Inside Track: Gift of the Heart
by Esther Marr
Date Posted: 3/11/2009 10:34:39 AM
Last Updated: 3/12/2009 12:33:12 PM

Denise's Gift
Photo: Marc Manning

Even though Iain Holmes didn’t pioneer the concept of using a Thoroughbred racehorse’s name to raise awareness for a cause, the fact he’s used that platform to promote the act of saving lives via organ donations still deserves some accolades.

Denise’s Gift, a 2-year-old filly by Cat Dreams, was named after Denise Darvall, the world’s first successful human heart donor. Holmes, who got permission from owner Bob Feld of Bongo Racing Stable to name homebred Denise’s Gift, hopes the filly’s title will encourage others to commit to organ donation after hearing Darvall’s story.

Holmes explained how Darvall, who died of complications from a car accident in 1967 in South Africa, had saved two lives by donating her heart, as well as her kidneys, to those needing transplants.

In the past, horses such as Afleet Alex  , Chernobyl Princess, and Autism Awareness have garnered both responsiveness and funds toward cancer research, the children of Chernobyl Foundation, and brain development disorders, respectively. While all are worthy causes, Holmes explained how Denise’s Gift’s mission has a slight twist.

“The organ donation shortage is the only one that can be solved solely by awareness,” he explained. “If we can get the entire United States population to think about organ donation and share their wishes with their loved ones, there would be no more shortage.”

Holmes, who grew up around horses in his native England, hotwalked Thoroughbreds for trainer Michael Matz and also played polo with Matz’ son, Mikey, upon moving to the U.S. A longtime racing fan, Holmes realized the opportunity to reach large audiences each time a horse’s name is mentioned.

The need for donors first became apparent to Holmes when one of his friends needed a heart transplant and had to rely on a donor lottery. It was then Holmes realized he had neglected to register as a donor himself.

“There are 100,000 people waiting for organs—some in hospitals, fighting for their lives, others going through dialysis, all waiting for that phone call as we all go about our everyday life, totally indifferent to their plight,” said Holmes. “Raising organ donation awareness isn’t about convincing people to be organ donors...most people want to be donors and just have neglected to register or told their family their wishes.”

Holmes said Denise’s Gift, who is currently stabled at Oakmont Ranch near Murrieta, Calif., is expected to make her debut at Del Mar this summer.

Holmes got connected with Bongo Racing via word of mouth that Feld might be interested in the cause. Just two hours after Holmes contacted Feld via e-mail, he received an enthusiastic response that Feld would love to be a part of the project, and he had a filly he thought would be perfect to name Denise’s Gift. 

“Two days later he sent in the paperwork to The Jockey Club, and we had a horse,” said Holmes. “Bongo Racing Stable has really gone out of their way to help us—not only just in naming the horse, but Bob is a huge supporter of the whole project.”

When asked how he had chosen which horse would be Darvall’s namesake, Feld said, “We obviously wanted a filly, and we also wanted a filly with talent. She is a Bongo homebred, and we know the mare (Super Glued, by Herat) throws nothing but horses that win. We felt the exposure of a runner and a winner on the track was important, and she fits the bill perfectly.”

Holmes noted that when Denise’s Gift starts her racing career, he has even thought of having her jockey wear a “Donate Life” sticker on his silks and setting up an awareness booth at the track.

Maryland-based trainer Chris Crocker also supports the cause. Crocker, who saddled horses at Woodbine and Presque Isle Downs last year, received a double lung transplant after having complications from cystic fibrosis in 2004.

“It was an interesting coincidence (that Iain e-mailed me),” said Crocker. “(Denise’s Gift) is a pretty neat story—obviously, I’m in support of organ donorship, and I actively train horses…I told (Holmes) if he needed any help with (promoting the cause) to let me know.” 

While Holmes is hoping Denise’s Gift will have a successful career, he is ultimately just grateful she is running for such a worthy mission.

“We plan to have a fun time with our filly—(watching) great racing with great people, all the while giving a little back,” he said. “Although we hope (Denise’s Gift) breaks the track record in her first outing, if she doesn’t, we will undertake the record breaking—with champagne sales.”



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