RIP Congie: The Forever King of West Point

by | 02.16.2011 | 5:55pm

Congie DeVito, a longtime member of the West Point Thoroughbreds family and a friend to many in racing, died peacefully Wednesday afternoon in New Jersey from complications of Osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly known as brittle bone disease, which afflicted him since birth.

Just 35 years old at the time of his death, Congie died in the loving presence of his mother, Roberta, and sister, Ann Marie.

Congie, born with 25 broken bones and having more than 125 broken by the time he was 12, was four-feet, two-inches as an adult, and spent his entire life in a wheelchair.

Yet he never complained or allowed the disease to temper his enthusiasm for life or his ability to achieve. He graduated in 1998 from Temple University in Philadelphia, where he befriended Hall of Fame basketball coach John Chaney. Temple named a special award in Congie's honor that is given out by the athletic department in recognition of extraordinary achievement in the areas of loyalty and perseverance.

In fact, it was his perseverance that brought Congie to a position at West Point, where he worked first as a volunteer updating the company's website and later as full-time communications specialist dealing with investors in the various partnerships. He got the job by calling West Point founder and president Terry Finley, by his own account, “15 or 16 times” before Finley finally relented and gave him the chance he so desperately wanted..

Congie's parents took him to Garden State Park when he was young, and that's where he first fell in love with horse racing.

“I had to early on come to the realization that in order for me to be the successful person my parents pushed me to be, I would have to adapt,” Congie told the Paulick Report earlier this year, shortly before his hospitalization. “I looked at horse racing, where there's a relationship that develops between the rider and the horse, the trainer and the horse. If a rider gives a bad ride, it impacts the result. If a trainer misses that a horse has heat in a tendon, that horse is not going to perform well.

“I look at the sport and say it's very similar to my situation: for me to be as successful as I want to be, I've got to make that connection with other people – and be willing to be in their hands. It's as simple as being lifted into bed by somebody. When I looked at horse racing and watch how they perform, it became a special sort of treat for me.

“Not everybody is going to look at horse racing in that deep metaphorical way. I am competitive, but I also love the fact that this is a sport that requires integration between two entities.”

I spoke with Congie after Fasig-Tipton executive Boyd Browning suggested, in the wake of this year's Tropical Park Derby victory by West Point's King Congie, a horse named in DeVito's honor, that he might be a good story. Boy, was he right.

Congie was so enthusiastic about life in general and horse racing in particular, never letting on for an instant that his health was diminishing or that he deserved any special considerations because of his disease. In fact, he was afraid the Three Chimneys Good News Friday story I was writing was too much about him and not enough about Terry and Debbie Finley. “They gave me a chance,” he said.  

Congie was looking forward to namesake King Congie continuing on the road toward the Kentucky Derby, threatening to wear his “pimp suit” to Churchill Downs should the colt make it. I know I won't be alone in pulling for King Congie to be in the starting lineup in the Run for the Roses.

Erin Finley, the daughter of Terry and Debbie, worked especially close with Congie in recent years and wrote a wonderful tribute to her friend and colleague on her Facebook page. “I'll never forget him as long as I live,” Erin Finley wrote, in part. “I don't think I'll ever be the same without him here. I don't think anybody will be the same for that matter. If you met Congie and weren't touched in some way, you aren't human. Talk about courage, determination, and kindness. Congie was truly beautiful.”

“In spite of, or perhaps because of, his physical limitations, Congie took full advantage of what life had to offer,” Terry Finley said in a statement. “He was an avid fan and supporter of the opera, Broadway shows, politics, television, movies, museums, fantasy sports leagues, football and basketball (especially his beloved Alma Mater Temple University).  His deep love of horse racing highlighted his competitive spirit each and every day.

“After he passed, I was remembering the joys and sadnesses of the years we were friends, the triumphs and setbacks of making our joint living in horse racing.  As I ran through the years, a single thought kept returning to me providing solace.  Perhaps what Malcolm Forbes had written as his epitaph will give others who loved Congie comfort as well: 'While Alive – He Lived.' So true of you Congie, so true of you.”

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Feb. 19, at 11 a.m. at: Christ Episcopal Church, 305 Main Street, Riverton, N.J. 08077 (856)-829-1634.

In lieu of flowers, Congie's family has requested donations be made to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation. Please click here to make a donation in his memory.

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