Since the summer, jockey Corey Lanerie makes the sign of the cross and blows a kiss every time he gets to the winner's circle.
It's in memory of Lanerie's wife of 21 years, Shantel, who died on June 22. Shantel Lanerie had been undergoing chemotherapy for stage 1 breast cancer, but was was diagnosed with sepsis and died after emergency surgery. She was 42.
“It's definitely difficult,” said Corey Lanerie, who has won 15 riding titles at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. “It never goes away. They tell me it gets easier with time, so it's just something I have to take day by day.
“I have a daughter (Brittlyn, 10) to look after and make her a god-woman like her mom.”
Although he has won more than 4,400 races, Lanerie said it would mean a lot if he can win the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic on Saturday aboard Underpressure, trained by Chris Richard. It is the premier race on Champions Day, which is for Louisiana-bred horses and has nine other races with a purse of $100,000.
Lanerie has won the Champions Day Classic before, including aboard Right On the Mark early in his career and on legendary Louisiana colt Star Guitar. However, this one would be even more special.
“It would be great to win it,” Lanerie said. “I love Chris. Chris loved my wife, I've known him for a long time. It would be great, especially to win it for somebody that's your friend.
“It would just be a great feeling, you know. I'm sure we'd all be thinking about Shantel in the winner's circle.”
Lanerie, who is from near Lafayette, said it's great just to be back in Louisiana. He cut his teeth at Evangeline Downs in Opelousas. That racetrack is also where in 1991 he met Shantel, who is from Cecilia and is the daughter of trainer Riley Hebert.
“(Brittlyn) said it feels more like home,” Lanerie said. “My mom came up to Kentucky and was with us a while after Shantel died. Brittlyn is around Shantel's mom and dad, and they help out a lot.”
Lanerie and Richard said the suddenness of his Shantel's death was a shock.
“It was a shock to everyone,” Richard said. “I'd known her for more than 20 years. She was wonderful. My heart was broken like everyone else's. I think Corey is doing as well as can be expected for something like that to happen.”
Lanerie said he continues to ride so he can provide for Brittlyn and have as much as he can for college and to leave her financially set.
However, he said, mounting horses also has been his sanctuary.
“Winning a race is just the greatest feeling,” he said. “And when you're riding, you have to be focused, because so many things can happen.”
Underpressure is the 5-2 early favorite to win the race. Grande Basin, trained by Eddie Johnston, is the 3-1 second favorite, with Mageez, trained by Delmar Caldwell, next at 7-2.
Richard said he is a little surprised that Underpressure, a 4-year-old colt, is the favorite. He has won two races in 2018, but those were allowance races in May and June at Canterbury. Since then, he's finished fifth, second twice and third, none in big races at big tracks, before a sixth in the Delta (Downs) Mile Stakes on Nov. 17.
“I think it's just because these horses have run against each other often, and he came the closest to beating (2016 and '17 Classic winner) Mobile Bay one times,” Richard said. “He lost by a nose to Mobile Bay at Delta last year, and that gave him a lot of credibility. And we were close in (the Classic) last year. But (Underpressure) always shows up. He's a very honest, consistent horse.”
Underpressure was third in last year's Champions Day Classic, behind Mobile Bay and Grande Basin. Mageez was fourth.
Although Lanerie has ridden some top horses, he said he likes Underpressure, whom he rode to a third place in the Star Guitar Stakes in March at the Fair Grounds.
“He's a fighter,” Lanerie said. “We finished third last year (in the Classic), but I thought I had the race won. Mobile Bay is just class, and he beat us, but I might have cost us second.”
Richard doubts that.
“His overall feel is what makes him a great jockey,” Richard said. “I think he just has a great feel for the race and a great set of hands on a horse. He can get a horse to relax, but he also seems to get the most out of each horse that he gets on.”
Shantel was a fighter. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she led awareness and fundraising efforts, such as "Horses and Hope Day" at Keeneland and an event on Kentucky Oaks day at Churchill. Jockeys across the nation supported her battle with pink leg bands with the message “Fight With Shantel.”
It seemed like the two were meant to be together.
“They say we played together, along with her brother, when we were babies, but I can't remember that,” Corey said. “The thing I remember most is the company, and anything I did, I'd ask her 'Is this alright?'
"She was my soulmate. We were always a team.”