‘Overcoming Spirit’: Paraplegic Former Jockey Finds Another Way To Race

Armando Rivera, 58, a paraplegic since racing accident at age 18 in California, will race his wheelchair in the March 30 “Run The Bluegrass” half-marathon (13.1 miles) in the area surrounding Keeneland Race Course.

Keeneland will be sponsoring Rivera who has competed in over 40 such races around the country.

The former jockey’s exercise regimen includes three to five days working out in a gym near his San Jose, Calif., home and pushing his wheelchair 10 miles nearly every other day. He estimates his training includes some 5,000 miles. Rivera has competed in races in San Francisco, El Paso and Las Vegas. His sponsors include his hometown’s Liberty Roofing Company and Moneysport.com, whose owner Brian Maher will be in Lexington to videotape his race.

Rivera said he started racing after confronting his alcoholism during a short time in jail, an event he says that changed his life. “A nurse in the jail told me that the pressure sore I had (common among paraplegics) would not heal,” he said. “But I found God and He not only healed my sore, He healed my heart. I’ve been clean and sober since.”

He traditionally ranks high in his age group, but recently spent several days in a hospital battling a urinary tract infection, a malady common among paraplegics. Still, Rivera said, he has been training hard in recent days and added that it will help to have fellow PDJF beneficiary Gary Birzer there to cheer him on.

Rivera’s racing attire includes a shirt or cap with a Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund logo. He often uses the monthly stipend he receives from the PDJF to pay his racing entrance fees.

“I’m on a mission,” he said. “Racing gives me a challenge and I have to keep pushing. I’m racing to raise awareness for my fellow injured jockeys and that’s important to me.”

Rivera was one of the six catastrophically-injured jockeys honored at last summer’s Jockeys and Jeans Event at Canterbury Park and will attend the group’s PDJF fundraiser at Santa Anita on June 22. The group, founded by a group of former jockeys in late 2014, has raised over $1 million dollars for the PDJF.

“At the event last summer we all noted Armando had biceps bigger than most jockeys’ thighs,” said Barry Pearl, the group’s president. “He is a shining example of the overcoming spirit inherent in all the jockeys who suffered catastrophic injuries. We thank Keeneland and their President and CEO Bill Thomason for making this possible and we hope a lot of folks come out to cheer for him. But in Armando’s case, no matter where he finishes, he’s still a winner.”

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