Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Guaranteed to turn heads on Halloween, Steve and Tanya Melen cruise downtown Tiburon in his 1964 red Mercury Comet Caliente convertible. He is dressed as the “Joy of Painting” artist Bob Ross, complete with a resplendent beard. Tanya has been transformed into one of his aesthetically pleasing landscapes with happy little trees. “Bob” turns to the camera and says, “Look at the beautiful nature and scenery. Aren’t the trees beautiful? Don’t they make you want to stop and take a little breath? I think I am going to paint them. Come with me on this journey.” He gestures to the camera to join him and you cannot help but feel inclined.
How does one describe Steve Melen? Cancer survivor, former opioid addict, author, entrepreneur, friend, father, husband, mentor, survivor, Thoroughbred owner, and lover of life. He is a connoisseur of breakthrough living! He has lived 10 years without a stomach. He advocates on Capitol Hill. It is the wild kaleidoscope of the fragments of his life that makes him so colorful, strong, and unique.
Life seemed normal 12 years ago. Then he was handed a passport into a land he was not planning on visiting. While in his 30s, he was experiencing some stomach discomfort and stress. He was married, employed, and had a new baby. Nine months later, he was in ER. Life became a swirl of words and sentences that people do not want to ever hear such as “we are seeing something.” It is a medical word jumble until he finally hears “stomach cancer.” His life fast-tracked as he was stormed through the medical system. Farewell to his stomach, gall bladder, spleen, half of his pancreas, and one-third of his esophagus. Hello to Code Blue and going septic. Slam the door to a “normal life” and face the daunting prospect of chemotherapy and radiation. His life became one challenge after another as he went “from nothing to everything in 24 hours.”
Life was dark. He could not see his future. He had support from friends and family but “they were stressed about me.” His life crumbled around him. He spent a month in the hospital. Chemo overlapped with radiation. “It got harder and harder.” Radiation was beating him up and he was in tears on his last day of treatment telling his doctor, “I don’t know how much I can take.” His doctor looked at him and said, “We are done. We are done today.”
He was not prepared for anxiety and stress as the odds were against him. His marriage was disintegrating. He ended up with a drug addiction to his pain killers, which led to rehab. There were days that he could not get out of bed. He was not successful and went back to rehab a second time. He was 6’1” and only weighed 95 pounds.
Melen had started attending horse races as a guest of his friends. Horse racing offered a pleasant distraction, but Melen longed to be a participant and not a spectator. He introduced himself to a local trainer and said, “I want to be involved.” Then came a life-changing moment one afternoon while he was playing golf. The trainer called him with an opportunity to be a partial owner in a filly named “Killer Graces.” His friends were incredulous. “Did you just buy a racehorse?” It was a complete whim, and it changed his life.
He loves the track. It gives him a new identity away from being a cancer survivor. “I needed something to pull me out of a hole, which was getting deeper. My future was getting so dark. I wasn’t through my cancer yet. I was having challenges all around, personally and physically. I was pretending everything was great. The reality was that I was hurting. We all need something in life to motivate us. To keep us excited and fulfilled.”
As Killer Graces came down the stretch in first place (Hollywood Park, June 11, 2011, in the Cinderella Stakes), Melen allowed himself to feel joy. He jumped up and down “with energy” coursing through him. “I found something inspirational” That excitement was something that he had never experienced before. “Watching that horse run so fast. I needed this in that time of my life.”
He found life and joy at the racetrack and the opportunity to be part of a horse racing team. His life reconfigured as he began healthy living. He reconnected with his high school sweetheart, Tanya, and married her. He invested in more horses. He developed friendships with other owners and trainers.
Melen loves visiting the horses on the backside. He notices how the horses perk up when they hear his voice. Tanya says he “feels freedom from all distractions of the world when he gets to be with the horses.” She helps him focus on his fun fashion choices at the track. He often wears a snazzy hat that is part of his “racing uniform” and is a fanciful part of his persona. “It puts a smile on people’s faces when you have a positive attitude.”
One of his friends is Bing Bush Jr. who is part of the Abbondanza syndicate and manages ownership groups. Melen has bought into Excellent Sunset, Midnight Crossing, and Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff contender Horologist. (In addition to Abbondanza Racing LLC, Horologist is owned by Parkland Thoroughbreds, Medallion Racing, There’s A Chance Stable, Paradise Farms Corp., and David Staudacher and was supplemented into the Breeders’ Cup after she won the Grade 2 Beldame Stakes at Belmont by three lengths.)
Bush says, “Within our own Abbondanza group, we are blessed for all our partners. We not just partners in racing but we are all friends who feel excited and blessed to be together at Keeneland. Among our partners is our wonderful Steve Melen. To say that Steve loves life is just a start in trying to capture his indefatigable positivity. Steve exudes this love in every interaction I’ve had with him. I feel lucky and all of us at Abbondanza are lucky to have Steve with us! Maybe it’s because he has faced death many times and each moment, hour, day, week, month, year truly is a felt as a blessing. How poetic that we are blessed to have part of a wonderful filly named - of all things: Horologist!”
Melen is flying to Kentucky for the Breeders’s Cup to watch Horologist compete in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. His voice changes when he talks about Horologist. “She is a BIG, STRONG FILLY!” The excitement is contagious.
He recently published his complex life story in his memoir “Killer Graces: My path from pain to power and breakthrough living.” It is a remarkable story given that he only had a 15% chance of living as he dealt with pain, alcohol, drugs, marital problems, and fears. Yet his love of life shines through, especially when he is at the track! “We all need something in life to motivate us, to keep us excited and fulfilled. I am 50 and am as happy as I’ve ever been in my life. Even COVID can’t bring me down. I don’t have problems now. I have challenges.”
Melen carries multiple good luck charms with him. He collects horse shoes from winning Thoroughbreds and melts them to create various charms. Luck has become an important part of his life. “If you believe in luck, then luck happens to you because you put yourself in the position to accept it. People say they are unlucky. You’re not going to be lucky sitting at home waiting for luck to hit you. You have to get out there. I hold these charms and things as a symbol of luck. But it also gets me to get out there because you need to participate in this world.”
Breakthrough living is the best description of Melen’s life. This is a man who has stared at death. He has lived with the cruel hard reality of cancer. Yet he rises and greets the sun with hope in his heart, and a stunning, contagious love of life no matter what his challenges are. At the track, his eyes dance. He smiles a knowing smile and his heart pounds as the horses come down the stretch. With his lucky charms, friends, and family, he knows that he has found his way to the winner’s circle of life.