01/30/2009 12:00AM

Vitek set to get back in race


At his lowest point, Justin Vitek said he "would just lay there and look at the wall," overwhelmed and fatigued by the disease that had gripped his life.

But in the painful weeks and months that followed, with the help of friends and family, Vitek found the will and strength to fight the acute myelogenous leukemia that currently is in remission.

In fact, Vitek is feeling so good that he intends to return soon to what he loves: being a jockey. Granted the okay by his physicians, and having exercised horses on a regular basis for the last couple of months, Vitek, 35, is open for business at the winter-spring meet at Turfway Park. Although he was named to ride a colt named Furillo in the seventh race Saturday at the Florence, Ky., track, the horse was scratched, meaning Vitek will be waiting a few more days to ride in a race for the first time since Feb. 14, 2008.

"There's nothing else I care to do, really," Vitek said this week from his home in Sulphur, Ky., located some 35 miles northeast of Louisville and about 50 miles southwest of Turfway. "I'm basically trying to go on with my life. I'm not going to stop living my life just because something might happen to me."

Vitek said he has been getting on about four or five horses per day at the Skylight training center near Goshen, Ky., with Tom Drury, who oversees a stable of about 40 horses, being his main supporter.

"I think this says a lot about Justin's character," said Drury. "The fact he's made it back this far after all he's been through is something else. Anything with four legs and a pulse, he's been willing to get on, that's how intent he is on getting back into riding. He's put a whole lot into this."

Vitek (pronounced VEE-tek) grew up near Houston and began his riding career in 1993, eventually moving around to several different circuits before settling in Kentucky. He has won 763 races from 8,205 mounts.

The form of leukemia that Vitek has is virulent and relatively rare but potentially curable. Vitek has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy, including highly aggressive "introduction" treatments soon after he was diagnosed with the disease. Those treatments, he said, caused him to be weak and nauseous, and his spirits dipped to unimaginable lows during that time period.

"My mom stayed with me for about three months, and I had a lot of great friends pulling me through," he said. "Without all them, I don't know how I could've gotten through it all. There were a lot of people who took phone calls from me in the middle of the night - countless people."

Vitek, who shares custody of a 5-year-old daughter with his ex-wife, said he has undergone recent treatment at the renowned M.D. Anderson cancer center in Houston, partly in preparation for the possibility that he might be required to undergo a bone-marrow transplant.

"If the leukemia comes out of remission, I'll probably have to have a transplant," he said. "They're going to check me periodically. In case things go south, they'll be ready."

But Vitek hopes his upward cycle will continue and his comeback will proceed as hoped.

"My doctors said to take it as you can get it," he said. "There's no guarantee it's going to come back, and no guarantee it won't. So I'm going to do it while it's good."

Shoemaker collection in preview

The Kentucky Derby Museum on Monday will open a temporary exhibit of the private collection of the late Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker. All of his vast collection of racing memorabilia, including trophies, photographs, and scrapbooks, ultimately will be included in a larger permanent display scheduled for completion sometime in April 2010, before the 136th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Shoemaker's daughter, Amanda Teal, made an appearance at the museum Jan. 23 to officially turn over the collection to museum officials.

Shoemaker retired in February 1990 and died in October 2003.

More information is available at .

Barbaro statue nears unveiling

A commemorative bronze statue of Barbaro will be unveiled April 26 at its permanent location just outside the museum entrance, Churchill officials announced Thursday, the two-year anniversary of the colt's death.

The Barbaro statue is nearing completion by artist Alexa King, with further details of the unveiling to be announced at a later date.

* With the largest purse of the day being $11,000, there is no feature race on the Sunday card at Turfway. The first of nine races is scheduled to be run earlier than normal, at noon Eastern, so as to accommodate the Super Bowl telecast later in the day.