By Ray Paulick
If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe what happened in the sixth race at Keeneland on Wednesday, a day when nine Central Kentucky farms helped bring a little joy into the lives of some courageous young people and their families who were taking part in a special Make a Wish Foundation day at the races.
Brian Wach, a 4-year-old boy full of energy in Keeneland's walking ring and seemingly oblivious to the medical challenges he has faced for nearly all of his short life, was asked which horse in the 12-horse field of maiden 2-year-old colts he wanted to see win. “Number five,” he said, without hesitation. A few seconds later, Kent Desormeaux, the jockey of the five horse, Fist of Rage, was kneeling next to Brian and talking with him like they were old friends.
There may be no person in racing who understands special needs kids better than Desormeaux, whose son, Jacob, was born in 1999 with Usher syndrome, a rare and complicated degenerative disease that affects both the hearing and vision of children. Kent's wife, Sonia, started the Eye on Jacob Foundation, a first of its kind organization that raises money to fund research into Usher syndrome. (Click here for more information on the foundation.)
Deosormeaux was given a leg up by trainer Ken McPeek onto the son of Consolidator, and little Brian Wach and his parents, Tony and Angie, walked through Keeneland's tunnel to watch the race from the winner's circle, where they would present a julep cup to the winning connections a few minutes later.
Fist of Rage was a first-time started that hadn't shown a great deal of speed in recent morning works leading up to his career debut, and the fans made him a 9-1 outsider. The chestnut colt was near the back of the pack after the start of the six-furlong race and had only four horses beat with a quarter mile to go. But, in racing, there's always hope. After going wide around the turn, Desormeaux angled Fist of Rage toward the rail and started gaining ground on the 2 1/2-length leader, Silver Craft, giving hope to those pulling for “Brian's horse” that he would hit the board. That wasn't good enough for Desormeaux, who never gave up on Fist of Rage, pumping and driving on the colt the length of the stretch, and catching Silver Craft right at the wire. The photo sign went up, though to most observers it looked like Silver Craft had won. A few minutes later the number five was posted on the tote board.
“You did a good job!” Brian told his new jockey friend in the winner's circle, and as Desormeaux walked back to the jockey's room he reflected on what had just happened. “We think we have a rough time or a bad day some times and then you see what some of these kids go through…” the Hall of Fame jockey said, his voice trailing off.
What Brian Wach has been through is difficult to comprehend. Five months after birth he started suffering seizures and was diagnosed with Sturge-Weber syndrome, a rare neurological and skin disorder characterized by a proliferation of arteries on one side of the brain. He went through various treatments, but none was successful, leaving hemispherectomy—where one side of the brain is removed—as the only hope. “We felt if we didn't do that surgery, we'd lose him,” said his father, a Louisville dentist. So Brian underwent brain surgery at Cincinnati Children's Hospital when he was one year old, and it's been a long, hard road for both him and his family.
Tony Wach learned of the Make a Wish Foundation from one of his patients, and decided to look into it as something that might be good for Brian, whose wish to go to DisneyLand was sponsored by Dr. Tommy Simon's Vinery Farm. The mission of the organization, founded in 1980, is to “grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.” (Learn more about Make a Wish Foundation here.) Granting wishes for the kids also lifts the spirits of the parents who have to deal with the realities of what their children go through. Wednesday's Make a Wish program at Keeneland brought together nine Kentucky families that each have had to cope with extremely difficult challenges, and allowed the parents to share their experiences and draw strength from one another.
The idea for the day came from John Greely IV of Wintergreen Stallion Station. Greely was in a local restaurant when he overheard a couple of people talking about their experiences with the Make a Wish Foundation. He joined the conversation, and soon thereafter looked into the organization. He sponsored his first “wish” five years ago.
Greely shared his enthusiasm for the program with others, and before long the first Make a Wish day at Keeneland was in the works for 2008. The day grants nine wishes for Kentucky children (about 100 wishes a year are granted within the Kentucky chapter of the Make a Wish Foundation), and they range from visits to DisneyWorld to a shark fishing expedition, a Hawaii vacation, and a visit to Japan. One of the recipients, a teenage girl with cancer who loves saddlebreds, simply wanted a horse of her own. The participating farms this year were Ashford Stud, Darley, Gainesway Farm, Greystone Farm, Lane's End. Shadwell Farm, Three Chimneys, Vinery, and Wintergreen. Greely said the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association was also generous in their support, and Hammond Communications provided their services at no cost to film the children and their families and put them on a DVD to enjoy. The footage was also used on segments on each child broadcast on TVG throughout the day Wednesday.
Keeneland pulled out all the stops, putting the families together in the dining room usually reserved for the owners of stakes horses. Employees of Keeneland's gift shop put gift baskets together for each child, contacting the parents and finding out their individual interests. Each child had his or her own race, where they were able to go to the paddock, meet the jockeys, and then take part in winner's circle ceremonies.
Greely said he spoke with Del Mar president Joe Harper about the day, suggesting it was something the Southern California track might want to consider. “Before I got halfway through my pitch, Joe said he loved the idea and it's something he wants to do,” said Greely. “We want to do it again at Keeneland in 2010 and work on making it even better, and then see if we can get the horse industry nationwide to support this. The whole idea is to help these children.”
Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report
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