Chris Dachille may not be known as a hugger but his warm eyes and his heartfelt smile will leave you almost speechless the first time you meet him. He is sitting at historic Pimlico Race Course surrounded by his loving family and proud colleagues and is about to be honored as this year's recipient of the Old Hilltop Award during the Alibi Breakfast. Since 1976, the track has paid tribute to outstanding members of the media in recognition of excellence and distinction.
“It’s something I look forward to every year. I’m just floored to join names like Jim McKay, Gerry Sandusky, and other great broadcasters who have won this wonderful award.” Dachille is the Executive Sports Producer at WBAL-TV in Baltimore. He is only 39 years old. He began his career in 2004 after graduating from the University of South Carolina. He lives and breathes sports. One only has to take a look at his Twitter feed (of more than 111,000 tweets) to see that sports is his life. He produces the three and a half hour lead-in show to the Preakness Stakes and thrives on producing the “Olympic Zone” shows every two years.
Dachille credits his family with his love of horse racing. “Maryland is such a great horse racing state. We are Maryland people. We would pick numbers out of a hat for the (Kentucky) Derby, Preakness, and Belmont and just love watching these races. I vividly remember the places I was at during the races; if I was working at a snowball stand or with my family in the living room. These are wonderful moments that you will never forget. They are bonding. It brings your family closer together.”
For the past 13 years he has been on the track “working from many different vantage points. One year I am on the roof. One year I am in the infield. One year I am on turn one.” This year he will be running the show from the studio. “I like to think of it as a four-hour puzzle when you get to see our pre-race show. You get to see what’s going to fit in this window. Every year it’s different even within the show. Sometimes you will have a format or a plan and it will just get completely changed and you throw it out the window. And you go from there. You just keep enjoying trying to fit the pieces in the right place. The funniest thing is that during the race, we don’t really see it. We watch it like everyone else on a small monitor. It’s so exciting. It’s indescribable to hear the crowd. When the final horse goes in and you have that moment of anticipation. It is breathtaking.”
As his colleagues continued to honor him with accolades, the room suddenly stilled and turned quiet when it was revealed that he is battling a rare form of cancer. It just doesn’t seem possible that such a young man who is a point of joy and light could possibly be fighting something as difficult as Langerhans cell histiocytosis which he calls “LCH.” Dachille explains his cancer diagnosis simply and factually. “It was a long process. I was driving home from spin class one Saturday morning and I get a call. I hadn’t been feeling well and a MRI showed that I had a tumor on my back. They thought it was lymphoma. Five biopsies later and six months later, I was officially diagnosed with a cancer called LCH. It is a one in a million cancer. I have a wonderful cancer team at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. I am now two sessions through chemotherapy. The original treatment course was for 12. I might have as few as six. We are going to see how it goes.”
LCH is a type of cancer that can damage tissue or cause lesions to form in the body. It is exceedingly rare and most common in children. How does he feel? “Some days good. Some days not good. I have a treatment where I have a week of chemo then three weeks off. The bounce back has been relatively quick. The cancer is in the whole body. They feel good that the treatment is going to work.”
He has returned to work. In fact, he was heading to work immediately after the Alibi Breakfast. But first it was time to celebrate with friends and family. His brother Bob drove 10 hours to be with him. He spoke with pride. “I am just really proud of him in terms of getting recognized for all of his hard work. He is the hardest worker that I know. I am biased obviously being his brother. I know that for the two weeks before Preakness, he is there at sunrise at 5 a.m. every single day. The day of Preakness; his involvement in it; and how hard he works is just incredible. I am so glad and so proud that he got recognized for everything that he has put into it.”
Dachille was trying hard to hang onto his emotions. After receiving the beautiful crystal bowl engraved with his name, he thanked his family and colleagues. His voice was husky with emotion and quivered several times but he marched onward giving his thank you speech with dignity and happiness. He was touched by Garry Sandusky (with WBAL) who organized a Go Fund Me page for Dachille. It has raised more than $28,000 for his additional medical expenses. Dachille explained that Sandusky is like his father and wanted to thank “everyone who contributed. It is incredibly touching and overwhelming.”
His co-workers came out in full force to honor him. He is the perfect example of the show behind the scenes. As a passionate and knowledgeable soul, he inspires confidence among them. His colleagues gently roasted him about his unique diet of foods that end in “o” such as Fritos, Doritos, and Cheetos. They teased him about his abhorrence to hugging. They said that many times he influenced a sense of calmness during the chaos on the Preakness set with just two words: “Trust me.” And they do. He was surprised to see so many of them in attendance. “That was unexpected. I love all of them. We are an extremely close group. The hugging is a little joke but I am coming around to it.”
America’s Best Racing’s Dan Tordjman is one of Dachille’s many friends. Deeply touched by the Old Hilltop Award ceremony he offered the following: “Just like racing, the TV world is a small one and a tight one. My wife and I connected with Chris several years ago. We immediately recognized him as one of the people who makes all of the magic happen behind the scenes. In addition to being talented, Chris is also really funny and witty. He just has this incredible warmth about him and he’s so relatable. I think that’s what makes him great at his job and, more importantly, just a great friend and human being. We love Chris and, like so many others, want to be as supportive as possible in what’s obviously an extremely difficult time for him although his constant smile and warm nature might lead you to think otherwise. We are absolutely thrilled to see him recognized with the Old Hilltop Award. He’s most deserving and it turned into a great opportunity for a lot of people to just let Chris now how much he’s loved.”
Of course Dachille loves horses and has his favorites. His face fills with joy when he reveals that Lava Man is his absolute favorite. Lava Man had a 47-race career in which he won 17 times, with his major victories including three Hollywood Gold Cups, two Santa Anita Handicaps and the Pacific Classic. Dachille’s face shines with pride as he discusses Lava Man's career. He exclaims with authority “THE ABSOLUTE GRIT AND DETERMINATION IN THAT HORSE!” and closes his eyes blissfully in memory of greatness.
Last year he tweeted that his Preakness choice was Cloud Computing. Regretfully, he didn’t get his bet in time. This year he is team Quip! He suddenly turns serious and leans forward to draw you in. His eyes are dancing and his smile is sublime. “I like Quip. I know drawing the rail isn’t optimal obviously but you know it’s one of those things. In watching back tracks and past performances; I am a big believer in closers and horses with big guts. And I think Quip has them. He won (the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby) at 19-1 odds while driving down the center of the track fighting off Flameaway. I love him. And I think that Quip is going to win.”
The beauty of horse racing is that before the race there is the possibility that any horse could win. As the horses race for the Woodlawn trophy, all eyes will be on the track. In a quiet studio far from the pounding hooves, a young man will also be giving his best to all around him. In the race for his life as he battles cancer, he will draw joy from the drama and beauty of the Preakness. With a husky voice cracking with emotion, he looks around the room at those who love him and simply says “I can’t wait for us to bring you the story of the Preakness.” It is one of the greatest classics in horse racing. Brought to you by a man who cares more than you will ever know.