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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 12, 2023 – Today was the day I had earmarked to write a story about a boy and his horse. On Friday, I caught up with a piece written by Steve Dennis, the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary wordsmith. I knew instantly I could not have said it better.

The TRC piece appears below in its entirety. What clinched the decision to honor Dennis’ words here were three lines – see if you can relate – that made me choke with emotion, just like on Championship Saturday when Cody’s Wish won a desperate photo over Preakness winner National Treasure.

What also leapt to mind was an earwig of a race call at the finish of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic when the announcer saluted the winner that had just to put a cherry atop a Horse of the Year confection: “American Pharoah, the Horse of a Lifetime” intoned race caller Larry Collmus.

And so we make an apology to Collmus for other “Horses of a Lifetime” we’ve seen, the likes of Secretariat and Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid, and Ruffian and Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. For all their greatness, they stand in the shadow of Cody’s Wish, a horse for every lifetime. Wrote Dennis:

“This is not how fairytales are supposed to end. We are hard-wired to believe in the happy-ever-after, even as our growing stock of hard-won experience points us in the other direction. It is why fairytales are for children before they know what the grown-ups know.

But this fairytale was for grown-ups too. This one was for all of us. That is why, on Monday, people all over the racing world, all over the world, were suddenly looking up from their screens, staring out into the unfocused middle distance with damp eyes as the happy-ever-after dissolved forever between the stark words of a news bulletin.

The fairytale … that we all felt as though we were part of, peeking gleefully through the window at the happiest of scenes within, was over. Cody Dorman died. He was 17.

Cody lived the most remarkable life, constrained by his physical difficulties but freed by his indomitable spirit. When he was diagnosed with the rare genetic disease Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, doctors estimated that he might live two years.

That he beat the odds so thoroughly, so relentlessly, for so long, was in part down to his own inner will and partly due to the equally stubborn love of his family, father Kelly, mother Leslie, sister Kylie.

‘The doctors wrote him off, said that we should just make him comfortable. That wasn’t good enough for us,” said Kelly last year. “We’ve all come a long way’.

Everyone knows the story of how the family took Cody to Gainsborough Farm as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s good work, and a six-month-old foal walked up to Cody’s wheelchair and laid his lead in the boy’s lap.

‘It was the biggest interaction between human and horse there’s ever been here’, said farm manager Danny Mulvihill.

There is more to the world than we know, [more] than we can ever know, but Cody Dorman and the foal who became Cody’s Wish knew more of its hidden magic than us.

They were connected by that magic, an eerie, shivery connection, perfectly natural to them, otherworldly to us, and through their connection we also were allowed to see beyond the veil of normal life.

Sometimes, Cody’s normal life was hard. When it became too hard, his family took him back to see Cody’s Wish. One friend reached out to another, and help came without question.

‘Cody’s Wish locked his eyes on Cody and walked straight to him,” recalled Kelly. ‘They sorta’ rubbed noses, and then we all heard Cody laughing, a big belly laugh’.

‘That was such a rare thing to hear, and from that moment he began to dig his way out of the dark times. The flame inside him was burning again’.

‘He’s like a little teddy bear when he’s with Cody’.

Cody Dorman was lucky, in many ways. His life might have flickered out before that flame ever had a chance to take hold. He might have had to endure a life half-lived in quiet rooms, his flame doused by well-meant institutional kindness. Instead, buoyed up by the devotion of his family, borne on the broad back of his G1-winning soulmate, Cody’s life burned with the brightest flame.

‘In a lot of ways, I think that horse probably saved Cody’s life’, said Kelly after [Cody’s] success in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita. ‘I know him and the horse have made a lot of lives better’.

Cody became an inspiration to everyone who knew his story, the story that became a fairytale, an account of the unseen, unknown, unknowable possibilities of life. The epic saga grew with every telling and every race until it touched us all, and in so doing provoked a vast outpouring of warmth from racing fans towards Cody and his family.

‘Cody has had mountains to climb all his life, and we all get so much pleasure from seeing how much this means to him, wrapped in a warm blanket of affection at the racetrack’, said Kelly Dorman earlier this year.

‘I can’t come close to doing it justice, what it means to us as a family. It’s like there’s a big hand on our back, supporting us, it won’t let us fall. That’s what it feels like to us’.”

Last Saturday, did Cody’s Wish know? Did he know, with the same strange certainty, that he knew Cody was his friend, that the hourglass was almost empty? Did he know that it was even more important than usual that the race was won?

He came down the stretch as though he was on a mission, got there by a nose, did his bit, did it for his friend, one last time.”

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10 Responses

  1. Your narrative is enthrawling John. It captures the Breeder’s Cup Dirt Mile emotion to perfection. You are indeed at the High Echeleon of your craft. After reading your lines, I revisited the replay of the race, and also listened to the pre-race trackside family gathering interview once more. Incredible the connection shared between the young allicted human and powerful young equine. It all brought racing back to a time of innocense lost. Cody’s Wish celebrated young Cody to his home beyond in that magical race, and the equine friend was not to be denied even by a frivilous claim of foul after. Cody’s Wish celebrated Young Cody beyond well, as does your writing John.

  2. Dennis, I’m afraid you will need to go back and re-read. This piece was written by Steve Dennis of Thoroughbred Racing Commentary.

    Not only was Dennis identified at the top but came with the admission that I could not have captured the moment any better. The writing brought back memories of my friend, the late, great Bill Nack.

    The important thing for me personally is that Cody’s memory will reside at HRI permanently in the archives.

    I’ve seen, read, and have been privileged to chronicle some of racing’s best stories. But this saga, the otherwordly relationship between a boy and “his” horse, is perhaps the greatest racing story ever told.

  3. My bad John. I thought that the in quote lines were from Steve Dennis. I misunderstood and thought that a portion of what was written was yours. Anyhoot, I stand corrected and allow that all credit now be extended to Mr. Dennis, but nonetheless thank you for bringing it all to your readers attention. If not for you and HRI, I would have missed it.

  4. No worries McD, just needed to share this piece and glad I did, for your sake and for anyone else who might have missed it. Such a great, emotional read…

  5. Rick Dutrow now has multiple BC Classic wins. He also has a BC Sprint win, and a BC Mile win, a Kentucky Derby, and a Preakness.

    He has shown the ability to win playing the Aqueduct deep winter cheap claiming game, as well as the stakes horses game.

    I can’t wait for the mental gymnastics we are going to see when people legitimately bring his name up for the racing HOF. He has the credentials and people are going to twist themselves into a logic pretzel trying to argue he doesn’t. And when you bring up the actual facts of his suspension case (your writing on this topic should be required reading for racing fans), they will proudly display their ignorance.

  6. Doc, Rick Dutrow probably never will be nominated to the H of F…

    You’ve given me an idea. Maybe I will reprint those pieces, complete with a transcript of the Administrative Hearing testimony.

    1. That would be a great idea – it’s a masterful piece of work you’ve put together and if a couple more people actually read it, perhaps the voices on the right side of this will increase a bit. What was done to him could legitimately be a heck of a Netflix documentary.

  7. A heartfelt thanks for that, McD, that’s important for the reputation of our little franchise.

    When it comes to racing, we speak from the heart — but we occasionally allow facts to get in the way!

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