Fighting for a Happy Ending
Photo: Elaine Ferri
Elaine Ferri

INSIDE TRACK

The day last July that changed Elaine Ferri's life forever could not have begun in a more normal way.

Ferri, a 51-year-old veteran conditioner, was on her parents’ Texarkana, Ark., farm training horses, something she has done for more than 30 years. On a typically hot and muggy day, Ferri was teaching a young filly to accept a halter, a technique she had performed hundreds of times.

This particular 3-year-old, Forbidden Ali, was on the verge of leaving the farm. The following day, Ferri’s assistant, John Barger, was to pick up the horse to begin the breaking process.

“We had gotten a late start on her,” Ferri recalled of Forbidden Ali. “She got a bad cold and then wrenched an ankle. We wanted to break her as soon as possible, so I was moving her away from the other horses. It happened so quickly.”

“It” was an accident that turned Ferri’s life upside down. Upset because she had been led away from the other horses, Forbidden Ali became agitated, spun away, and kicked out with Ferri behind her, catching the left side of Ferri's face.

“She didn’t do it out of meanness,” Ferri would later say. “She just wanted to get back with the other horses.”

In shock and tremendous pain, Ferri somehow made it back to the house, and her parents quickly rushed her to the local hospital. After being stabilized, she was airlifted to the hospital at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

At the hospital Ferri learned just how bad she had been hurt in that split second. She had more than 100 facial fractures, including a broken jaw, and the upper-left side of her face was almost entirely crushed. Much of the damage occurred near her eye.

“I had three surgeries in 12 days,” Ferri said. “I’m not even sure how I lived through it. It was devastating beyond belief. The doctors said they would do their best to try to save my (left) eye, but they never gave me false hope.”

As it turned out, doctors were unable to save Ferri’s eye. A prosthetic one was put in its place. But Ferri’s nightmare was just beginning.

After weeks in the hospital, Ferri was released and returned to her parents’ home. Soon, she received the astronomical medical bills that had accumulated during her long hospital stay. They totaled more than $100,000. Ferri did not have insurance.

“I couldn’t afford insurance,” she said. “I was already paying insurance for the two people working for me. Obviously, looking back, I wish I did. I still don’t know how I’m going to pay those bills.”

Aside from the financial strain, Ferri had to deal with ongoing physical pain, and the sobering reality that her face was deformed, possibly forever.

“I was really depressed and the stress was unbearable,” Ferri said. “I knew I needed reconstructive surgery, but I didn’t have any money.”

For nearly five months, Ferri believed she would never have the reconstructive surgery she needed. Her mental condition was becoming nearly as fragile as her physical one. It took an overwhelming gift of generosity, as Ferri put it, “to save my life.”

Ferri was raised in the small town of Texarkana on her parents’ rural 13-acre farm. It was there she fell in love with horses and made them the focus of her life.

By the age of 8, Ferri had ridden her first pony, and at first, becoming a jockey was her dream. But after she was given her first Thoroughbred at the age of 18, her outlook changed.

“That was it for me. I knew I wanted to train,” Ferri recalled.

She began training Quarter Horses but Ferri soon moved on to Thoroughbreds for a barn in DeKalb, Texas. Before long, she was training horses that raced at Oaklawn Park and Louisiana Downs. The new opportunity took her life in a direction that she did not expect.

“When I was 22, I had a horse that was racing in New Jersey, so I made the trip with him,” Ferri said. “But the horse got sick when we were there, so I had to stay out there with him. While I was there, I met my husband, Michael, who was a horse owner. I lived out there for the next 25 years.”

Ferri trained horses for her husband and others for more than two decades, racing them at Monmouth Park, Garden State Park, Meadowlands, Philadelphia Park, and sometimes Aqueduct. She had more than 100 victories along the way, a few of them stakes winners, including Chanels Titanic, who still shares the 5 1/2-furlong track record at Delaware Park.

Though she is now divorced from her husband, Ferri said will always cherish her time on the East Coast. She learned a lot about the racing business, and more importantly, met some great people.

One of them was Angelo Chinnici, who is medical director for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, the organization that oversees racing at Meadowlands and Monmouth. Chinnici was a full-time doctor at Monmouth while Ferri trained there during the 1980s. The two developed a friendship that has lasted for more than 20 years.

Because Ferri eventually divorced and moved back to Arkansas in 2000, the two friends did lose touch. They had not seen each other in more than a decade, talking on the phone only occasionally. That changed when Chinnici heard about Ferri’s situation.

“I hadn’t seen her in a long time, but friendships in the racing industry last forever,” Chinnici said. “Elaine is a real nice person; everybody likes her. Once she had the injury, I got calls from people all around the country. Everyone felt terrible. I wanted to help.”

Knowing that Ferri was in a critical situation, Chinnici took matters into his own hands. He used his medical resources and contacts to get Ferri the reconstructive surgery she so desperately required.

Chinnici, through Jersey Shore University Medical Center, arranged for a pair of plastic surgeons that specialize in face reconstruction –  Dr. Anthony Lombardi and Dr. Rudolph Thompson – to perform Ferri’s surgery at no cost.

Chinnici said he tried to avoid any hoopla while he was making the arrangements, but once the press picked up on the story, he was asked to give interviews.

“We were there in a time of need for a friend,” Chinnici said. “We’re in a very dangerous business and, unfortunately, it’s the little people like Elaine that don’t have means to pay when something like this occurs. We didn’t do this for publicity. We just wanted to help someone who was going through a very trying situation.

“Horsemen around here have a long history of lending a helping hand to their own people,” he said.

Chinnici believes that if all goes well, Ferri’s surgery will be performed sometime in January. He is optimistic she will look very close to how she appeared before the accident. And Ferri said she will be forever grateful.

“I can’t thank Angelo and the other doctors enough,” Ferri said. “They saved my life. I still have a lot of pain around my eye, but they tell me it will all be behind me soon. I have a good outlook on things now, thanks to everyone’s help.

“I’m looking forward to getting my life back together and getting back in the winner’s circle.”

Ferri is also hoping that she will receive additional help for her six-figure medical bills. She can be reached at (501) 620-0576.

Most Popular Stories