Celebrities often lend their name to charitable causes. Tim Conway, the beloved entertainer and slapstick comedy genius who died May 14 at the age of 85, not only lent his name but worked diligently for two decades as a longtime supporter of injured and disabled jockeys. In 2007, I had the great delight to interview Tim and talk about this lesser-known aspect of his life.
Growing up in Ohio, Conway said he always had an interest in horses and horse racing.
“I actually wanted to be a jockey when I was young,” he told me at the time from his home in Encino, Calif. “But the first time I came out of the starting gate and noticed that I wasn’t on the horse, I thought I’d better get into something a little safer.”
Fortunately, he chose comedy, and since the 1960s has delighted millions of fans around the world with his gentle humor in such TV classics as “McHale’s Navy” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
But Conway never lost his interest in horse racing and in the 1980s co-founded a fund for injured jockeys. The Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund would prove to be a Godsend for many riders such as Diane Crump.
Like most jockeys, Crump experienced her share of thrills and spills but injuries left her with a broken collarbone on six occasions during her 30-year career in the saddle but also included becoming the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
However a 1990 accident proved to be a career-ender for Crump. While attempting to break in a yearling during a training session, the horse reared up and flipped over backward on top of her crushing her leg and leading to multiple fractures.
“Like most jockeys (I) had no insurance because it was far too expensive,” she told me in 2007. “I figured I’d be paying off the medical bills until the day I died.”
That’s when Tim Conway and Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron stepped up to the starting gate to help. By the time Crump left hospital, the Fund had paid all her medical bills. She continued to ride for several years, but injuries eventually forced her into retirement.
McCarron — who retired in 2002 as the all-time leader in purse winnings ($264 million) and with 7,141 career wins — credited Tim Conway with the idea for starting the fund when the comedian was entertaining at Canterbury Racetrack in Shakopee, Minn., in 1986.
“They gave me a few bucks for my show and I passed the check on to Chris and told him to put it towards the jockey fund,” Conway said. “But he told me there wasn’t such a fund.”
Conway’s $5,000 check was actually more than “a few bucks,” so he considered dividing it up among the 41 permanently disabled jockeys in the United States at the time but soon realized the money wouldn’t go very far.
So using that initial donation as seed money, Conway, McCarron and his wife, Judy, decided to start a fund to assist injured jockeys not covered by insurance. They took the idea to the Jockeys Guild in December of 1986 and Don MacBeth, the Guild’s vice president at the time, approved.
“Perhaps we should have called it the Tim Conway Jockey Fund,” McCarron told me. “But Tim — being a humble man — wanted it named after MacBeth. He’s such an unbelievably kind and generous person.”
At the time of our interview, Conway highlighted the hazards facing jockeys.
“It’s the most dangerous sport there is and several jockeys have even been killed just at the starting gate,” Conway said. “In fact, it’s an occupation where an ambulance actually follows you to work. But fortunately, the Fund has been able to help riders with everything from a busted finger, dislocated shoulders, to the quadriplegics we’re provided for.”
While most injuries are nothing to laugh at, Conway remembered one incident that did raise a few smiles.
“One rider lost his false teeth during a race and couldn’t find them, so we replaced them,” he said.
Though the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund ended operations in 2011, it raised millions of dollars to help more than 2,000 jockeys thanks to the often-unheralded work of Tim Conway and others.
“It takes a very special person to care enough about others to actually invest in helping them,” writes Crump in a recent email, who now runs an equine sales business in Virginia. “There are many of us, me especially, that would be in a world of trouble if people like Tim didn’t step up and help in times of need. For that I will remain eternally grateful.”
“Despite the risks, you can’t keep these guys down,” Conway said. “They love their job so much that they are back up as soon as possible. It’s all been very gratifying.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama. For more information visit www.tinseltowntalks.com.