Stephen Hawking was 21 when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — and was told he had about two years to live. Over the ensuing 55 years, working from a wheelchair as the ALS progressed, Hawking became the most famous man of science since Albert Einstein, wrote a perennial best-seller called “A Brief History of Time,” and was ranked 25th on a 2002 poll compiling the 100 Greatest Britons, ahead of Charles Dickens, David Bowie, and Sir Thomas More.
“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with,” Hawking once wrote. “Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
Hawking died on March 14, 2018. Fifty-two days later, in a foaling stall at Gainsborough Farm in Versailles, Ky., the Tapit mare Dance Card gave birth to a bay colt by Curlin. The one event had nothing in particular to do with the other, unless you prescribe to something else Hawking said, with the aid of the speech-generating device that gave voice to his every thought:
“God not only plays dice, He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen.”
Cody Dorman was 12 when he first encountered the Curlin colt, during a Make-a-Wish Foundation visit to Gainsborough from the Dorman family home in Richmond, Ky. At the time, the boy had already undergone a number of operations in an effort to stem the many growth challenges presented by Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, but none of that mattered to the curious foal at Dance Card’s side. For some strange reason, the boy and the colt connected in a language all their own. Come naming time, the colt was christened Cody’s Wish.
This reporter has witnessed many similar encounters between Thoroughbreds and children. Horses who require warning labels before approach by adults will lower their guard — and their heads — during an encounter with a small, nonthreatening human who only wants to reach up and touch a twitching nose, or giggle at a puff of horsey breath.
Whatever the young colt imparted to the young boy that day at Gainsborough was kept between the two of them, and the story could have ended there. No one would have complained. Horses have been helping children with physical and mental challenges for decades, providing an interaction that cannot be replicated by manmade therapies. But then Cody’s Wish became a very good racehorse, carrying the silks of famed Godolphin and a name that meant something special.
The syndrome with which Cody Dorman was born was not identified until 1965 in separate studies by Dr. Ulrich Wolf and Dr. Kurt Hirschhorn, cytogeneticists whose work revealed a defect in a strand of the human chormosome 4 that led to stark differences in the physical and mental development of those children affected.
Cody was given those same two years predicted for Hawking’s ALS sentence. And while he did not live as long as the vaunted physicist, Cody’s impact on the people in his ever-expanding circle served as a cure for the lowest spirits. Once again, all the marketing in the world is wasted energy in the face of one of racing’s organic miracles. They come from out of the blue, sometimes called Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra, Cigar or John Henry, Jena Antonucci and Arcangelo. When they emerge, Thoroughbred racing heaves a collective sigh of relief, as if to say, “See, this is us, too.”
My daughter was born a couple of months before Cody, who would have turned 18 in December. She needed corrective lenses when she was young to help fine-tune her vision, now perfect. She broke her arm sailing off a tire swing at pre-school, cracked a collarbone falling on the sidewalk, had a bad reaction to a bee sting, strained a knee ligament in a dance audition, and broke a finger moving theater scenery. Compared with what the Dormans experienced these 18 years with Cody, we’ve had a stroll through paradise. And yet, each is their own version of perfection.
In public, whenever they traveled to watch Cody’s Wish run, Cody and his family — Kelly, Leslie, and sister Kylie — would display an equanimity that put the rest of us racetrack grouches to shame. They’d only say no to an approach, an interview, or a photograph if it was clear Cody was tired and needed time away from the hubbub.
Last week at the Altadena Town and Country Club, not far from Santa Anita Park, the Dormans graced the annual awards dinner of the National Thoroughbred Writers and Broadcasters Association. They were being honored with the Mr. Fitz Award, named for the legendary trainer of Gallant Fox, Nashua, and Bold Ruler who lived up to his nickname, “Sunny Jim.” The award singles out people who have typified the spirit of Thoroughbred racing, for all that could mean.
In the case of both Cody’s Wish and Cody Dorman, it meant rising above all odds to fulfill their inherent destinies. Cody’s Wish was one of 21,287 registered North American foals of 2018, brought into this world with no guarantee that he would end up a two-time winner of a Breeders’ Cup event. By the same token, Cody Dorman was one in 4.1 million children born in 2005, and yet he was the one who provided a constant supply of inspiration to more people than he could ever imagine.
At one point along the way, as Cody’s Wish was working through his conditions as a late-blooming 3-year-old, Bill Mott and his crew came to the realization that they were training a horse in a fishbowl, thanks to the unique connection bestowed by the Dorman family. For two solid years after that, Cody’s Wish could not twitch a muscle without the rest of us wondering what effect it might have on his namesake. All the while, Mott watched in fatherly amazement as the horse would sniff and nuzzle Cody in his wheelchair, and wonder what the boy was thinking, if anything at all.
“I asked that question of Kelly and Leslie,” Mott said Nov. 6 as he dealt with the news. “Does he understand everything? Kelly told me, ‘Believe me, he understands everything that you’re saying.’ I wouldn’t have known that.”
Cody’s Wish won again Nov. 4 at Santa Anita, in the last start of his fairytale career, and Mott was ready for Cody.
“When I talked to him, I felt like he knew,” Mott said. “After the horse won, I told him in the winner’s circle, ‘Look, he did it for us.’ You know how he sits, kind of slumped over and everything. He straightened up and looked me right in the eyes, just for about five seconds. He got it.”
Then the next day Cody died.
“You never know,” Mott said. “Maybe that’s all he needed.”