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A New York State of Racing

The Loss of Autism Awareness

Autism Awareness, the winner of the 2008 El Camino Real Derby (G3), broke down in Sunday’s seventh race at Santa Anita and had to be euthanized. It is a sad coincidence that April is also Autism Awareness Month.
Owner Johnny Taboada’s 13 year-old son, Renzo, has autism, which is a cognitive developmental disorder, that according to the CDC, occurs in 1 out of 88 children. Back in 2009 Taboada talked about the horse and autism in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Autism is something we deal with every day, but Renzo is a very happy boy. He gets therapy and a lot of help at school with his behavioral issues, but there's not a cure, so it's important to keep this horse in the news."

Autism Awareness, the colt, was not a typical thoroughbred to Taboada, "He has something we can't explain; the horse is here for a reason, and it's a bigger purpose than racing."
Autism Awareness was purchased as a yearling for $1,000 and in his career had a record of 5-5-2 from 38 starts with earnings of $356,482. That included a second grade three win in the Berkeley Stakes at Golden Gate Fields as a four year-old.
Autism Awareness had last raced on March 1, 2012 at Golden Gate. He had been recovering from a minor suspensory ligament problem for which veterinarians had recommended 4-6 months rest.
Autism Awareness returned to the track in October after seven months on the farm. He had been working steadily at Golden Gate; the Daily Racing Form showed a series of consistent 6 and 7 furlong breezes. The trainer felt that he needed a race to get to top condition. They would have preferred to run on the Tapeta at Golden Gate, which was his favorite surface, but they couldn’t find a race there.
Thus, they shipped to Santa Anita for an OC62/N2X conditioned allowance on the downhill 6.5 furlong turf course. The vets think he took a bad step coming down the hill where the main track crosses the turf.
I was able to speak to a very emotional Taboada a few hours after the race when he said, “This is by far the saddest day of my racing career. Autism Awareness has always had a very special place in my heart. This is very hard to swallow, he was one of a kind.”
Interestingly Autism Awareness was also born in April. He was now eight-years-old. Taboada talked about the decision to keep Autism Awareness racing, “The horse was sound and there is no way that we would ever have raced him if he had not been perfectly sound.”
“I wanted to save him, I would have done anything to save him, but the vet said there was nothing we could do.  He had broken his sesamoid badly in two places.”
“We always took care of him, when he needed a vet, we got him the best. I thought about retiring him, but he wanted to race, he didn’t want to be a stallion, he wanted to race.”
As many of you know my son Riley, also has autism. On Sunday afternoon Riley was spending the afternoon with one of his longstanding babysitters, so I was spending that time off at Favorites, one of the New Jersey off-track betting facilities.
I say time off because autism is always with the families of children with the disorder. As I sat in a booth in the restaurant enjoying the action at Aqueduct and Keeneland, a father and son sat down in the next booth over. The boy was about the same age as Riley, but he was typical.
They were clearly having a father-son afternoon, the way many of us spent time learning about horse racing with our dads.  I felt a bit sad that I would never have that kind of typical relationship with my son and racing. Of course, I bring Riley to the track and we enjoy it, but not in the typical kinds of ways.
Later that evening, when I was at home, I saw a tweet saying that Autism Awareness had broken down at Santa Anita and that he had been euthanized.

Riley is a year younger than Tabaoda’s son and when we talked on the phone that evening there was an unspoken bond between us. We understand the impact that autism has on our families. There was no question that the death of Autism Awareness had us feeling as Taboada described, “deeply saddened”.  


Photo of Autism Awareness courtesy of Johnny Taboada


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Older Comments about The Loss of Autism Awareness...

The MEDICAL community does not know much about either...It has the logic of other off the wall diagnoses like Ewing's Sarcoma or Multiple Sclerosis...Still a complete mystery and that is the bigger tragedy that many look to charlatans to explain the pathology rather than medical science.
This is horrible news. I know this horse was an inspiration to many & it just doesn't seem fair for all the hope and joy he provided.
I continue....Yet, most people know very little about it. You will be missed Autism Awareness....Rest in peace and know that your life served a significant purpose.
I consider this a personal loss, of sorts. My oldest grandson is autistic, so I have followed this horse since he was a three year old. This horse served to bring attention to a condition that affects millions of individuals world wide, yet most people know very little
Thanks for this poignant story on Autism Awareness and his "family". Mr. Taboada, I, too, am very sorry for your loss; your bond with him was obviously unique and something truly special.
Thanks, Hannah Banana!
Great article, bro. Sad, moving, important. Thanks for sharing!
Although a sad ending, Autism Awareness had a great career that did just what he was named for - to raise awareness for this important cause. Thanks Matt and Johnny for sharing with all of us.
Very odd pathology. I believe one day pathologists will discover that it has completely different pathways than are no considered....Good friend's daughter has it sadly.
Well done Matt. Thanks to you and to Johnny Taboada for sharing your stories, as Autism Awareness provided an opportunity for horse racing fans to gain a better understanding of autism.
@johnny.taboada. Please accept my condolences on your very sad loss.
Thanks of this article Matt. Autism Awareness was one of a kind race horse. I've had for over six years since I bought him as yearling. It was never our intention to end this way. The horse was giving every opportunity to be a race that is what he wanted to do. He was actually at GGF since October walking, jogging, galloping and eventually having gradual workouts. He was sound and wanted to run. He was a blessing to my family and really did much more that I would have ever dream of. I had so many stories about this horse that I would love to share someday in person. Again, thank you so much for your kind words. The legend of "Autism Awareness" will never leave our hearts!
Thanks, Mary Z, your comments are always valued! The owner was really shaken by the loss.
This loss is very sad. I watched the race yesterday, and although it was just a very brief view of his injury, the outcome looked to be grim. I was surprised that he was coming back after that long of a layoff--thought he'd been retired. Thank you for writing about him and the reason why he was racing yesterday, Matt. Autism Awareness had that stakes win, mentioned above, over N.Cal. favorite Bold Chieftain. Some "time off" here, too, Saturday , Matt. Thank you for writing about this.
Thank you for doing this story, Matt. Brian summed it all up best.
Matt, I believe your eloquent words on this tragic circumstance only helps the cause so near and dear to your heart, as well as Mr. Taboada and millions of others.

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 Meet Matt Shifman 

Matt Shifman has been on the Horse Racing Nation staff since 2011 and currently serves as Assistant Editor. Matt covers Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Monmouth Park, and Saratoga in his two HRN blogs Racing at the Jersey Shore and New York State of Racing.


Matt’s articles and tweets frequently appear in the America’s Best Racing weekly Notebook. In 2012 he became a voter in the NTRA weekly polls for the Top Thoroughbred and Top Three-Year-Old.


The best way to get to know Matt is to check out some of his favorite articles from the past couple years.

• Preakness Interview with Trainer Todd Pletcher

• Kentucky Derby 2016 Handicapping Tips from A to Z


• Edison: the Travels of a Million Dollar Colt 

• A Kentucky Derby Field with Just 14 Horses

• What is the Best Kentucky Derby Running Style?



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