Cody’s Wish Raises Vox Populi Award to New Heights

Despite having two other Vox Populi Award finalists in the public’s consciousness most of the year, the voters turned to that one special story that so often defines what Thoroughbred racing is all about. ~ Steve Haskin

Cody’s Wish Raises Vox Populi Award to New Heights

By Steve Haskin

How do you explain the bond between a horse and a 16-year-old boy who has been imprisoned his entire life by a rare genetic disorder that has shut him off from the outside world?

How do you explain how a horse can break those shackles of imprisonment even briefly to bring that boy into the hearts of an entire nation?

How do you explain how a horse can unite a family and turn misfortune into joyous celebration, fame, and accolades beyond imagination?

How do you explain how a horse and his relationship with that young boy can infiltrate the soul of a nation and elicit such strong emotion that they would vote him the Secretariat Vox Populi Award as the country’s most popular horse even though they knew little about him until late in the year when they were exposed to his story?

How do you explain how a five-month-old horse and a 12-year-old boy unable to use his body and natural communicative skills could bond and one day each win separate awards 15 days apart that had previously been won by multiple Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers?

There have been many reasons why people have voted for a particular horse for the Vox Populi Award. Here was a horse owned by the powerful international Godolphin operation that not many people knew much about despite him rattling off six wins in seven starts beginning in maiden and allowance races and then winning a pair of Grade 3 stakes and a listed race before winning the Grade 1 Forego Stakes at Saratoga, and then the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. But to racing fans across America he was just part of the Godolphin juggernaut that has won major stakes around the world.

And then prior to the Breeders’ Cup NBC brought Cody’s Wish and Cody Dorman to the attention of the American public and all points of the globe with the story of love, trust, joy, and in many ways salvation between a horse and a boy whose meeting had to be guided by fate. There simply is no other way to explain it.

But let’s start at the beginning of this remarkable story. Cody Dorman was born with a chromosome affliction called Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome that affects many parts of the body and its functions, such as motor skills, and often causes seizures. With it also comes delayed growth and development and the inability to speak. It took four to five months for the Dorman family to have Cody’s condition diagnosed.

“Cody was dealt a bad hand in life, but he has never let it define who he is, which is a fighter and a very intelligent and caring young man,” said his father Kelly, who lives in Richmond, Kentucky and works in fabrication and machining.

Through modern technology, Cody is able to communicate with the help of an infra-red iPad camera-like device situated on his nose-bridge that emanates red dots that Cody uses to navigate by slight movements of his head. It is attached to a keyboard and when you click on the icon Cody’s words show up like an iPad chat. If you don’t understand any of that, just chalk it up to the miracles of science. What is important is that it allows Cody to communicate.

“At first we were just hoping he would be able to communicate through his eyes with a yes and a no; that would have been a Godsend,” Kelly said.” But with this device Cody was so smart he blew it out of the water. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital was amazed how well he took off with this.”

In 2018, at age 12, Cody was given the opportunity to live a dream through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. His main passion in life was fishing and he got to go to the Bass Pro Shops headquarters in Springfield, Missouri and tour the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium with his favorite fisherman Mark Zona.

As exciting as that was for Cody, the greatest miracle was still to come. Shortly after, the Dormans were contacted again by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Knowing his love of all animals, he was invited, along with other children from the Make-A-Wish program to attend the races at Keeneland, which was working in conjunction with Make-A-Wish to raise money every October. Each child was given VIP status and had a race in his or her honor. But first, each child was given the opportunity to visit a breeding farm and meet a Thoroughbred. Cody, like the others, was selected at random to visit Godolphin at Gainsborough Farm near Versailles.

“Every fall meet Keeneland has a day in which each race had a Make-A-Wish recipient attached to it and a farm as a host sponsor,” said Godolphin director of bloodstock Michael Banahan. “It’s a blind draw and we don’t know the recipient we are paired with until we meet them. We invite them for a farm tour in conjunction with the races. That year we were paired with Cody Dorman.

“Every year as the host for our recipient we also give them an opportunity to meet a horse. For Cody we chose a 5-month-old Curlin colt because he was a very amenable foal for someone in a wheelchair. He walked up to Cody, nuzzled him and laid his head in his lap, which was the start of their bond.”

The Dorman family eventually was notified that the colt had been named Cody’s Wish. The family kept up with his progress through texts with Godolphin, giving Cody updates on how his horse was doing.

When Cody’s Wish finally made it to the races and finished third in his first three starts, Cody felt it was because he wasn’t there to see him run. So in his next start Cody attended the race and his namesake won three years almost to the day since the two had met for the first time. Cody made sure he saw all of Cody’s Wish’s races after that, either in person or on TV. Cody’s Wish went on to win five of his next six starts, culminating with a powerful victory over Sprint Champion Jackie’s Warrior in this year’s seven-furlong Forego Stakes in a near-track record 1:20 4/5.

Cody’s little friend now found himself primed for a big effort in the Breeders’ Dirt Mile. He had beaten the champion sprinter and now it was time to stretch out and take on the country’s top milers.

During Breeders’ Cup week the Dorman family received a letter from Drew Fleming, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, telling them that NBC was doing a feature on Cody and Cody’s Wish and asked if they could come out to Keeneland so Cody could be reunited with his friend who had become such an important part of his life.

So, three days before the Breeders’ Cup and four years since their first meeting, the Dorman family went to Keeneland to see Cody’s Wish.

“I was nervous,” Kelly Dorman said. “It would be fine if there weren’t a lot of people there.  I didn’t know how the horse would handle it with 15 to 20 people. Bill Mott brought him out and Cody’s Wish stood there for a minute checking everyone out. Then he saw Cody and went right to him and Cody let out with a big belly laugh, something he rarely does. The horse stepped back and both stared at each other. Then Cody’s Wish came back and rubbed his face up and down Cody’s cheek. I had to get myself back together. The tears were flowing. I don’t question it or try to figure it out. I just know this horse was sent from heaven above.”

Then came the Breeders’ Cup with the Dorman family and friends firmly planted by the rail. What happened next was what fairy tales are made of. Cody’s Wish, racing in eighth, a dozen lengths back, came flying down the stretch and hooked up with multiple Grade 1-winning 3-year-old Cyberknife. The pair battled to the wire with a determined Cody’s Wish just getting his head in front.

“They were dead even when they passed us and we couldn’t tell who had won,” Kelly said. “The camera was on me and you sure couldn’t tell from the look on my face. Then word started to circulate to us from the people watching in the winner’s circle that Cody had won. I didn’t know what was happening because it was so noisy and wild all around us. After hearing he had won I was just trying to breathe. I do remember hugging Cody and telling him, ‘He won! He did it, boy!’ There was so much electricity going through the place. I never felt anything like it. I turned to Cody and said, ‘What are you going to pull off next?'”

By now, all of America watching on TV knew the story of Cody and Cody’s Wish and it brought out a flood of emotion.

“The horse is what caused all this,” Kelly said. “We were all in a fog. We didn’t pick him, he picked us. Right after the Breeders’ Cup we weren’t used to being blasted with cameras. Cody is just a big ‘ol country boy at heart who loves animals. I can’t believe how far reaching this has become. It’s surreal but we’ve gotten used to it. Cody is a very humble person and when he sees how this story touches people he gives that little smile and it really warms his heart. That’s more important to him than being some kind of a celebrity.”

Upon learning that Cody’s Wish had won the 2022 Vox Populi Award, the Dorman family expressed their gratitude in a note to saying:

“Thank you Cody’s Wish for not only having the heart of a warrior on the track but even more so for having a heart of gold off the track. You have not only inspired an amazing young man but you’ve touched the hearts of thousands of people in many walks of life. You’ve provided tears of joy, warmed hearts and provided a simple smile to so many. The love shown between Cody and Cody’s Wish is such a blessing. A blessing that showed up when nobody knew it was coming, and one that will be cherished for years to come.”

It is only appropriate that each should share their own award, both well deserving. The people voted Cody’s Wish the Vox Populi Award with their hearts, and that’s what the award stands for. When the family flew to Arizona for the teenage Cody to accept the Big Sport of Turfdom Award at the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program’s annual awards luncheon on Dec. 6, it turned into a memorable experience for all.

“We couldn’t believe some of the names on the list of winners,” said Cody’s mother Kylie. “It all seems like a dream we don’t want to wake up from.”

So why did the fans come out in force to vote for a horse for the Vox Populi Award who they knew little or nothing about prior to his Breeder’ Cup victory? Here’s what few had to say:

“If you watched his story during the pre-race coverage of the Dirt Mile and didn’t find yourself with a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes as he powered down the stretch to victory then you are a stronger person than me,” said voter Monica Admire. “THAT is what horse racing means to me. The heart, the soul and the magic of the Thoroughbred and their far-reaching impact on our lives.”

Karen Emmons added, “You know there is something special about a horse when your heart swells and tears begin to flow as he surges to the win.”

Perhaps Dawn Smith summed it up best: “Every horse that races leaves hoofprints on the track but it’s the special ones that leave hoofprints on our hearts. Cody’s Wish tells the feel good story the sport needs and that is what Penny Chenery’s Vox Populi legacy is meant to be.”

And if you still want to know why Cody’s Wish won the Vox Populi Award, Kelly Dorman provided the answer in just a few words: “That horse has taught us all how to live.”

Photos courtesy of Kelly Dorman

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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92 Responses to “Cody’s Wish Raises Vox Populi Award to New Heights”

  1. Matthew W says:

    Taiba, after breaking his maiden in his debut run, will be starting in his 6th straight grade one race….

  2. Jiffy says:

    I was saddened to read about the passing of Ray Kerrison, a longtime racing columnist for the New York Post. I was a big fan of his. I was always interested in his opinions, even when I disagreed with them, and I admired the way he expressed them. The next time you vote for the Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor I hope you consider him.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      I cant believe we have haven’t. He was one of the great ones. And a truly nice person.

      • SJ says:

        I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Kerrison, although enjoyed his work. Good to hear he was one of the good guys. Only reason to read The Post was for sports coverage, especially racing back then when it was covered.

      • Jiffy says:

        I’m not surprised to hear that he was a good person. Just from reading his columns I thought he must be. I was thinking of some of his lines that I found memorable and I recalled one year when there was a particularly puzzling group of three-year-olds approaching the Derby. He wrote, “All the races intended to separate the wheat from the chaff were won by the chaff.” On another occasion he noticed that the Derby-winning owners thanked God in the winner’s circle and he added, “God got almost as much praise as Calvin Borel, and in Kentucky that’s not easy.” He was indeed one of the great ones.

  3. Davids says:

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Let’s hope 2023 is better than 2022 which won’t be hard.

    I’ve picked up a parainfluenza during the week so I doubt Christmas is going to be too cheery here. I had tickets to see “A Christmas Carol” tomorrow night but have given them to a struggling mum to take her little boy along. She was thrilled which warmed the heart. That’s what Christmas is all about, giving joy to other people.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Hope you feel better soon David and have a happy holiday.

      • Davids says:

        Thanks Steve, the temperature here is rocketing up to 95f by next Wednesday so that’s a positive. With climate change, Melbourne doesn’t really come out of it’s mild winter until around Christmas Day so viruses have an extra life now when before the heat starting in September would kill them off.

        You have a great time as well.

    • Matthew W says:

      Get better Davids! Wife and I had Covid ten days ago, one really bad day/night but thank God the headache/bodyache/chills subsided, and it turned into a head cold of sorts…I told our boys we weren’t exchanging presents this year, cuz Mom and Dad stayed home!

      • Steve Haskin says:

        Oh geez so sorry to hear it but thank goodness you’re both feeling better.

      • Davids says:

        Thanks Matthew, the same to you just bad luck. I’ve avoided Covid thus far, I picked up this summer flu by attending a work Christmas party with lots of kids were around coughing and sneezing. That’s life, you grin and bear it.

        Have a great time over the Christmas – New Year – Holiday break.

      • Lynda King says:

        Matthew W, hope you are both doing well now. I had the Delta variant in September 2021 eventhough I had both Moderna vaccines and booostered and followed all CDC guidance. It was no fun for sure.
        My husban had the Omnicrom variant NYE 2021. He had received the first two Moderna but not the boosters. He ended up 9n the ER on NYE, but nor hospitalized. I feel very blessed we recovered at home.
        Hope you have a Merry Christmas!

    • Lynda King says:

      Davids, hope you are feeling better.

      • Davids says:

        Thanks Lynda, I’m on the improve but Christmas will be very quiet. I gifted tickets of “The Nutcracker” ballet and “A Christmas Carol” to other people to enjoy which is all about the Christmas spirit. Watching “Desk Set” with friends on Christmas Eve is always fun. A glass or two of Champagne wouldn’t go astray either. Lol.

        I hope the horror weather they’re predicting in the US doesn’t eventuate. Fingers crossed. Melbourne is having picture perfect weather today, Christmas Eve, and Christmas 74f then we hit the 90s which is just too hot.

  4. Lynda King says:

    Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.
    Stay safe, stay warm. This polar cyclone sounds like it is going to be a doozy.
    Forecast is for 11 degrees Friday night and wind gusts to 35 miles per hour here.
    No much improvement Saturday and Sunday. Sadly, no snow though.
    See ya next year!

  5. Mike M Sekulic says:

    Hi Steve, I’m astounded that the Woodward Stakes has been downgraded to a Grade 2 event for 2023. It’s unimaginable that such a great and historic race is being disrespected in this manner. I hope you write an article about this prestigious, but now disrespected, race! The list of winners is a who’s who of racing history. If I were a member of any committee that designates the status of stakes races I certainly wouldn’t even consider having the Woodward as anything but a Grade 1!

    • Matthew W says:

      When they ran it at Saratoga I called it “Whitney Lite”, because the Whitney would get the better horses, and it was the same race! The Woodward was one time THE horse race to win, in North America..

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Absolutely disgusting.

    • Davids says:

      I can’t fathom that decision out at all. Life is Good and Gun Runner have won the Woodward Stakes in the past 6 runnings. I would like to hear the reasoning on that decision. They’re knocking down too many historic New York races to Grade 2 while, on the other hand, the prize money is increasing. Wrong decision, wrong for racing.

  6. Ms Blacktype says:

    I just watched the replay of the Springboard Mile. The winner (Wildatlanticstorm) is a nice colt, but Giant Mischief really impressed me. He broke last, giving the field at least 3 lengths. On the backstretch he mowed down all but the two leaders in a push-button move. ‘Mischief then appeared to weaken at the top of the stretch, only to regather himself and come on strong at the end. He would have won in another couple of jumps.

    Steve, it will be interesting to see which horses you place in your first Dozen. There are only five 3YOs so far that I’m excited about. They are:
    Cave Rock
    Giant Mischief
    Practical Move
    Arabian Knight
    Of the rest of the list, the most intriguing horses are recent maiden winners like Spun Intended and Tapit Shoes. Other than the top four, all of the break-out stakes performers (Mo Strike, Gulfport, Instant Coffee, Blazing Sevens, Curly Jack) have either faltered or been unimpressive in later races. Anyone else got a list of early favorites for next spring’s classics?

    • Ms Blacktype says:

      Meant to say “my” list. Here’s my top 12:
      Cave Rock
      Practical Move
      Giant Mischief
      Arabian Knight
      Wild Atlantic Storm
      Mo Strike
      Instant Coffee
      Echo Again

      • Bill Dawson says:

        Your top 12, and my top 12, are very similar. I would add Dubyuhnell, recent winner of the 9 furlong Remsen Stakes.
        In addition, after wining the Tremont Stakes back in June, Two of a Kind has returned to training at PMTC which was good to see.
        He’s an Overanalyze colt worth watching moving forward.
        Forte has been my top colt from the get go. He checks a lot of boxes, IMO.

        • Ms Blacktype says:

          Good horses to check out, Bill. I should watch Dubyuhnell’s performance in the Remsen again. I have trouble getting past the name! Forte, of course, has raced beautifully and done nothing wrong. Probably means he’ll be saddled with unforeseen hurdles on the Triple Crown trail.

          Looking forward to see some breakout performers in January and February. There’s not much to get excited about yet.

    • Matthew W says:

      Forte, Cave Rock, Blazing Sevens, Practical Move are on my list..

      • Ms Blacktype says:

        Not sure what to make of Blazing Sevens. He ran well in the mud, but didn’t show much in the BC Juvy. Then again, sometimes the best horses of any given crop come back from that race to win stakes at 3.

        • Matthew W says:

          Giant Mischief ran well, over what looked like a tiring surface…..rider didn’t panic, horse did miss the btmreak, then go widest around the far turn and was still coming late, good horse…

    • Davids says:

      Ms Blacktype some lesser known colts that I’ve noted in the hope of improvement during Winter/Spring are: Arctic Arrogance, Laver, Mr. Ripple, Post Time, Shopper’s Revenge, Tapit Shoes, Signator, Tapit Trice, and Victory Formation.

      • Ms Blacktype says:

        Thanks for the suggestions, Davids. Just saw a post about Tapit Trice on the drf today and added him to my follow list, but several of these horses are new to me. Will check them out and wait expectantly for Steve’s take of these and others.

        • Davids says:

          Yes, Ms Blacktype, you get a bit toey over the winter (summer here now) waiting for Steve to start up his Derby rankings and versing his opinion on the lesser lights.