01/29/2010 12:00AM

Vitek remembered as one of the good guys


Justin Vitek had endured a year of unimaginable distress when he returned to Turfway Park to ride in the 10th race on Feb. 14, 2009. Well-wishers crowded into the paddock at the Florence, Ky., track, where Vitek had settled after riding on a variety of circuits since his career began in 1993.

"He looked healthy and good," said Bill Troilo, the now-retired jockey who rode in the same race. "We all knew what he had been through and were hoping it was all behind him."

Vitek had been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in February 2008, and his disease was in remission. He would finish last aboard Model's Memo, but it didn't matter. The symbolism of his return to riding while battling leukemia was enough.

Vitek would ride three more times the following week, finishing second with his final mount, before having to return to the hospital. He spent the rest of his life in and out of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, near his family and his hometown of Wallis, Texas, before he died early Thursday. He was just 36.

It was quite fitting that Vitek would return on Valentine's Day, for most everyone who knew him thought he was a sweetheart of a guy.

"I can't say enough good about Justin," said Jeff Johnston, who rode regularly at Turfway Park before retiring in 2006. "He always thought of everybody else first, always spoke with a 'sir' or a 'ma'am.' He was a great rider, a great person, a great friend."

While going through a divorce, Vitek stayed periodically with Johnston and his wife, Jolynn, at their Taylor Mill, Ky., home, near Turfway. It was the Johnstons who organized a fundraiser for Vitek that was held at the Kentucky Derby Museum in April 2008. The Johnstons said this week that a trust account established at that time to help offset Vitek's medical bills is being shifted to become an education fund for his only child, Bree Vitek, 6.

Vitek had undergone excruciating medical treatments, including chemotherapy and a failed stem-cell transplant, before doctors said there was nothing further they could do. Earlier this week, many of his friends from the racetrack flew into Houston to say goodbye, including the Johnstons, jockeys Willie Martinez and Jimmy Lopez, retired jockey Brian Peck, trainer Tom Drury, and racing officials Tiffany Bourque and Jackie Herbstreit.

"He kept apologizing for us having to come down to see him, that he was so sick," said Johnston. "That was the type of guy he was."

"Justin went through an extremely long and hard battle, one you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy," said Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, who was in frequent touch with Vitek and his family. "He maintained his upbeat attitude to the end and was an absolute credit to the profession, that's for sure."

Vitek spent his formative years of riding at Southwest tracks before moving on to compete regularly in Southern California, Washington, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. He had 763 winners from 8,209 mounts for earnings of more than $9.88 million.

Besides his daughter, Vitek is survived by his mother, Kathy; his father, Ed; and his sister, Kim.

Visitation is scheduled for Sunday from 4-6 p.m. at Guardian Angel church in Wallis, Texas, with the funeral set for Monday at 10 a.m.

A memorial service will be held at Turfway sometime in the near future, according to Johnston and Chip Bach, director of operations at Turfway.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the education fund by e-mailing jolynnjohnston@yahoo.com.

Hot Cha Cha to start her year

Hot Cha Cha, the turf specialist who gave trainer Phil Sims his first Grade 1 victory when she won the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland in October, recently returned to training and will make her 4-year-old debut at the spring meet in April.

"She's doing great," Sims said this week from Keeneland, where he is based year-round. "We'll start gearing her back up and have her ready to run in one of those races here. We'll have a few spots to choose from."

After winning the QE II, Hot Cha Cha finished fourth as the favorite in her season finale, the Mrs. Revere Stakes at Churchill Downs in November.

Music festival names more acts

Churchill announced this week some additional musical acts that will perform this summer at the inaugural three-day HullabaLOU Music Festival on racetrack grounds. Train, Dierks Bentley, and Blood Sweat and Tears are among the performers contracted to appear at the festival, which is scheduled for July 23-25.

Other major acts at HullabaLOU will include Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney, the Dave Matthews Band, Gladys Knight, and the B-52s. More information is available at hullabaloufest.com.