Kentucky Derby 135 weekend was full of wonderful human interest stories: everything from 75-year-old retired high school principal Tom McCarthy making it to the Derby with a $20,000 claimer, to likeable trainer Larry Jones attempting to grab the roses before his impending retirement, to trainer Gary Stute trying to win one for the son of the late Clement Hirsch, who played such an instrumental role in Thoroughbred racing.
As good as they were, none of them could come close to the best story of the weekend—Rachel Mattson and Rachel Alexandra.
Mattson is a 7-year-old girl with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder in which bone marrow does not produce sufficient new blood cells, thereby weakening the immune system and putting her at high risk of developing infections.
“It was the fall of 2007, and we started noticing that she was bruising and getting sick,” recalled Rachel’s mother, Diane. “We went to a few doctors before they told us what the problem was and how serious it was.”
The life-threatening condition required Rachel to undergo a bone marrow transplant, which she did last September at the University of Minnesota. During her long stay in the hospital, Rachel watched a lot of movies. One movie in particular seemed to cheer her up more than any other.
“She watched Black Beauty, and it became her favorite movie,” Diane said. “After that, she read as many books as she could about horses and watched tons of horse movies. It was really the first time she began to fall in love with horses.”
As Rachel slowly recovered from the transplant, Diane and her husband, George, started thinking about ways to get her to meet real horses in person. First, they arranged for her to meet Whisper, a retired racehorse who is now used as a police horse at the University of Minnesota. Rachel fell in love with Whisper, but after returning to their home in Chillicothe, Ill., there was a void.
That’s when the Mattsons contacted Make-A-Wish Foundation to arrange for their daughter to come to Louisville for Kentucky Derby weekend. As often as it can, Make-A-Wish helps make a dream come true.
With help from Churchill Downs, Make-A-Wish arranged for the Mattsons to fly to Louisville. They were picked up at the airport in a limousine and taken to their fancy digs at the Galt House hotel. Their special trip was just beginning.
On April 29, Rachel, her parents, and her brother, Eric, were given a private backside tour of the track. She was able to see many of the upcoming Derby starters and meet trainers such as Bob Baffert, Carl Nafzger, and Hal Wiggins. When Wiggins told Rachel he had a filly named Rachel Alexandra running in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), she had a new favorite horse.
On Oaks day, Rachel’s special vacation turned into a fairy tale. She was brought into the paddock to pet Rachel Alexandra before the race, then witnessed the amazing filly run off to a record-setting victory. As a bonus, the brave little girl was taken into the winner’s circle to have her picture taken with her favorite horse. Wiggins gave Rachel a special keepsake: the filly’s pink halter, worn as part of Churchill’s “Pink Out” in conjunction with Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
“Everything was so exciting,” said Rachel. “Seeing Rachel Alexandra win was my favorite part.”
Rachel’s magical trip ended the following day when she was able to watch Kentucky Derby 135 from a private box.
“It was just amazing to see her so happy,” George said. “We’re so grateful for everything Make-A-Wish and Churchill Downs have done.”
The best part? Rachel is returning to school in the fall and there is hope she will make a full recovery.