01/04/2016 12:28PM

Touched by Autism running for a cause for Taboada


ARCADIA, Calif. – Horse owner Johnny Taboada considered giving up racing after stable star Autism Awareness broke down and was euthanized. That was almost three years ago.

“I was almost done doing this,” Taboada said last weekend. “I was so attached to that horse and the whole meaning of what he brought. From the very beginning to the very end, he was such a story.”

Autism Awareness was a $1,000 yearling whom Taboada named after the disorder affecting more than 3.5 million Americans, including his teenage son, Renzo.

“I try to do as much as I can to raise awareness of autism,” Taboada said. “That’s been my thing, combining my passion, which is horse racing, and learning about autism.”

Autism Awareness won five races and $356,732 from 39 starts, including a 62-1 upset in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby in 2008, but while returning from a yearlong absence April 14, 2013, at Santa Anita, Autism Awareness broke down and was euthanized.

It crushed Taboada, a mortgage consultant in Northern California.

“I never experienced anything like I experienced with that horse,” he said. “For five years, all the ups and downs, I will never be able to express how much he meant to me.”

Taboada kept at it, buying two or three inexpensive yearlings each year and hoping to find another Autism Awareness – no easy task. The maiden Autism Awesomeness finished last in his only start, Autism Awakeness earned $14,000, and Autism Day never has started.

The tide might be ready to turn Thursday at Santa Anita, where Touched by Autism, a 3-year-old colt owned by Taboada and trained by Marcia Stortz, looks formidable in race 4. The statebred maiden route is a key contest on a card with a $378,188 pick six carryover.

Touched by Autism was purchased for $2,700 and has earned $24,336. His four starts at Golden Gate Fields produced four in-the-money finishes, including a sharp second last out in his first route. A solid win Thursday could propel him to the $250,000 California Cup Derby on Jan. 30 at Santa Anita.

Touched by Autism is the first Santa Anita starter for Taboada since Autism Awareness three years ago. The wait was longer for his trainer. Touched by Autism is the first Santa Anita starter for Stortz, a former jockey who trains in Northern California, and for the occasion, Stortz secured one of the circuit’s top riders, Rafael Bejarano.

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Thursday will be the first time Bejarano and Stortz have been on the same team. When Stortz was an apprentice jockey in Kentucky in 2003, she rode against Bejarano, who was in his second year in the U.S. Stortz retired in 2004, became a fifth-grade school teacher, resumed riding briefly in 2013, retired again, and opened a stable in 2015.

In her first year of training, Stortz had four wins and 10 seconds from 34 starts. She is based at Pleasanton, which has a dirt surface, and trains 12 horses. Stortz and Touched by Autism were scheduled to ship Monday to Santa Anita.

After four starts on synthetic, the Thursday maiden race will be the first on dirt for Touched by Autism, sired by Sierra Sunset.

“I like him on dirt,” said Stortz. “He trains on dirt. And the fact it might be [wet], I’m not worried about that.”

Taboada, who said he turned down substantial offers for the colt, is not worried either.

“We’ll give it a good ride,” he said.

Taboada will be at Santa Anita, but son Renzo, 15, will not. After all, it is the middle of the school week.

“If it was up to him, he’d be out with the horses every day,” Taboada said. “He’s super social and the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet.”