Richie Sambora Wins Big at the Derby, Say Daughter Ava 'Is the Love of My Life'

The rocker tells PEOPLE he's a family man who's enjoying spending more time with his 16-year-old

Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty

Ava Sambora is daddy’s little girl, for sure.

“She and I are close and have a candid relationship,” Richie Sambora told PEOPLE exclusively from the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky, where he performed at the famed Barnstable Brown Gala, hosted by sisters Patricia and Cyb Barnstable, on Friday.

“Boundaries are set,” says the Bon Jovi guitarist, 54. “That doesn’t budge. She is an amazing kid and dedicated to school. She’s acting. The first audition she [went] out for was Judd Apatow’s This is 40 – and she got it. She’s been doing Disney stuff. I’m really proud of her – she’s just a joy. My favorite girl – her and my mom, I always say.”

As for Ava’s mom, his ex-wife, Heather Locklear, Sambora tells PEOPLE, “Time does heal old wounds. I mean, I still love Heather and I know she loves me. She’s the mother of my child, man. What can you say?”

While Sambora has a soft spot for the current ladies in his life, the evening was dedicated to his late grandmother, Stella Sienila, who lost her life to diabetes. At the famed Barnstable Brown Gala, held each year the night before the Derby, the rocker auctioned off a Swarovski crystal-encrusted guitar he designed for $32,000. The money was donated to the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center in honor of Sienila.

“This is close to my heart because my grandmother died of diabetes,” explained Sambora, who also threw in a free guitar lesson for the top bidder.

He played some of Bon Jovi’s and The Beatles’s biggest hits onstage, singing along with Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Travis Tritt, J Gill and Taylor Dayne as the group tossed the microphones back and forth.

“The singing talent onstage was unbelievable,” he says. (Other party guests included Miranda Lambert, Tom Brady, Dierks Bentley, Simon Baker and Tara Lipinski.)

The philanthropic rocker, who is recording a new album with Australian guitarist Orianthi, made headlines last year when he said he was taking a break from Bon Jovi after 30 years with the band.

“What it came down to was my daughter,” he says. “She was turning 16. I had been out on the road for a long time and I realized I missed a lot of her life that I didn’t want to miss. I said, ‘Love and happiness is worth more than the currency of money.’ I needed her and she needed me and the guys were gracious enough to let me out.”

While Sambora says there is “no way” he would wear a fancy hat to the Derby, he did bet on a horse – California Chrome, the eventual champ. He plans to top off the guitar auction proceeds with his winnings.

“I have a fashion line called Nikki Rich I’ve been doing for five years and I also have a men’s line I’m going to start working on called Chrome,” he says. “So when I showed up at the Derby and found out that the favorite is California Chrome, I thought, ‘I gotta bet that horse big!'”

“I’m a horse guy,” adds Sambora. “I’ve owned two race horses of my own. When I was a kid, my old man and I went to the track together – it was a bonding thing for us. My dad was a factory worker, so we were betting $10, but it was exciting. It’s still exciting.”

Reporting by LIZ McNEIL

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