When you live within the world of autism, you have a special antenna for the word and its associations, a heightened sensitivity. It was on a late December evening that a horse called In Honor of Autism came onto this radar running at Golden Gate Fields. In fact, there were two runners in the silks of Johnny Taboada in the race, the other named Talk About Autism. Lo and behold, the former–a son of Stanford–won and my interest was peaked. I have a son, Dylan, who is non-verbal and, we now know, very intelligent after we discovered he can use a letterboard to communicate. He also loves racing (thanks to me) and Frankie Dettori, Frankel and Stradivarius, among others. It’s his love of all things important to those around him that shines.
In autism, there is very little space for certainty or dogma but the one thing that unites all is the knowledge that it requires a radius of positivity around the child, other relative or friend that it has touched. Negativity may be the natural go-to resort of the overwhelmed and the stressed, that’s normal, but nothing works or moves forward without its opposing energy in this sphere. Unsurprisingly, given the salvation, emotional shelter and sanctuary that horses offer to the most vulnerable, autism and this animal make for the perfect blend. At the highest point of reference to prove the connection, there is “The Horse Boy”, the magical story of a non-verbal, agonised youth who was unlocked by a chance encounter with this animal which eventually led to a period of engagement with a Mongolian tribe of nomadic shamans.
Autism and horse racing have yet to combine with real potency, but the beginnings of a relationship are forming. Witness Britain’s “Autism In Racing” movement which has prompted high-profile racecourses to offer specialist services such as sensory rooms, thanks to the exploits of Bobby Beevers, one of many who have had autism enter their lives and turned crusader as a result. Another is Taboada, who has taken his son’s diagnosis and turned it into a force for good.
When you speak to Taboada, the power of his own positivity also emanates like a physical force. At the moment that the Pleasanton mortgage consultant bought his first yearling, his 2-year-old son Renzo was given the label autistic. Instead of escaping his new reality and turning inward, he faced the challenge head-on (and this was in the early 2000s, when believe me, autism was still very much a hidden enigma shrouded in mystery) and named the runner Autism Awareness, a $1,000 purchase at the CTBA Northern California Yearling Sale who raced on the kind of wave of optimism and hope that graces the likes of Cody’s Wish now as well as countless others with lower profiles. In early March 2008, the Genaro Vallejo-trained son of Tannersmyman went to Bay Meadows and brought the house down in the GIII El Camino Real Derby at 62-1. The following May, the dark bay was at it again at inflated odds in the GIII Berkeley S. and he continued to carry the word over several seasons.
These days, the sight of Taboada’s horses bearing the flame for the awareness of, understanding of and help for autism is thankfully a common one. “It’s my duty, my mission to combine the name of autism with every horse,” he states after a period that has seen him name 50-plus horses in that way. “We try and raise awareness in different parts of the world. We have something in common with others who have autism in their lives; we can talk and come together. Fifteen years on from that El Camino Real Derby, I can see it was nothing more than good karma and the vibes around it that made that happen. We’re keeping the message into the second and third generations now. I want autistic people to be embraced, to have the opportunity to belong and to be treated with respect. I’m very blessed and want to try and always send the message across.”
Taboada’s colours include the autism “puzzle” trademark, with the horse motif squarely in the middle. He has a Facebook page, “Horses For Autism”, which promotes inclusivity and provides the opportunity for the community to come together. On it there is a promo for the stallion Touched By Autism, who stands at Whitehouse Equine in Stockton, California. There are plans afoot to partner with a local ranch to create a special place for the horses and provide a space for families to connect. “I want to take it to the next level,” he says. “This is not just about me and my family; it’s about all of us. We need to spread the word. The soul of a horse is so deep. How they connect with us and particularly with those with special needs, it’s meant to be–it’s for us to facilitate it. In our industry, there are a lot of things to correct, but when people see positive messages, it can only be good for it.”
“I never thought we were going to do well, it’s just happened organically,” Taboada concludes. “You never know which horses will do well, you just keep at it and for me, the more I talk about autism, the more I feel like I’m doing my part. Renzo is very well-liked in the racing world, his passion is for meeting new people as he’s a very sociable young man. The racing setting always welcomes him, so it makes it a very pleasant place for him to be. For him, it’s about being part of something more than the winning and losing. I feel we can carry this to a higher level–we need the positive message and positive news. Horses are definitely the animals that can connect with this community. We need to keep that karma and the right vibes and maybe there’s something else that’s beyond our comprehension that looks after us.”
When it comes to autism, the most important thing may be inclusion. Racing is the perfect environment for it, with the ideal mix of humility and empowerment that the horse provides so naturally. For Renzo, Dylan and millions of others who have been given that diagnosis, it offers another avenue to the place of greater self-esteem and greater self-worth that they deserve to inhabit. All power to the people who are paving the way now and those who continue to do so.