“We were just like ‘what can we do to show everyone our support, especially right now?'” rider Isabella Leslie said. “There wasn’t really just one particular person who came up with it. It was just a group of us that wanted to know how could we show our support and love for Callie and her family.”
In recognition of Witt — who died after being thrown off a 2-year-old horse at Keeneland on April 29 — riders wore white armbands during their workouts Thursday morning and they’re hoping spectators will also wear bands in tribute throughout the weekend.
Leslie, who works for America’s Best Racing, said that after deliberations on how to honor Witt, they decided to keep it simple so spectators at the Oaks and Kentucky Derby could easily participate.
After cutting the strands of ribbon, Leslie sent them around the stables. The plan was to wear the bands on Thursday, but once word got out, Leslie received a call from good friend and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
“(Smith) called me this morning and said ‘bring some ribbons by the room tomorrow and I’ll make sure all the jockeys wear them on Oaks Day,'” Leslie said. “That’ll be great but I think everyone’s just really trying to be there for each other and show that (Witt) meant something.”
Leslie says that she and Witt weren’t best friends, but talked daily during their time together last winter in New Orleans. Witt was training to become a jockey herself and was known for her love of the sport as an exercise rider for trainer Joe Sharp.
Since she was 18 months old, Witt felt destined to ride horses. She started riding thoroughbreds when she was 14 and even enrolled in the North American Racing Academy.
“We preached to her from the time she was 18 months old to the day we lost her about the dangers of this sport and we always got the same reply: ‘if I am going to die, I want to be doing what I love.’ Our baby girl did just that,” Witt’s parents Jennifer and Tim said in a joint statement. “She was making those dreams a reality. We are so proud of her – who she was, what she was and where she was going. She will forever be in our hearts.”
Leslie said that after getting the call that Witt had crushed her chest in an accident, jumping back on top of a horse that same day didn’t make things easier.
“It’s kind of like losing someone in your family,” Leslie said. “We always say that ‘it’s not how but when’ and normally that’s referring to like just falling off, or you break a bone. It never crosses your mind that you could end up losing your life.”
Witt’s death puts things into perspective for those competing. This weekend is perhaps the biggest of the year for the sport and Witt’s family wants her to be a part of it.
Thanks to a special piece of ribbon and the thoughtfulness of her peers, she will be.
Follow Courier Journal reporter J.L. Kirven on Twitter @JL_Kirven for more updates on Louisville prep sports.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Jockeys wear white armbands at Churchill Downs to honor Callie Witt