Inside Track: On Top with Bunker Hill

Inside Track: On Top with Bunker Hill
Photo: Courtesy Charlie Gillespie
Charlie Gillespie and Bunker Hill

Charlie Gillespie, a retired art teacher and artist from Titusville, Fla., sat in the owners’ section at Philadelphia Park Race Track & Casino on Labor Day. He had flown to the City of Brotherly Love to watch Bunker Hill, a 3-year-old colt he co-owns, run in the 2009 Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II).

But Gillespie is no millionaire owner, rubbing elbows with the elite, tapping the ash from the end of an imported cigar with one hand and squeezing a fistful of betting tickets in the other.

“I only own 2% of him,” said Gillespie with a laugh before the race. “The rest of Bunker Hill is owned by the other partners at Flying Dutchman Thoroughbreds. They divide racehorses into small shares, spreading the financial responsibility and risk to lots of people.”

And that’s just fine with Gillespie. Although his percentage may only yield a small cut of the purse if he wins, places, or shows, it gives him something much more important—the ability to cope with his clinical depression.

According to MentalHealthAmerica.net, clinical depression affects 10% of the American population, plunging those afflicted by it into despair that can last weeks or months and even result in suicide.

That’s how it was for Gillespie. Even as a child who early on had the ability through his artistic sensibilities and talents to see and create beauty—and by doing so give happiness to others—he could never appreciate his talent. Only rarely did art give him any pleasure.

“It was terrible. My mood would get so dark for such a long time that I didn’t know if I would survive,” said Gillespie. “I’ve been receiving treatment for years, which helps stabilize me, but you still need a reason to get out of bed and live.”

Ironically, the artistic ability that never quite sustained his emotional stability led him to that reason. His salvation would come from, of all places, a racetrack, known more for breaking happy-go-lucky people than creating them.

“I started sketching the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales at Sea World, just as a way to practice and get better at sketching anatomy. I didn’t think I was very good at all, especially when my Parkinson’s disease started making my hand shake. To cover up my unsteady hand, I started doing really big sketches,” said Gillespie. “That led to sketching racehorses and people really seemed to like my work, so I kept doing them. A colored pencil sketch of Rachel Alexandra is in the Museum of Florida Art in Deland (a sketch of Bunker Hill now hangs in the Menello Museum of American Art in Orlando), and I was spending so much time sketching racehorses that someone suggested owning one.”

After shopping around, Gillespie found Flying Dutchman Thoroughbreds, and Bunker Hill.

“I became one of Bunker Hill’s owners and I got to spend some time with him,” said Gillespie. “Instantly, I felt like he got me; like he understood me. There’s something about the way he looks at me when I talk with him. He just accepts me.”

To those unfamiliar with clinical depression, owning a racehorse may seem like the last thing a depressed person should be doing, considering the instant crash one would feel if the horse should lose.

But for Gillespie, it’s not a concern.

“That’s what people don’t understand about clinical depression,” said Gillespie. “It’s not caused by something bad or sad happening. It’s a chemical imbalance that’s always there unless you receive treatment. If you’re already low, you don’t get lower from losing. Besides, owning Bunker Hill is more about the relationship it’s given me the opportunity to have with him. I love visiting him at the stables and watching him race, no matter how he finishes. But, that said, I do like it when Bunker Hill wins!”

On this day the son of Trippi finished fifth, to which his co-owner simply said, “I’m happy.”

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