09/05/2014 2:38PM

Hovdey: The racetrack loses a family member


In what turned out to be the final post on her Facebook page, Sandy Lovato was moved for no apparent reason to remind her friends of the Lennon-McCartney lyric, “And in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love you make.”

No one realized she had written her own epitaph.

Nine days later, on the morning of Sept. 3, Sandy Lovato suffered fatal injuries when her small car was hit by a large truck running a stop sign, not far from her home in Norwalk, Ohio. The other driver died, and his passenger was injured, so there is no one left to blame. There is only what comes after.

Just like that, with no more warning than an earthquake, a bright light in a large room went dark. The death of Sandra Sweet Lovato sent ripples of shock and sadness in all directions, for not only was she a world-class wife, mother, and grandmother, Sandy had families beyond her happy home. Families who counted on her to organize, inspire, and protect the many interests that made her life so rich – therapeutic riding, equine rescue, youth outreach.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

Sandy Lovato spent 31 of her 54 years married to Frank Lovato Jr., the winner of the Eclipse Award in 1980 as North America’s outstanding apprentice jockey. Tim, the youngest of their three children, just turned 21.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Lovato rode hard for 25 years and won more than 1,700 races, with Sandy at his side nearly every step of the way. As part of the Thoroughbred racing family, the Lovatos were solid, to be admired for the fact that they embraced what opportunities they could to make the racetrack a better place. Frankie also nearly upset John Henry with Peat Moss in a Jockey Club Gold Cup and could bring down the house crooning on tabletops at the Parting Glass in Saratoga.

Each in their own way, the Lovatos have been the best kind of ambassadors the sport could want. Their actions have spoken louder than any pronouncements, but there was a moment earlier this year when Sandy could no longer tolerate the trashing of her extended family:

“I am going to get on my soap box here for a minute about horse racing and specifically the recent undercover video put out by PETA,” Sandy wrote on her Facebook page. “The whole video really pisses me off...IT WAS COMPLETELY ONE SIDED. If I had the money, I would do an undercover video to show the other side of that video that you weren’t seeing. ... I wish people would realize that backstretch workers including trainers get into the sport because they love horses. Most of us know it is very difficult to make money or become rich doing it. I am so tired of the racing haters!”

The Lovatos ended up near Sandy’s birthplace in north-central Ohio, but they never were far in spirit from the business they loved. They would tirelessly promote and expand the scope of their Jockey World project, while Sandy focused precious hours on the growing discipline of using horses to help in the physical and emotional development of special-needs children and adults. She called her organization Stampede of Dreams.

What comes next after a tragedy like the sudden loss of Sandy Lovato takes time to figure out. Little Allison has lost a grandmother. The Jockey Campers and Stampede of Dreamers have lost their Mother Superior. Frankie Lovato has lost the partner of a lifetime, a woman with a reach so comprehensive that he has spent more time these past few days comforting others. Then again, he was the lucky one married to Sandy Lovato.

I was a guest once in Sandy’s home and felt privileged every minute I was there. Music was always in the air, and horses out back, and the kids in the Lovatos’ annual summertime Jockey Camp were a revelation in their desire to scratch an itch they could hardly name. There were games and prizes and serious teaching time with Frankie in the saddle – aboard one of the famous Equicizers he invented and built – and Sandy on the ground, both of them giving the campers the gift of their hard-earned lessons.

At the end of the final day, the campers gathered with Sandy and Frankie – along with my wife, special guest camp counselor Julie Krone, and our daughter, Lorelei – in a bean field at the back of their property. Herding cats would have been easier, but finally they displayed their banner and grinned just long enough in the same direction to get the official 2012 camp photo that will be cherished around this house forever.

That evening, as stragglers and family flopped in the Lovato living room, snacked on ample leftovers and savored another Jockey Camp well done, Frankie brought out his guitar and began to sing, while Sandy shooed everyone from the kitchen so she could clean. Frankie sang Elvis and Dylan, “Hotel California” and “Fire and Rain,” the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and “Blue Bayou.” His untrained tenor was pure and honest and made you embarrassed you were getting it for free, without a two-drink minimum. Sitting on the couch, just a few feet away, with Lorelei fiddling with Frankie’s Eclipse Award and him singing “... just yesterday morning/they let me know you were gone ...,” you would swear it was just for you. Then, later I figured it out.

He was singing to Sandy.