Beyond a day at the races

Keeneland is many things to many people. It is one of the finest racetracks in the world, and it is a place you go to see and be seen. However, on Make-A-Wish Day, the racetrack works with surrounding farms to elevate itself beyond horse racing.

On October 10, the Kentucky horse industry put competition aside in an effort to bring smiles to the faces of children who have had to deal with more than their fair share of struggles. Since 2008, each year on Make-A-Wish Day, the thoroughbred industry and Keeneland team up to grant the wishes of nine Kentucky children battling life-threatening medical conditions.

It is a day of VIP treatment from beginning to end. Each child spends the morning getting a personal tour of his or her sponsoring farm and then spends the afternoon at Keeneland. As guests of honor, the wish families meet the Keeneland jockeys in the paddock and watch their sponsor's race from the winner's circle. At the end of each race, the wish kids present the trophy for the race named after the sponsoring farms.

"It is Kentucky farmers helping Kentucky children," said John Greely IV, co-owner of Wintergreen Stallion Station and one of the driving forces behind the event. "Whether we are having good times or bad times in the horse business, we all realize we are very lucky to live the lives that we have led.

"This year, I believe eight of the nine families had never been to Keeneland for a horse race, and for them to be able to see it in the capacity they are seeing it is really special. Not only do they get their wish granted, but they get to have another special day together."

Anyone who reads this will surely pause to think, "Oh, that is nice," but it was observing this day in its entirety that reminded me of the depth, breadth and importance of such a simple word in such a complicated world.

Christian is 15 and he is battling medulloblastoma, a highly malignant primary brain tumor. On Make-A-Wish Day, he was all smiles when he got to meet three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel. Earlier in the day, Christian had bonded with 2010 Kentucky Derby runner-up Ice Box while feeding the stallion a carrot.

A man walked up to the Make-A-Wish Foundation donation table and donated a winning ticket to the organization. He did not mention that it was a winning Pick 4 ticket worth $26,000.

The teenager was also grinning as he presented the winning trophy to the connections of Key to Fame, who had won "his" race at odds of 18-1. Amid all the smiles and handshakes and joy, his mom was standing off to the side hastily wiping away tears. Less than 24 hours after that moment, her son would be back at the hospital to receive chemotherapy.

It's humbling to have a 15-year-old look you in the eyes and tell you it's OK. That chemotherapy, for him at least, is easier on the body than the radiation he has also gone through.

Then there is 8-year-old Sophia, who has Batten disease, which is a rare neurodegenerative disorder. Sometimes it is very hard for Sophia to hold still, but this mattered not to the kind person dressed up as Keeneland's mascot, Buckles, who was endlessly patient while encouraging Sophia (and all the younger children) to come in close for a hug.

Rebecca is 18, stylish and confident. She also has Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. She, her mom, and her sister decided it would be fun to bet a trifecta, so they each picked a horse and put their picks all together. Rarely has a $1 trifecta ticket brought so much joy when it came in.

Even some of the horses seemingly picked up on the enormity of it all. Prior to the second race, trainer Joe McSorley allowed Baily, age 6, to come pet his horse, the appropriately named Highlight. This isn't a backyard pony. This was an athlete tacked up, circling a busy paddock getting ready to compete.

Highlight stood stock still, ears pricked while Baily daintily patted his nose with one hand while clutching a prized gifted horseshoe in another. The little girl has neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor that develops from nerve tissue.

Each child has a story and each one deserves better than the hand fate has dealt them. A day at the races can't fix that, but it is the hope of everyone involved that it can relieve the stress and anxiety for just a little while.

"I think this is something bigger than all of us as individuals, and it is important," said Gemma Freeman, the industry relations manager at Stonestreet Farm. "It is a fantastic day, and we are happy and proud to be part of it."

From those at Stonestreet letting 7-year-old Makenzie feed 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra peppermints, to leading jockey Rosie Napravnik bending down to be at eye level for better conversation with Baily just before riding in a race, there is something about the day that reminds you that the simplest acts can have far-reaching results.

Studies have been done to back what the eyes and heart already know. A 2011 Make-A-Wish impact study showed that 89 percent of doctors, nurses and health professionals surveyed believed a wish experience can influence wish kids' physical health, while 99 percent of parents reported that the wish experience gave their children increased feelings of happiness and 96 percent said the wish experience strengthened their families.

Sponsors of Make-A-Wish Day at Keeneland this year included Three Chimneys Farm, Shadwell Farm, Ashford Stud/Coolmore Farms, Lane's End, Darley, The Frizzy Foundation, Gainesway, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and Stonestreet Farm.

"Days like this are really cool because farms that are competitors on the track, in the breeding shed and at the sales are all coming together to support an initiative that is bigger than themselves," said Alex Riddle of Rood & Riddle. "We are just really happy to be a part of it. The horse industry has always been really good at charitable work inside of itself, and it is a great time to reach outside of itself and do things to help the whole community."

This spirit of giving went beyond just the day's original sponsors. After the final race of the day, a man walked up to the Make-A-Wish Foundation donation table and donated a winning ticket to the organization. He did not mention that it was a winning Pick 4 ticket worth $26,000.

Keeneland has cameras everywhere, and it seems likely the identity of the man has been deduced. However, he did not want any recognition for his gift and asked that he remain anonymous. His request has been granted, and as a result of his kindness, several children will have theirs granted, as well. As of August 2012, the average cost to grant a wish was $8,141.

Christian, who recently decided he would like to go to Sandals Emerald Bay in the Bahamas when he is well enough to make the trip, is soft-spoken and kind. When asked what he thought of it all, he summed it up best, saying, "The farm was so beautiful, and it has been awesome to be at Keeneland. I was nervous when they asked me to participate at first, but I am so glad I said yes. It was so nice."

There's that word again, nice. So simple, but so accurate.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.