There was more than one winner when Sushi Empire rolled to a stylish 1 ¼-length victory in Wednesday’s Blue Norther Stakes.
The owner of the 3-year-old Empire Maker filly is George (Chip) McEwen III, racing as Wounded Warrior Stables, whose donations benefit members of the U.S. military injured in the line of duty, and other worthwhile causes.
McEwen’s patriotism is much more than skin deep. His silks listed in the program are described as, “Yellow, purple heart, purple hoop on sleeves, purple cap.”
He turned his focus to injured troops in earnest about two years ago, although he has been racing horses for 17 years. He makes his home in Ft. Myers, Florida, but runs a pharmaceutical distribution business in South Carolina.
“I was on an airplane flying home from Las Vegas with my fiancé, and we got to Charlotte, when an announcement was made asking for everyone to stay on the plane to let a wounded war veteran off,” the 50-year-old McEwen explained.
“Here comes this kid, about 27, 28 years old. His dad’s holding him up from behind with his arms underneath his chest. He had both legs and arms, but he’d been hit in the head by an IED (improvised explosive device). His wife had a year-old baby in her arms and their 4-year-old daughter was walking with her. His mother was walking behind him, and he’s giving everybody a thumb’s up, smiling.
“It was then that I realized I had to do more for people like that other than buy a wrist band or a T-shirt to support them, which is very easy to do in our society today. People call and give $10 or $20, and I’m not demeaning that. They think they’re a big supporter, but they’re not really putting their money where their mouth is.
“So I called the Wounded Warrior Project. They weren’t very well-organized, believe it or not. I called them to see if I could use their symbol, some kind of camouflage-looking colors, because I had been racing under my own name for 17 years.
“Anyhow, they wouldn’t go for that. They didn’t want to be involved in anything with gambling, so I just went a different route. I named my stable Wounded Warrior Stables. I got that from The Jockey Club.
“We give 10 percent of our purse money or from selling a horse to the Wounded Warrior Project. But we also give to the Task Force Dagger Foundation, which helps people in Delta Force and Special Forces in the Army.
“We also give to the SEAL Foundation based in California, in addition to Retreating Freedom, which places Labrador Retrievers with veterans. I think it’s nearly 1,000 veterans who try to kill themselves every month from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and things like that.
“What they found is that every one of those guys or gals who gets a dog, the suicide rate’s zero. It takes about 42 grand to get a dog completely trained, where it can turn on light switches and do all kinds of things to assist the veterans.”
McEwen, whose grandfather, L.C. Jones, retired after serving 30 years with the Air Force, pulled no punches when describing the graphic reality of war.
“A story told by one veteran will bring tears to your eyes,” he said. “The guy was on patrol in Afghanistan and had a 7-year-old boy who came to their patrol and camp setup every morning for three weeks, to the point that he earned their sympathy and trust and they were giving him candy bars and food.
“One morning he strolled into camp with an AK47 and shot five of them, killing two including this guy’s best friend and wounding the other three. The guy ended up shooting the kid and killing him.”
Understandably, that soldier’s nightmare never ends.
“Later, he would say, “This movie plays in my head. Somebody honks a horn and the movie starts and I can’t get it to quit until it goes all the way through.”
McEwen has horses in Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and four in California with Eoin Harty, who trains Sushi Empire. McEwen, who has 25 yearlings, also has a one-mile training track in Ocala, Florida.
His contributions to date of some $125,000, while holding tragic storylines, could have a fairytale ending. He owns a New York-bred son of Indian Charlie trained by Gary Contessa named Uncle Sigh that won a maiden allowance race at Aqueduct last Friday by 14 ½ lengths, thrusting himself into the Triple Crown picture, since the bay colt turned three on Jan. 1.
“He ran a 101 (Beyer) first out and got beat a head,” McEwen said. “He ran a 109 Beyer Friday and my phone was blowing up with people wanting to buy him, and I’m like, ‘No way. I want to fly that Purple Heart all over the Kentucky Derby.
“That’s my goal, and also to have people realize that we need to do more for all these kids who are over there getting shot at, trying to make sure we have our freedom.”