Mark and Carla: Friends Till the Very End

by | 09.02.2013 | 8:24am
Old friends Mark Couto (second from right) and Carla Gaines, at Golden Gate Fields after a 1984 victory by Big Eric

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.

  • Greg Jones

    Mr. Couto, my sincere condolences to you and your loved ones on your loss. It will be one year on Sept. 29th that I lost my Father, not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. Also would like to offer my apology to Carla for being critical of her going to the track during her suspension, I was wrong and for that I am sorry.

  • DonW

    Legalities aside, Ms. Gaines did the humane thing by supporting her friend in his dying days. Every death from cancer is particularly tragic in that it comes in part from a failure in our knowledge of science and medicine. We need to do better than this. And we will. I know – I am a racing fan who also does cancer research in the laboratory.

  • Vera Conwicke

    This is very moving. Obviously an extraordinary relationship between two remarkable people. Condolences to the family and Carla Gaines. Hope all goes well for you Ms. Gaines.

  • giftoffaith

    I don’t think this is about suspensions. This is about 2 people who had a wonderful friendship, that spanned a very long time. I hope I have someone like that in my life when needed and times are not the easiest. Carla, I think you were a great friend. For once, can we as a racing community see some good in something?

  • 1fdoos

    good for Carla! sometimes in life we make choices for love, devotion, and friendship, and, i have a feeling Carla would have been with her friend with or without any approvals. kudos to Carla!

  • Roger

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story.

  • Right then, Right now

    Mark trained for me 30 years ago and I saw even then the great rapport and mutual respect he and Carla demonstrated. Young Drew, for whom Mark held much affection, worked summers doing the glamorous jobs in the barn, e.g. mucking stalls. Together they created a happy atmosphere.
    I was unaware of Mark’s health battle until reading of his death. I offer my deepest sympathies to Drew and Carla, knowing how close their relationships with Mark were.

  • FastBernieB

    Thank you Drew for sharing your story. I believe we are all enriched when we see the humanity in others. I also feel that you have provided a very timely reminder that we should not be so quick to judge others. I will be saving your story to remind myself that a story is never as straight forward as it may appear on the surface.

    • theSOCIALabbott

      Perfectly stated!

  • Steven Tyre C.P.A.

    Wonderful story and so well written. Carla has always been my favorite trainer as the horse always comes first to her. Now I see her friends also mean more to her than the petty bickering of the track. God bless you Carla for being such a good friend.

  • Gary parker

    Drew, thank you for taking the time to write a compassionate account of this relationship. Carla & Mark have a bond that will endure. Additionally, there is nothing more important to Carla than providing a well cared for horse. And she does that year after year. -Gary

  • HappyHarriett

    What an uplifting and emotionally charged account of compassion.

    I admire everyone involved in this story for their courage.

    I’d suspect that anyone reading this would hope their last moments could be spent at the track with dear friends and horses we love, and that, if challenged, we would be brave enough to do the right thing in life no matter what other people think or say.

  • Nancy Messineo

    My condolences to Mr Couto and Carla.

  • Robin Rosenthal

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story Drew. Your brother was very fortunate to be so well-loved. I always knew Carla Gaines was a class act.

  • stuckinarizona

    Sometimes we must obey a higher authority. In this case it is love.

  • Michelle Sanford

    Wow…I knew Mark in passing from my years on the back side. Knew Carla worked for him. Thank you for sharing this so I can also share with friends. Carla has always had my respect as a Great horsewoman. She now has it as a Great human as well.

  • Sue M. Chapman

    What a lovely tribute! During my tenure in International Horse Transport, Mark’s Air Equine was always a pleasure to work with.

  • Geoff

    This is a touching story and a tribute to Mark Couto’s passion and determination. However, I was there in the paddock all day. Ms. Gaines was glued to her program and looking at her horses schooling or saddling when they were brought in. To say that she never left his side except in a time of emotion is just not true. I took photos of Ms. Gaines studying her horses and her program because it seemed like such an audacious act by a suspended trainer.

    • Rachel

      Even in the stewards’ report they commented on her 30 year spotless medication record, yet you felt compelled to study her every move and take pictures of her? Seriously?

      • Geoff

        No, I took photos because she was standing next to me looking at the horses and I found it pretty strange that a caught cheater was appearing during a suspension. And perhaps her record was spotless because she just never got caught?

        • Knowitall

          Just think she wasn’t hiding, even from the creep standing next to her, because she knew it was ok to be there, too. I’d wish you ill for such malice in the wrong forum, but then, I realize, you have to live with you, which must be hell.

          • Geoff

            But the article above says she “stayed by my brother’s side except for a few brief moments when the emotion of the day finally caught up to her.” It’s just not the truth. Sorry you can’t handle that and sorry you make it a practice to wish ill others, including those who want to see the horses protected from juicers like Carla Gaines. That must be hell!

          • Jay Stone

            To be skeptical about her actions that day is a natural reaction. Once you read this sad but uplifting story then you realize how lucky Mr. Couto was to have a friend like Carla. All the negativity about why she was there that day should disappear from even the most jaded of us. The story was very well done by Mr. Couto

          • In the Know

            You are an A HOLE GEOFFF nice way to spell your name by the way

          • TJS

            As I was reading these comments I knew a mook like you would show up. Get a life JEFF

    • IrishMick

      Dude – You’re such a creeper.

      • Geoff

        Not as creepy as giving fillies mail order testosterone.

    • FastBernieB

      Was anything beyond your first sentence really appropriate to attach to this story? Give your head a shake!

    • CaliMark


  • Olebobbowers

    Thank you so much for allowing so many of us, Mark’s friends, to read the closing chapter of his life here on Earth. I’m a retired Trainer that rode Mark on a few winners, and had him over for dinner several times, where he became close with the rest of my family. I feel lousy that I didn’t stay in closer touch the last decade or more, but trust me when I say there is an area where you become such close friends that contact seems unnecessary, for some dumb reason. I was always based in So. Cal. but shipped an occasional horse up North to allow them a confidence building win, and usually put Mark on them. I remember Ray Harris had his book, and he dropped Mark when he took Russell Baze. Ray called me and said he no longer had Mark, but he has a better rider. I told him without hesitation, I didn’t give a hoot who he has, give me Mark’s new agents phone number. I continued to use Mark. I really wish I’d known of Mark’s last visit to the track, as I know I would have brought him even more joy that day. Thank you again for this amazing account of this day, and letting us know how that damn Cancer took him away from us. Thank you also for clearing Carla’s name, as I was wondering if she defied her Ruling. I admired her before but even more now. God Bless all of Mark’s loved ones. We were all so lucky to have had him in our lives.

  • Maggie The Wonder Dog

    Great stuff Drew. But no surprise to those of us who know Carla and knew Mark. RIP Flyman and welcome back Carla. On to the next hurdle of life,

  • Sal Carcia

    My sincere condolences. Thanks for sharing this heartwarming thank you to your brother’s great friend, Carla Gaines.

  • Tat Yakutis

    Dear Drew, Renee & Carla. I am so so sorry for your loss. The service in the Del Mar Paddock was beautiful, and it was nice to see so many images from your years together in Northern Calif and beyond.

  • John Harris

    Mark was a true horse enthusiast to the end, always
    upbeat and positive. I was proud to have
    been associated with him over many years.
    The ridiculous criticism of Carla for accompanying her dying friend who
    wanted to go to the track one last time was completely idiotic. Anyone that could know the facts and
    criticize that action clearly lacks a heart. A
    great part of horse racing is compassion for people and the horses they
    love. We should never lose that. God bless Mark and his loving family.

    • Right then, Right now

      IMO, few people outside Mark’s circle knew of his health problems and Carla’s attentiveness to her friend. You should not crucify them for their comments about Carla simply because they weren’t aware of their personal relationship.
      Also, IMO, much of the angst at Carla stems from her employment by you.

      • Bob

        Keep your opinions to yourself in future. Calling Mr. Harris’ comments a crucifixion clearly shows your limited grasp of the English language.

  • John Unick

    Thank you for sharing the story of your brother Mark. I commend Carla for putting aside perception of public image for what is far more important, showing fortitude and compasssion for a true friend. Your tribute to your brother and friendship and your willingness to share such a difficult experience is admirable and I hope it brings closure to a difficult chapter in your life.
    My family’s thoughts go out to you and Beth in this difficult time.

    John Unick

  • LavaMan

    Such a heartfelt story and shows the ignorance and coward ness of people that hide behind their computers and rush to judgment, take cheap shots and fill our world with their miserable thoughts, ideas and opinions. Way to go Carla, you’re all class!

  • Bob Fasching

    I could not imagine losing my brother to such a debilitating and horrible disease. My sincerest condolences to you and your family.

    The beauty of friendship is hard to describe, but your story certainly did.

    • In the Know

      Well said now go wash some cars pal—


    What a great story and an emotional uplift to the word friends. I hope this clears up the many that clobbered Carla for showing up at the track that caused much co-motion. I knew Mark many years ago and of course have known Carla many also. With or without permission of the Board I would do the same for a few of my friends that are TRUE friends. To you Carla I give much respect for you actions. Drew, fought often over many issues when you were the TOC Chairman and I was the N. Cal. Vice President of the CTT. However, when we left the meeting room we continued our great friendship. This is a friendship that we still enjoy today. My best wishes to the Couto family, as your loss is my loss and Mark can RIP. Your friend Bill Anton

  • Renee DuPont

    Thank you Carla for being there and thank you Drew for telling the true story. From Renee (Marks wife)

  • Renee DuPont

    I am often told that things happen for a reason…. Could it be that Carla’s undeserved suspension on her spotless record happened not because she deserved it but instead so she would have the time needed to be there for Mark?
    All is well that ends well.

  • GT

    Drew, My condolences to you, Renee, the Couto family and Carla. Thank you for sharing this emotional story. I was stabled by Mark up north when Carla was his assistant. Always a cheerful and quick witted guy and excellent horseman, which was apparent when you saw how well his horses looked and ran. Thank You Carla for being there for Mark in his final and difficult days, A true and compassionate friend.

  • Patsy Severinsen

    Drew, Sending our heartfelt condolances. My husband Allen and I are close friends of Carla’s for many years and have known Mark since 1984 in Northern Calif. Thank you for your lovely story.

  • Guy Fleegman1

    My deepest sympathies Drew…God Speed

  • slinkyleia

    What a wonderful story! To have a friend like Carla Gaines is a rare gift. Thank you for sharing your tale and my sincerest condolences to you, your brother’s family, and to his friends-especially Ms. Gaines. Your brother I am sure is enjoying watching the races, free of pain, and I know he is close to everyone he loves.

  • Jerry McMahon

    Thanks Drew. So sorry about my old trainer, Mark. Carla has always been a class act.

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