Harry Payne Whitney: Like Father, Like Son
In a world far from the pastoral bluegrass fields of Kentucky and the pleasures of mint juleps and horse racing, Army Staff Sergeant Chris Gordon was serving in the A Company, the 1-5 Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division in Tal Afar, Iraq. “In 2005, we had just finished a reconnaissance mission in Iraq and come back to our base. An Improvised Exploding Device (IED) went off next to our vehicle (which was a Stryker Armored Vehicle). As a result I lost my leg above the knee. I also have a stabilizing rod in my left leg.” Gordon was in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. for a year undergoing numerous surgeries. He received a prosthetic leg and had to learn how to walk with it. It had to be rigorous and tiring. His rehabilitation was intense and involved strength improvement in a wheelchair. He had to learn how to get up, how to put on his prosthetic, and how to walk. Gordon was in his mid-20s and facing challenges that few would understand.
Gordon is an amicable man. He was at a golf tournament in Washington, D.C. when he found that he was going to the Kentucky Derby. Forty-eight hours later, he was in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the Churchill Downs backside two days before the 2018 Kentucky Derby. He is a guest of Sentient Jet, which is a partner with the Kentucky Derby. They are sponsoring Combatant for the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby in an effort to generate awareness and support for Homes For Our Troops, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization championed by Combatant’s owners, Winchell Thoroughbreds and Willis Horton Racing, that builds homes for severely injured veterans.
Gordon was the recipient of a new home on April 7, 2018 in Groveland, Fla. Homes For Our Troops donates custom-built homes nationwide for severely injured veterans (post 9-11). Sentient Jet has been supporting Team Combatant and Homes For Our Troops throughout Derby week. On Friday morning, they were gathered outside Steve Asmussen’s barn, where they had visited with Asmussen and met Combatant. Retired NFL tight end Jacob Tamme had joined the group on the backside. As a native Kentuckian and an avid horse-racing fan, Tamme added some glamour to the visit. One was naturally drawn to him and instantly knew he was a professional athlete. He shared with the group his love for various horses in Kentucky, particularly for 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Combatant’s name pays tribute to our veterans. The Combatant ownership group is planning on donating 100 percent of the proceeds from official Kentucky Derby “Combatant” merchandise sales to Homes For Our Troops.
Gordon met Combatant Friday morning and watched him get a bath. “Then I saw him up close and personal. I got to pet him and rub him. He’s a little bit nippy but it’s so awesome to see his muscles and the veins running through his body. There’s not an ounce of fat on him. And I wished him luck.”
Gordon admired the special camouflaged blanket that Combatant will wear on the Derby walkover to promote Home For Our Troops. He explained that in the military, “Our favorite item issued to us is called a woobie. It’s actually a poncho liner and it can be used for so many different things.” It’s officially a “liner, wet weather poncho” that keeps them dry in heavy rain and warm during cool nights. This beloved item has been used as a blanket, pillow, hammock, etc. Combatant will most certainly catch one’s eye when he wears his blanket and be a photographer’s favorite.
Gordon is no stranger to horses. He works with Horses and Heroes in St. Cloud, Fla. at the McCormick Research Institute. Their program helps veterans rediscover a sense of purpose. Gordon explained that they start with groundwork equine therapy. “When we first started it was equine therapy. We used to go out and do some horse work on the ground. Get them to follow different commands. Sometimes we even painted them. We do all kinds of therapeutic stuff. But I graduated from that. I am part of a drill team that rides at rodeos and functions. We do patterns and it’s really patriotic.”
The group crossed over to Barn 33 and met Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Tamme charmed the group with his story about acquiring the last pair of shoes that American Pharoah wore. Baffert broke away from a group of people and came over to meet Gordon. After chatting about the program, he invited Gordon into the barn to meet Justify. It was a really special moment. They talked about horses and Gordon was invited to pet Justify, who was calm and inquisitive. Gordon whipped out his phone to take some photos of Justify and Baffert reached out and took the phone. He positioned Gordon on the side of Justify, and he knew perfectly how to stand next to a future stallion and held his halter.
On the way out the barn, Baffert asked about Gordon’s injury and thanked him for his service. Baffert has a way of making a person feel like the only person in the barn, and all the other extraneous noise and hubbub drifts away as two men have a conversation of what it was like to be injured in combat. It was an extraordinary moment.
Sometimes the backside of Churchill Downs can be surreal with all the activity. But sometimes it can be magical when the world slows down as two horsemen have a brief talk about life. Gordon will soon return to Florida, where he helps veterans with PTSD develop new relationships with therapy horses. Dressed in patriotic colors, he will ride in the Horses and Heroes drill team with his prosthetic leg in the stirrup as they do their routines. Inspirational? Stirring? Touching? Certainly to everyone who crosses paths with Gordon. His journey took him a world away. It could have crushed his soul but he found his way through the love of horses. It’s only fitting that the two warrior Combatants have met at Churchill Downs. There is indeed something very special about a horse with a woobie.