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Belmont jockeys bring cheer to kids

Long shot Alan Garcia and two other jockeys vying to win the Belmont Stakes took time out of the hectic week leading up to the last Triple Crown race to bring joy to children at the Ronald McDonald House.

The children rode ponies and sat in a cart driven by a miniature horse last Thursday around the house's front lawn.

The jockeys had little trouble bending down to be at eye level with the children so they could give them a high-five or sign autographs on plastic racing goggles and green Belmont Park hats.

The house provides lodging for families of children being treated at nearby Schneider Children's Hospital.

"I'm very blessed to have my children healthy," said John Velazquez, jockey for Ready's Echo, a colt that tied for third place in the Belmont Stakes with Anak Nakal. "To bring a smile to the kids, it's a lot worth it."

Velazquez, making his seventh trip to the house, won at Belmont last year, riding Rags to Riches to victory.

He was joined at the house by fellow jockeys Garcia, who rode Da Tara to victory in the Belmont despite a 39-1 shot to win; Javier Castellano, who rode Guadalcanal to a seventh-place finish in the nine-horse field; and Rajiv Marash, who ran at Belmont but not during the Triple Crown race.

"To see the jockeys and NYRA [New York Racing Association] out here two days before an important date and spend time with our kids is tremendous," said Robert Weitzman, the house's executive director. "It's great that the racing community has supported our mission."

Sam Grossman, the bugler at Belmont, delighted the kids with his rendition of "The Call To The Post," the traditional song played before a horse race.

Deborah Gibson, a Howard Beach resident whose son, Jeremiah, was having open-heart surgery at Schneider, said the house makes it convenient to visit her son in the hospital.

"It helps out a lot," Gibson said, noting that the house is an escape for her daughter Michaela, who rode the ponies.

"My husband brought her back to the apartment [in Howard Beach] and she was like, 'I don't want to go,' " she said.

Belmont was the third and final leg of the Triple Crown.

Frontrunner Big Brown's bid to become the first horse to earn the coveted Triple Crown in 30 years was lost, shocking the crowd at the Elmont, L.I. track.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.

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