringing one of his former employers, the Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, to Fair Grounds for the first time in more than 20 years. On Tuesday, Fair Grounds is hosting a crawfish boil to benefit Perrodin’s family. Items will be charitably auctioned off at the event, and Van Berg, a skilled auctioneer, will help sell them.

“E. J., he rode for me mainly at Louisiana Downs,” said Van Berg, 76, who is based in Southern California. “He had more horsemanship than the average guy. He could come back after a race and tell you something.”

Van Berg didn’t know Perrodin well personally, but that was the case with almost all the riders he used.

“I just don’t get all that acquainted with any of the jockeys, in case I have to yell at them and fire them,” Van Berg said. “But I remember him as a good human being. He was very laid back, not very outspoken.”

Those characteristics never changed. Perrodin wasn’t a flamboyant jock. He stayed down to earth, focused on his work, “a professional in every sense of the word,” Sellers said.

“He’s just one of those guys who, unlike myself at times, didn’t let the game didn’t get to him,” Sellers said. “He didn’t let the game dictate how his moods were going to be.”

The Fair Grounds benefit could do some real good for the Perrodins. Devin was diagnosed with autism at age 3, and Lisa devotes much of her time to him. Lisa has done her best to minimize the cost of her husband’s ongoing care, but the price tag still will be high.

“Nobody’s working right now,” she said. “There’s nothing coming in.”

Lisa Perrodin has somehow taken a month’s worth of crushing blows and come through with a clear voice and mind. For that, she credits her faith.

“You’re kind of always ready for bad news as a jockey’s wife, but I have such a strong faith-based system,” she said. “I know if I would have had to depend just on my own strength, it was gone a long time ago. It was gone when he fell on the floor coming home.”

About four years ago, Perrodin, already old for a rider, took a bad spill warming up a filly before a Fair Grounds race. He broke his pelvis and ribs, lacerated his liver, and punctured a lung. The injuries nearly ended his career, but Perrodin worked tirelessly to rehab and return.

“When he had that other accident with the pelvis, that was bad, but gradually it was always getting better,” Lisa Perrodin said. “This is the opposite. Things are gradually getting worse. This is a different monster. It sneaks up on you, attacks you. There’s not much you can do at this time – except pray.”

A charity crawfish boil will be held in the Fair Grounds paddock Tuesday, March 20, from 4-6:30 p.m. to raise funds for the family of retired jockey E.J. Perrodin. Festivities include a jockey crawfish eating contest and silent and live auctions. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 504-948-1150 or send an email to sandra.salmen@fgno.com.