Filly Runs for a Little Girl Who Can't

Story provided by Dr. Stephen and Jan Sinatra

Everyone thinks they have it tough. But racehorse owner Dr. Stephen Sinatra's granddaughter, nearly 10-year-old Cecelia, is one of those who has it much tougher than most. Cecelia suffers from a rare neurological condition that makes it difficult for her to use her legs. She never gives up, though, and neither did anyone associated with a filly named after her who faced similar health challenges. Equine miracles are possible when love and energy between man and animal are exchanged.

The following is an almost unbelievable story of what happened when a horse named after a little girl received the care that only a loving grandfather could provide. The smile on Cecelia's face in the winner's circle was bright enough to light a city. That race would be the first time Cecelia had been able to watch her namesakeRun for Cecilacompete at the racetrack. Had anyone else realized the power transmitted to Run for Cecila by the little girl, they would have known the other horses did not stand a chance that day. But no one at the outset realized that or even could have dreamed it especially after what had transpired over several years to get to this Godsend of a day.

Sinatra is a cardiologist and a longtime owner and breeder. He is the co-breeder of graded stakes winner Desert Party, who contested the 2009 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). In his medical practice, he is a well-known advocate of combining conventional medical treatments for heart disease with complementary nutritional, anti-aging, and psychological therapies. His work studying natural means for reducing inflammation has led him to also experiment in equine nutraceuticals and has conducted double blind studies to find ways to treat inflammation and bleeding without medication.

The story of Cecelia and the bay filly begins three years ago when Sinatra consulted his breeding partner and equine bloodstock consultant David Smith as to which one of his horses had the best breeding. Cecelia had once actually asked her grandfather to name a dog after her. When he said he would name a horse for her instead, she practically jumped for joy. Sinatra planned to keep that promise.

Sinatra explained to Smith that his granddaughter had just begun to demonstrate the effects of her neurological condition. His granddaughter Cecelia's condition effects 1 in every 400,000 people. Walking has become so difficult that she now relies on a wheelchair when going more than short distances for which she can use walls, objects, and people for support.  Nonetheless, cheerful Cecelia stays motivated, oftentimes reassuring others about her deteriorating issues with walking and balance. When she was 6, Cecelia calmly reported, "I can't run, and I can't skip, but it's okay Grandma."

The teachers at her all-girl Catholic school and the dance classes, which she would eventually have to give up, have all been inspired. Her physical therapy team continually report admiration for her attitude. Cecelia's mother and grandmother watched her final dance recital with tear-filled eyes while Cecelia reveled in her on-stage seated position while the other girls danced around her. The little girl beamed with delight that she was "the star" her teacher had told her she would be that Saturday. Her dad would say of Cecelia that afternoon, "Why are you crying? She's having a ball!"

The brave little girl had shown a love for horses at an early age while watching the movie "Dreamer" about a little girl who loves and cares for a busted up horse. At the time, Cecelia was sitting on the couch with a fractured leg of her own. When the grand finale race scene occurred in the movie, Jan Sinatra witnessed her casted granddaughter jumping up and down, excitedly proclaiming "We won! We won!" Cecelia's grandmother tried to calm her jubilant grandchild so she wouldn't tumble off the sofa; to the then 4-year-old Cecelia the story was real life. But, wins like that usually happen only in the movies. Right?

With Smith's guidance, the Sinatras finally selected a filly by Awesome Again a few years later to be named Run For Cecila and assured their granddaughter that one day the horse would run for her. Cecelia was so delighted that she didn't even care that The Jockey Club got the wrong information and would spell the Cecila.

When the 2-year-old filly began training, it soon became obvious that something just was not right. Cecelia's namesake was not pushing off of her back legs. At first it was thought she suffered from shin splints, but this was soon dismissed. Many experts looked at the horse but none could determine what was afflicting her. The Florida trainer Sinatra employed at the time wanted to pin fire the young horse. Sinatra passed on the pin firing idea and sought other possible solutions, including a more precise diagnosis.

It was eventually discovered the horse suffered from neurological problemsjust like their granddaughterand it was affecting her ability to bear weight on her back legs. At this point neither the horse nor the child was able to run. It was both perplexing and heartbreaking. So, Sinatra, Smith and Corby Caiazzo, who is farm manager and trainer at Berkeley Training Center in Darlington, Md., went to Florida's Gulfstream Park to see the filly and determine possible treatments for the her condition.  

The horse was taken out of training and spent the next eight months under Caiazzo's watchful gaze. Sinatra had started to give the horse the equine supplements he had developed to reduce inflammation, and then came across an article about tocotrienols reversing neurological disease in the equine. He contacted the people in Asia who manufactured the product, and was told the vitamin was also successful in healing other animals, including dogs recovering from strokes. He ordered three quarts to be shipped from Asia and gave a tablespoon to the filly each day. The horse responded to the treatment and was soon able to jog, and then breeze. Eventually, Caiazzo had Run for Cecila strong enough to be able to return to the racetrack.

Meanwhile, the human Cecelia was also undergoing therapy. The horse she had not yet met was never far from her mind. Her grandmother texted and emailed photos. Cecelia kept a picture of the horse on her dresser. Her parents gave her the supplement program designed for her by her grandfather, who added tocotrienols after reviewing the research. Cecelia began undergoing equine therapy where she rode on the back of an older horse, and continued in physical therapy weekly. When one of her doctors commended her hippo therapy, she objected: "But I want to ride my own horse."

Run for Cecila still had a rough return to the races. After her eight-month layoff and therapy that included acupuncture, microcurrent therapy, and massage, along with Sinatra's equine supplements with larger doses of tocotrienols, the filly's first start back at Parx Racing was a dismal 16-length defeat. She was switched to the turf and lost at Atlantic City by eight lengths; Delaware by 7 1/2 lengths; Colonial by seven lengths, and Parx again by 16 lengths. It seemed Sinatra's only hope was relegating his non-winning filly to the role of broodmare and that his dream of seeing his granddaughter witness the horse named after her win like Dreamer would never be fulfilled.

But Philadelphia-based trainer Ned Allard had one more prospect before they gave up. He suggested that Suffolk Downs might be THE place for Cecila to finally prove herself and break her maiden. So, Sinatra contacted another trainer he knew who had a barn up at Suffolk. Bill Sienkiewicz listened carefully. He agreed with Sinatra to give the filly one more try. Sienkiewicz and Allard had a long history of collaboration, and so the plan was hatched. Run for Cecila was shipped for one more round of trainingand a few more weeks of her supplementsto face a field she might have a chance to compete against. 

After three weeks of training in the Sienkiewicz barn, the horse was ready but her trainer couldn't seem to find the right slot. The filly would be entered, but the races would be cancelled. Races for non-maidens just did not fill. Then, Run for Cecila finally got her shot on July 27 in a one-mile maiden special weight against the boys. Sinatra was not very hopeful, but since the race was close to his Connecticut home he decided to ask his Rhode Island-based granddaughter to go to the racetrack to finally meet the horse named after her-and to watch her run.

Sinatra called ahead to make sure that a child in a wheelchair could attend the races and would be able to view the track. The granddaughter's family had scheduling conflicts that almost prevented them from being at Suffolk Downs that day. Cecelia's father even got a speeding ticket en route to making sure his daughter saw her horse run.  Parents and child arrived about an hour before the post time for the seventh race. Cecelia rode the elevator to the dining area above the paddock and told her grandmother how happy she was to be there. Usually the chatterbox, Cecelia was soon so overwhelmed by her first experience at the racetrack that she grew quiet, taking it all in. Her grandmother had hoped to bring Cecelia down to the paddock to meet the horse, but that was too dangerous. But Cecelia was content to pick out horses with daddy as she waited for her race...

Rain had fallen on Boston the day before and the day of the race forcing everything off the slippery turf and onto the dirt. While Run for Cecila had the advantage that several horses had scratched, this also meant that Run for Cecila would return to the surface on which she had never run within 24 lengths of a winner. She was also the only filly running against a field of colts. These factors dimmed further even the slimmest of hopes for a win that day. When the scratches were tallied, almost half of the 12-horse field had scratched from the race. It was good to have less competition, but still the deck looked stacked against the filly.

Since trainer Sienkiewicz had another entrant in the race, Sinatra spoke to the jockey directly himself in the paddock before the race. After he had described Run for Cecila's past races, jockey Tammy Piermani commented: "This horse appears to be a pack horse." That made sense. The filly especially loved other horses in the barn, even peeking through the wood slats just to watch them. Sinatra then advised Piermani to just "run your own race." He also told the jockey about his granddaughter and pointed her out, seated in the glassed-in area above the saddling paddock. The jockey saw the little girl in the bright yellow wheelchair and waved to her from her mount. Cecelia loved that her horse had a female jockey. Piermani was a mother of three and understood how special the day was for young Cecelia.

While the horses warmed up on the racetrack, Sienkiewicz's friend Josie helped Jan to rush the little girl, her family, and her brightly-colored but cumbersome wheelchair through the crowd, on and off of the elevator, and down to the rail to meet up with Sinatra. "No problem," proclaimed Josie about her gallant efforts." I work at a hospital. And this is what racing is really all about!"

The stars were starting to line up for a little girl that day.

Finally, Cecelia would meet the horse named after her and watch her run. A lady on the rail with her children heard Cecelia exclaim to Jan, "Grandma, there is my horse." The lady asked Jan if the horse was indeed Cecelia's. The proud grandmother confirmed that it was. The lady gathered up her girls and ran to the window to buy pari-mutuel tickets before the race started. Run for Cecila was the last horse loaded and as she was led into the gate, her jockey brought her toward the rail allowing Cecelia to come face to face with her filly. The jockey looked at the girl sitting on the rail and waved again as the entire family waved back and wish her Godspeed.

The race started and the horse was forced to the 5 path due to traffic.  She sat 7 lengths off the pace.  Sinatra just hoped the horse would not be embarrassed in front of Cecelia and her parents. The filly was the 10 horse, but the family couldn't see her number on the board. Things were looking dim. But then, as the horses turned for home, Piermani approached the 2/5 favorite.  At the sixteenth pole the horses were five wide. As the horses neared the wire three were together.  Run for Cecila lunged forward at the wire and won by over a neck. Sienkiewicz's other entrant, CS Bullet, ran second in the race.

Sinatra, Cecelia, Sienkiewicz

Bill Sienkiewicz (L), Ceceila, and Stephen Sinatra at Suffolk Downs

The emotions that followed can't be described in words. The horse that had never run well before overcame a return to dirt, facing the boys and running five wide the entire race to win. Watching her stretch out her stride as she finished passing the pack at the end was spectacular. Finally, the filly "got it," that the racetrack wasn't about just running out there with her friends. It was about winning. Truly, she was empowered by the spirit of Cecelia. As she cross the wire, Cecelia was jumping in her wheelchair and everyone else leaped into the air, screamed for joy, cried for joy, and congratulated the little girl on her win. Even their new lady-friend on the rail and her little girls ran over to congratulate and hug them!

As Dr. Sinatra quickly wheeled Cecelia toward the near-by winner's circle, the track attendant stood firm that no wheelchairs were allowed inside.  So, Cecelia's father quickly picked her up in his strong arms. There was no way his little girl was going to miss getting her picture taken  with the horse that on that Special Saturday ran for the little girl who can't. The family truly shared the picture of a lifetime. As far as the Sinatras were concerned, it was better than realizing their fantasy of winning the Kentucky Derby. Even Jan's daughter Donna commented afterward: "Mom, what if we hadn't come here today?"

"Then I don't think the filly would have won," Jan replied.

Yes, the horse needed the energy, the force, or call it the drama of the everyone involved: the jockey, the trainerand of course Ceceliato break her maiden.. to win.

Meanwhile, Sinatra's cell phone kept going off. Friends who knew the horse's story shared in the joy from across the many miles. They were all in tears-his partner Bill Niarakis, David Smith, his trainers, his farm owners, family, and friends. They had all found a place to watch the race from their various vantage points that day. They'd all seen the filly meet the little girl at the rail. They had watched the race televised. All agreed that it was nothing short of a miracle.

Run for Cecila in winner's circle

Both Cecelias were queens for the day.

As the Sinatras watched the replay on a monitor inside, the owner-breeder excitedly pointed out the great ride to his trainer. A man nearby looked over at the group as he heard Sinatra speak of the great job Piermani did riding their horse. "That's my wife," the man said. Sienkiewicz turned, smiled and introduced Sinatra to Piermani's husband, who also serves as his wife's agent. Owner and trainer thanked the agent and all shared in the day's amazing events. More tears were shed.

This story transcends more than racing. After working tirelessly on a book manuscript with the survivor of a near-death experience, the Sinatra's are even more convinced that divine interventions are real. They surely must have been in play on that day that a Thoroughbred became a messenger transmitting love to all the humans involved. The filly also offers hope that one day Cecelia might walk with the same grace and smooth stride as her horse demonstrated that Saturday.  

Both a horse and a girl suffer from neurological problems. The doctor who named the horse after his granddaughter discovered a supplement that allowed the horse to run as she had never been able to before. Only time will answer whether the same treatment may help Cecelia. In today's environment of quick fix of medicines, however, this story shows the healing power of love, determination, and a positive spirit. Few of us have a more positive spirit than a young lady named Cecilia.

Do you believe in miracles? Dr. Sinatra sure does. His relentless search to fix Run for Cecila he believes led to a miracle seen on the racetrack at Suffolk. In his heart, he is praying for an even bigger miracle. He knows in his mind and his heart that someday he will see Cecilia running on the playground beating the boys just like her namesake.      

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