Mark and Carla: Friends Till the Very End
Drew Couto is a California-based attorney who served as president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and Thoroughbred Owners of California.
If you would permit me, I'd like to share a true story about friendship and compassion few know of, but upon which many have commented.
Thirty years ago two people became friends – dear friends. It was a friendship that continued and strengthened over the many years, as they often shared personal hardships and moments of wonder and joy.
For much of my life I've been told that we should consider ourselves quite fortunate if our journey rewards us with one or two such friends. I, like many others who knew them, saw theirs as one of those friendships that comes along only once or twice in a lifetime, and to which we all aspire.
Over the past four years each battled a different form of cancer. With the love, help, and support of the other, the first of them survived the battle, while the second sadly did not. In the days leading up to that death, he asked several of us for help in going to the racetrack so that he could enjoy that experience one last time with those he loved and had become acquainted over a 42-year career in racing.
On the morning of Aug. 10, he struggled out of bed, dressed himself in clothes that no longer fit a frame that had lost nearly 40 pounds in a little over five months. Knowing he would not have the strength to walk without help that day, he asked his wife to bring him a walker he had until that moment refused to use. That afternoon, his brother would be by to pick them up, then swing by that special friend's house before heading off to the track. All went according to plan.
Under a warm summer afternoon sun, it was a struggle – a test of will and character – simply to walk from the owner/trainer parking lot to a bench near the paddock, a distance of maybe 150 yards. There, his family and that friend found and ushered over to him others who'd wanted to share some moments and thoughts one last time. He beamed, he smiled, and for a few hours, forgot he was dying.
In search of shade, he asked to go up to the box, another 200+ yards away, across uneven surfaces, up a flight of stairs, he went. Watching him make his way slowly through the crowd was humbling, tiring, and emotional, both for him and those with him. Two races later, after having watched one last horse with which he had worked in the spring compete, he decided it was time to head home.
Getting that quarter mile back to the car, was a bit much, so he asked to rest for a while in the Racing Office. “A bit much” also describes the emotional toll the experience was taking on his family, and that friend. But the day was about him, not us. It was about making that one last wish come true for a dying husband, brother, and friend.
About 48 hours later, he began to lapse in and out of consciousness, and the following day could not communicate, eat, drink, nor move. He passed that Friday.
From Monday until his death, his family and that one special friend maintained a bedside vigil.
For as long as I live, I will forever be grateful to my brother's dear friend. When it was difficult for his wife – or me – to deal properly with the emotional circumstances, she did. She arranged for his hospice care and medication, and spent between 6 and 12 hours each day by his side, comforting him, and us, despite her own grief and sense of loss.
I am no stranger to death, but had never witnessed such a wonderful example of compassion, humanity, and friendship as Carla Gaines exhibited toward my brother, Mark Couto.
Carla has been publicly ridiculed by many for attending the races that day while suspended by California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). She has been, in my opinion, inaccurately and unfairly portrayed as having disrespected the authority of the Board and of lacking an understanding of the significance of a suspension. But those who have been critical should know that Carla did so only to be with a dear dying friend, the one under whom she had long ago worked as an assistant trainer, and only after her lawyer had confirmed with the Board that the order of suspension did not include exclusionary language.
There are certain individuals that will read this account and skeptically comment on its veracity, or the merit of circumstances as a justification for Carla's conduct. That is a personal choice over which only they have control.
However, I need not speculate as to the veracity of the facts shared with those who care to read this account. When Carla went to Del Mar on Aug. 10 she did so not for her own gain, but for the love of a friend. Carla gained entry to the track without utilizing either her CHRB license or parking pass. I drove her there, and gave her an entry ticket. Carla, did not speak to anyone associated with her stable that day, and stayed by my brother's side except for a few brief moments when the emotion of the day finally caught up to her. Carla spared my brother her emotions, and composed herself by the paddock before my brother's wife, Renee, and she wished a client and friend good luck that afternoon.
Even though legally and technically permitted to do so, not once before or since Aug. 10 has Carla been to the track during her suspension. That was a choice Carla made freely, freely out of respect for the Board, the process, fans, and her colleagues.
Carla Gaines is not the recalcitrant trainer some commenting would have others believe.
When we laid my brother to rest and celebrated his life Friday, Carla was there. Until the end, she showed him compassion and a sense of humanity we would all be lucky to receive. It seems only fair that Carla be entitled to a bit of understanding and compassion in return. She made a dying man's passing easier, and his last wish come true.
Thank you Carla.