After an exhilarating win, a crushing loss

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Cody Dorman, the heart of “Team Cody’s Wish,” at last week’s National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Annual Awards Dinner in California. Mary Eddy Photo.

The Delta Airlines plane had just pushed away from the gate at LAX Sunday, when the phone buzzed with an incoming call from Kelly Dorman. I figured he and his family had made it to Atlanta, where they would catch a connecting flight back to Lexington, and maybe he was calling to continue to revel in a magical day at Santa Anita Park Saturday. The horse bearing his son’s name won a second consecutive Breeders’ Cup race, this one perhaps more exhilarating than last year at Keeneland due to added drama – and not all of it expected.

“How are you doing, Kelly?” I asked.

“Not too good right now,” came the reply.

What he said next could have been something about a delayed flight or missed connection, but the tone of his voice indicated something far more serious and, in the two seconds it took for him to make his next sounds, I believed I knew what he was going to say.

“We lost Cody today.”

Kelly said Cody had a medical incident on the flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta, that he had been revived and rushed to an Atlanta hospital, but doctors and nurses there were unable to save him.

“We lost Cody today.”

I am gutted.

This was the day after Cody was front and center in the Santa Anita winner’s circle, watching his best friend, Cody’s Wish, display the same grittiness and perseverance Cody showed for the 17 years and 11 months he spent among us. Cody’s body was ravaged by the debilitating effects of Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome, yet his mind was keenly aware of his surroundings and Cody had an intellect strong enough to show a 30-percent improvement on the ACT exam this year.

Not long after Cody was born in Lexington, Ky., Dec. 18, 2005, a doctor told the Dormans he would not live to see his second birthday. Another physician told them to take him home, make him comfortable and enjoy whatever time they had with him.

Kelly Dorman would have none of that talk.

“I just looked at that dude, and I said, ‘No. That’s not good enough, buddy. We’re not doing that.’ I wasn’t going to accept that without a fight, because by then Cody taught us pretty quick how much fight he had in him and I was going to stand right there with him, toe to toe. Whatever we were against we were going to roll with it,” Kelly told me during one of many conversations we have had for a book I am working on about Cody Dorman and Cody’s Wish.

Cody and his family – Kelly, Leslie and 10-year-old Kylie, a Hall of Fame little sister and the sweetest child you will ever encounter – have taught a master class in how to roll with what can be considered insurmountable adversity. The Dormans never focused on the Herculean challenges facing a family bringing up a child on a feeding tube from the time he was 6 months old, underwent about 50 surgeries, was hit with just about every seizure there is, and lived virtually every waking moment in a specially designed wheelchair.

“There’s a saying I heard once when we were at the hospital that goes, ‘You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only option you have.’ And that’s kind of always stuck with me,” Kelly said. “Prior to Cody being born, if you had asked me the stuff we’ve had to go through, yeah, I couldn’t have told you I could have done it. But we don’t really give it much thought.”

Leslie added, “You just roll with it.”

The Dormans proved to be professional “rollers,” maintaining an outlook so positive that, if you did not know them as the genuine, humble, down-to-earth people they are, you might think it can’t be real.

But spend a few minutes with them, as so many have at various racetracks and other events, and you instantly know their positivity is not 1 percent contrived.

“There’s a reason for all this,” Kelly said. “Where we come from, our background is to stand toe to toe and fight, not turn around and run. That’s the way I was brought up.”

And that’s the way they raised Cody, who packed a lot of fight into a 70-pound body and made his parents proud – by his words, spoken through a tablet, by his demeanor, by his constant desire to help others, evidenced by the thousands of dollars he has helped raise for Make-A-Wish, the organization responsible for his meeting a 5-month-old Thoroughbred colt at Gainsborough Farm in Lexington Oct. 11, 2018.

That first meeting had such an impact on those who witnessed it, that a year later, Godolphin, which bred and owns the horse, decided to name him for Cody and the organization that does such phenomenal work putting smiles on the faces of kids who typically don’t have much to smile about. Cody was serving as a Make-A-Wish ambassador that day, a role he embraced and never gave up.

After Cody met the horse, the Dormans noticed improvement in Cody, physically and mentally. He was happier and, if you’re a parent in that situation, that brings you warm satisfaction.

Two years after that first meeting, as a global pandemic raged, it was natural for anyone to suffer some level of depression, especially someone in Cody’s situation. Still, Leslie was rocked by what her 14-year-old son told her one day.

“He told me that he had done all he could do and he was ready to go,” Leslie said. “And those are the hardest words you can hear, especially after going through all that we had gone through. Those are strong words.”

The Dormans had been living with the prospect of Cody dying virtually from the moment he was born, so the thought of it should not have been so daunting. But the idea that their son had gotten to the point where he was ready to give up was a real gut punch.

Once Kelly got his wind back, he reacted with a competitive defiance that you might expect from a former all-star football player. And if you think there is no room for tough love in a father-son relationship in which the son is a physically incapacitated 70-pound teenager, think again.

“I got pretty ticked off about it,” he said. “I talked to him pretty stern and told him, ‘You ain’t goin’ this way. We didn’t get this far with that attitude and we’re not going any further with that attitude.’ It hit us hard, obviously, and we started brainstorming what we could do to help him.”

A reunion with his equine friend – now a strapping 2-year-old getting ready to start his racing career, was just what the doctor ordered. The meeting took place at the Thoroughbred Training Center on Paris Pike in Lexington, about 12 miles from Keeneland.

They say true friends can go long periods of time without seeing each other and pick up right where they were the last time they were together. On that day in October 2020, it became crystal clear that Cody Dorman and Cody’s Wish were indeed good friends.

The horse walked over to his wheelchair-bound friend and put his head on his lap. Then he lifted his head and let Cody rub his nose.

“At that time, I knew there was something to this,” Kelly said. “It was just like they picked up where they left off.”

That scene has been repeated several times, including at Keeneland three days before the 2022 Breeders’ Cup, and Thursday on the Santa Anita backstretch. Each time, the 1,100-pound champion racehorse, who has a reputation of being a bad actor in the starting gate and was so aggressive in his training last week that Bill Mott had to change up his routine, approached Cody with the docility of a well-trained Cocker Spaniel.

Last year’s Breeders’ Cup was a home game for the Dormans, but with this year’s Dirt Mile slated to be the final race of Cody’s Wish’s career, they weren’t going to let a 2,200-mile, cross-country trip deter them from attending. They shipped out West on Halloween and spent four days at Santa Anita, including Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday.

Cody was his usual warrior self, soaking in the experience and making time for everyone wanting to relay, or share in, his story. On two of those days, he woke up in the middle of the night, the first time to make sure they weren’t going to be late getting to the track and the second to thank his parents for bringing him to California.

On a journey that has featured the rawest of emotions and captured the hearts of so many, Saturday would be the climax, with Cody’s Wish destined to head off to stallion duty at Darley’s Jonabell Farm. The Dormans were brought to the paddock so Cody and Cody could see each other, a formula that has proven virtually foolproof. Then they went to the winner’s circle to watch the race, hoping for one last celebration.

That’s what they got, but only after Cody’s Wish needed the length of the stretch to catch frontrunning National Treasure and win by a nose. While NBC’s Nick Luck interviewed Kelly Dorman and tears of joy flowed, track announcer Frank Mirahmadi announced the stewards would conduct an inquiry into bumping that occurred down the lane.

This couldn’t happen, right? Three racing judges could not be responsible for undoing the happy ending that had drawn the raucous approval of the Santa Anita crowd, could they?

The inquiry light stayed lit for about five minutes. It felt like five hours. Then, Mirahmadi delivered the best two words of the day: “No change.”

The victory party came to life again. The winner’s circle overflowed, to the point you have to figure people arrived simply to share in the Dormans’ joy. Cody’s Wish, who had been given a masterful ride by Junior Alvarado, went out on top – just like Cody predicted to his parents the night before.

It is incomprehensible to think that, 24 hours later, Cody Dorman would be gone. For those who had the privilege of knowing him, it is understandable that Cody would will himself to live long enough to watch his best friend finish his career. At that point, Cody’s Wish’s work, at least on the racetrack, was done.

And now, Cody Dorman’s work in this world is done.

“We were never as afraid of him dying as we were of him not being able to live,” Kelly has said many times, a sentiment he repeated Sunday on that phone call.

Kelly, Leslie and Kylie Dorman are to be respected and revered for making sure Cody lived his absolute best life, all the while teaching the rest of us how to live.

For that, even in grief, we must be thankful.