I always liked Robbie Davis. He was a solid rider, who was especially good on the turf. He was an intelligent rider, who was well respected by his fellow jockeys. For these reasons, I had a good deal of respect for Robbie Davis before the afternoon of October 13, 1988. At the time he was 27 years old and the midst of one of his most successful seasons as one of the top riders in the nation. What happened that afternoon at Belmont Park was one of the most tragic events to take place at an American racetrack.
In 1988, Mike Venezia was 43 years old and a longtime rider on the New York circuit. Well-liked by his peers, Venezia had served as the president of the Jockeys Guild for six from 1975 through 1981. The 5th race at Belmont was an allowance race on the turf, and Venezia was aboard a three-year-old colt named Mr. Walter K. Racing down the backstretch, Mr. Walter K. broke down and Venezia went down on the left side of his mount. Directly behind the pair was Drums in the Night with Robbie Davis aboard. Davis had no time and no place to avoid the fallen jockey. Drums in the Night trampled Venezia striking him so sharply in the head that he was killed instantly. Not sure, but fearing the worst, Davis rode the rest of the race in absolute horror.
So upset with the tragedy, Davis was unable to ride for five months. Eventually he resumed his riding career, having moved his tack to Southern California. Even after his return, it took a while for Davis to become the emotionally invested rider that he was before the accident. Davis did become a successful rider again, but in so many ways, that day at Belmont Park was tragic for both Venezia and Davis. Winner of the Mike Venezia Memorial Award in 1997, which honors a jockey who exemplifies extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship, Davis retired from riding in 2002, suffering from bad knees.
At the time of the tragedy, Davis had three young children including daughter, Jackie. I'm sure that during the toughest of times, Davis looked to his family for support. Yesterday at Aqueduct, Robbie Davis got his first career win as a trainer with 39-1 shot with Sandyinthesun, who got up by a nose to win the seventh race. Booting the long shot winner home in the exciting stretch drive was Jackie Davis.
“To me, it’s better than any win I ever rode,” said Davis, who co-owns the 4-year-old gelded son of Say Florida Sandy with Thomas Ponzarella. “It was an incredible race. It’s unimaginable, the feeling. I’m just so thankful to get this horse to the races. I’m just so glad to be able to do this with Jackie and everybody here at Aqueduct. I’d like to thank the good Lord. It’s going to be a great Christmas for everybody.”
Sandyinthesun was equipped with blinkers for the first time for yesterday’s race, and is currently the only horse in the trainer’s stable.
“We put the blinkers on him and he responded well with them,” he said. “I thought, we have one last shot on the turf so let me get the blinkers on him. I always thought he was a turf horse and he finally responded for us. I’m ecstatic, just ecstatic. To be able to do it with my daughter and the family … I just couldn’t be happier with the way he performed today.”
I cannot imagine the darkness Davis dealt with 23 years ago, and for a long time after. I also can only hope that my daughter and I will someday enjoy such a joyous moment together as Robbie and Jackie enjoyed yesterday. I could not be happier for Robbie Davis, Jackie Davis, and the entire Davis family. Sometimes good things do happen to good people.
Photo: NYRA, Adam Coglianese