01/02/2015 3:12PM

Hovdey: Lovato looks forward following tragedy


The dictionary sitting next to this computer screen does not have pictures, but if it did, the one sketched next to the word “indomitable” would look a whole lot like Frankie Lovato Jr.

Inventor, educator, and entrepreneur, Lovato also has the advantage of being a former Eclipse Award-winning jockey who rubbed boots with the best and retired at the age of 41 with a lot more to give to the game he loved. If Lovato is known for anything, it is the creation of the Equicizer, an ingenious mash-up of a rocking horse and a rowing machine that allows the user to simulate both the posture and physical exertion of a jockey riding a Thoroughbred in full flight.

Lovato also is the man behind Jockey World, which is both a website and a network of activities and projects designed to encourage a better understanding of horse racing. There is Jockey World Radio, a Jockey World video series, Lovato’s “What It Takes to Be a Jockey” DVD, and the online Jockey World Daily Racing Terms that have proven popular with horse-racing beginners, as well as those of us who thought we already knew everything.

For many years, Jockey World has sponsored a summertime Jockey Camp for aspiring riders, hosted at the horse-friendly home of Frank and Sandy Lovato near the north-central Ohio town of Norwalk. Jockey Camp has been tailored now to offer jockey mini-camps for more calendar convenience, as well as one-on-one mentoring.

Lovato’s Equicizer business keeps him jumping – he crafts each one by hand in his home workshop – while Jockey World is a labor of love that is a 501(c)(3) educational organization that delivers the sport priceless publicity. It is a pace strong enough to put a lie to the “retired” part of retired jockey, made even more daunting these past four months because Lovato has been doing it all with one hand tied behind his heart.

Sandy Lovato, his wife and partner in all of the above, was killed Sept. 3 near their home when her car was hit by a truck running a stop sign. She was driving alone. The driver of the truck also was killed. Sandy left behind two sons, a daughter, and a granddaughter – and Frankie.

“I’m doing OK,” Lovato said Friday from home. “I don’t dwell. I’m just grateful for what I was given. There’s not one thing during the course of my day without Sandy all over it. We’d been together 35 years, since I was 16, and close every single day.”

There were good things that happened to the Lovatos in 2014, before that awful September day. Shortly before Sandy’s death, her daughter, Megan, learned that she was pregnant with her second child, a brother or sister to granddaughter Allison. Earlier in the year, the Lovatos reached a successful end to a legal battle that secured for them complete control over the Equicizer product, after a disappointing attempt to secure a manufacturing and distribution partner.

“There was some damage control from the other company,” Lovato said. “But not bad enough to make a serious difference. Right now, I’m back-ordered, and I feel like we’re running on the reputation of the product.”

Lovato invented the Equicizer in 1981 while in rehabilitation from a riding injury. Today, it’s hard to find a jockeys’ room without at least one Equicizer of various vintage.

“Santa Anita has been a returning customer,” Lovato said. “New York is another, Gulfstream, Arlington Park, Lone Star, Churchill Downs. Chris McCarron had nine Equicizers made for the students of the North American Racing Academy and had me customize them as his favorite horses, like John Henry, Precisionist, Alysheba, Sunday Silence.

“Purchases by individual riders don’t represent a real large percentage of sales, though. One of our top customers are therapeutic riding programs.”

The basic design of the Equicizer as a teaching tool has not changed. Its operation relies on the energy imparted by its user, unlike the other mechanical “horses” on the market that supply their own motorized movement and tend to ignore errors in rhythm and balance.

“I had a top Western rider who uses it for his students call the Equicizer a lie detector,” Lovato said. “If it doesn’t move right, it’s just mimicking the rider. Then, when you get into the therapeutic uses, the beauty of it being non-motorized means that it won’t push you through a movement that’s going to hurt you. For people with disabilities, the satisfaction of making it move on their own is an incredible sensation.”

Lovato has ambitious plans to enhance the Equicizer experience through the use of interactive software and digital monitoring.

“We’re working on virtual riding, which would mean you could exercise or ride to a ‘race’ or go through the woods,” he said. “The idea of someone with a disability being able to go for a trail ride and feel it is very exciting.”

At which point, Lovato realizes he will be doing these exciting things without Sandy.

“I would never have believed I could handle this,” Lovato said. “And I’m not saying I’m skipping lightly through the days, but I’ve got my kids and my granddaughter, and they’ve really helped me. I can only look forward.”