In nearly four decades of riding Thoroughbred race horses, Mark Guidry has landed in the winner's circle more than 5,000 times, ranking him among the sport's all-time leading jockeys.
But Guidry's biggest impact on his home state of Louisiana may have had to do with a different kind of horsepower – like that of an 18-wheeler.
When Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in August 2005, Guidry was riding at Arlington Park outside Chicago and watched the devastation from afar.
"We've got to do something and do it now," Guidry said that week. Thank goodness, my family is safe, but that could have very easily been me and my loved ones suffering."
So Guidry, in conjunction with Arlington, started a relief fund. In a little more than two weeks, they had collected more than $50,000 in addition to clothing and non-perishable goods. Guidry himself made a sizable donation to the fund and also donated a portion of earnings from stakes races.
"You see that in other parts in the world, but in your own back yard?" Guidry recalled recently. "I went to the other Louisiana riders and Mr. (Richard) Duchossois (Arlington Park chairman). He set up everything for us. He told us whatever we wanted to do, we could do. We had a real good response."
Three weeks to the day after Katrina washed ashore, Guidry headed south from Chicago to Lafayette with a truckload full of supplies for those displaced by the storm. He didn't quite get to finish the job himself – the impending landfall of Hurricane Rita sent Guidry fleeing to Baton Rouge to catch a flight back to Chicago – but his good deeds had been done.
"I only wish I'd been able to stay and document things a little more completely," Guidry said in 2006, "but I do have a lot of thank you letters for all those people in Chicago who contributed so much. Some of those letters brought tears to my eyes, and still do when I reread them. They pull your heart out."
Thanks in large parts to his post-Katrina charitable efforts, Guidry won the George Woolf Award in 2006, which is presented annually by Santa Anita Park to a jockey who demonstrates high standards of personal and professional conduct on and off the track.
"The Woolf Award, it was voted by my peers," Guidry said. "I made a little impact in their life as well. It was unbelievable; it still is today."
Six years after receiving the award that he thought would be the pinnacle of his career, Guidry is set to be honored again as part of the 2012 Induction Class for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday night, June 23, in Natchitoches.
"A Hall of Fame award, that doesn't come to mind when you're young," said Guidry. "To get an award like that, in your home state, that's very overwhelming."
Guidry, 52, followed the lead of other Cajun jockeys by riding at bush tracks at age 9. The Lafayette native began his professional riding career in 1974, winning his first career race at Delta Downs in Vinton. He would remain on the Louisiana circuit until 1986, when he moved his tack to Chicago.
Guidry won 18 riding titles in Illinois, earning him the moniker "King of Chicago."
Two of the high points of his riding career came on the first Friday in May, one year apart.
On May 5, 2006, Guidry booted home 47-1 longshot Lemons Forever in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. To this day, it is the biggest upset ever in the biggest race of the year for 3-year-old fillies.
"Mark was doing really well at the time," said Dallas Stewart, the trainer of Lemons Forever. "I felt fortunate to get him (to ride). We thought we had a shot. She drew bad; she was No. 14. He let her drop back to last and he made that big strong run on her."
Said Guidry: "I just went ahead and tucked her in (along the rail), and about the half-mile pole I inched her into the bit. She just exploded and came running. I was very grateful for the opportunity."
On the Kentucky Oaks undercard one year later, Guidry became the 21st jockey in the United States to reach 5,000 career wins.
Getting to that milestone required a flexible riding style.
"A lot of the Cajun riders are good on speed horses," said Stewart, "but Mark's good on all horses. He could really finish hard on a horse."
Guidry said he learned that ability from watching another Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame jockey, Eddie Delahoussaye.
"Eddie, I always loved his riding style," said Guidry, who will join Delahoussaye, Eric Guerin, J.D. Mooney, Craig Perret and Randy Romero as jockeys enshrined in Natchitoches. "He was a big influence on me growing up and watching him ride. He always had horse on the end."
Six months after hitting the milestone, Guidry retired with 5,043 career wins. He went to school to become a steward, then tried his hand at training for three years. In May 2011, he went to work as an assistant to Kentucky-based trainer Dale Romans, who also had him working horses in the morning.
"I got around all my friends in Kentucky, and it was like all the juices started flowing again," Guidry said. "The weight came off and I started feeling better and better. I felt real good and competitive. I wanted to be in the jocks' room."
Sure enough, seven weeks later, he was back riding, accepting four mounts on a July afternoon at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky. After spending the rest of the summer and fall in Kentucky, Guidry rode this winter at Tampa Bay Downs but now has returned to ride in Louisiana, bringing his career full circle.
"My first grandchild is 9 months old," Guidry said. "I told my wife, 'I'm coming home.' Hopefully the good Lord keeps me safe."
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