Last June, Laurie Swihart’s 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, who was diagnosed with Chiari malformation at age 5, was given pink autographed goggles on Jockey Day at the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island in New Hyde Park.
“Caroline was here last year for a cervical fusion, and it had been really rough,” said Swihart, 37, of Sugarland, Texas. “She was really tired and didn’t want to get out of bed much and it was so exciting for her to know that she had something to look forward to.”
This year, Swihart brought her 10-year-old twins, Isabelle and Charlie, to the event. Even though Isabelle was scheduled to have brain surgery two hours after the event, she still came out, wearing a brace on her neck, to pet the ponies and meet the jockeys.
They were among the many children who mingled with six jockeys competing in the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes in Elmont on Saturday. The jockeys posed for photos and handed out autographed riding goggles to Girl Scouts and families with seriously ill children on Thursday morning.
All four of Swihart’s children have been diagnosed with Chiari malformation, a connective tissue disorder in the brain. Swihart sought medical treatment for her children in the New York area and has stayed at the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island with her family frequently over the last six years.
Mario Gutierrez, jockey for Triple Crown prospect I’ll Have Another, greeted children alongside fellow Belmont Stakes jockeys John Velazquez and Javier Castellano. The event also featured Irad Ortiz Jr., Jose Ortiz and Maylan Studard, who will compete in other races on Saturday.
“Being able to share their happiness makes me happy,” Gutierrez, 25, of Arcadia, Calif., said of the children. “I just want to go out there on Saturday and make more people proud and more people happy.”
Studard will be riding Recharge in the 12th race, right after the Belmont Stakes.
“These kids have been through so much,” said Studard, 23, of Franklin Square. “Some have special needs and have been through bad accidents, so it’s really to bring the kids out and have them enjoy themselves and get excited about the race.”
Matthew Campo, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island, said the organization has been serving the community for 25 years, providing a place to stay for families with seriously ill children in proximity to a major hospital.
“I think that Jockey Day is a great way for families to sort of perhaps forget what’s happening at the hospital just for a few minutes,” said Campo, 33, of Wantagh. “When you’re going through the pain and crisis of dealing with the little person that’s not doing well, sometimes these types of events are great ways for people to bring back a sense of normalcy back to their life again.”
The Swihart family spent 152 days in the New York area last year, in and out of surgeries, in recovery and at the Ronald McDonald House.
“As a parent, it’s wonderful to see them smile a little bit after they’ve been through so much,” Swihart said. “These events and all the volunteers and families that make this possible is priceless. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Above: Mario Gutierrez, who will ride Triple Crown prospect I'll Have Another in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, signs riding goggles for children at the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island in New Hyde Park during Jockey Day. (June 7, 2012)