I can still remember the very first time I got the opportunity to meet Mark Deno, as if it were today rather than a fast-approaching 5 years ago. It was a cold, blustery, rainy day of Oct. 31, 2019, and we were to meet somewhere near the paddock at one of my favorite hang-outs — Churchill Downs.

My wife, the lovely Leigh Ann, and I were getting ready to go watch our little filly, Miss Jacqueline, make her career debut at the famed racetrack and underneath those majestic Twin Spires.

And, as many times before, I prepared with great aspirations and excitement. This, surely, was going to be our day. This, undoubtedly, was going to be a celebration. This, without question, was going to be our Mardi Gras.

Leigh, on the other hand, got ready to have a good day of people watching; dressing to the hilt; tossing back a few flutes of bubbly; and, ultimately, consoling me after another disappointing performance of one of my “babies.”

We had done this before. So, so many times.

She knew the routine. I knew no better.

As we drove to the track, Leigh looked at me and asked a question that still makes me laugh out loud. “Who, again, are we meeting at the track today,” she posed, as she fiddled with her new hat in the rear view mirror, leaving me to drive like a blind maniac.

I uttered. “Well, I have the suite upstairs and Greg and Ronda (are long-time and faithful friends who are always up for a good time) are going to be there, for sure.”

Then she corrected me, as she always does, demanding and requesting more intel, all at the same time. “Yeah. Yeah. I know about Greg and Ronda. I love Greg and Ronda. But, you mentioned that some other people may be coming, too.”

I stuttered, knowing that my party-planner of a wife, was not going to go for this one bit, before I braved an answer. “Yeah. A couple of people from Indy are coming down, and I told them to meet me around the paddock.”

She cast a gaze that penetrated both the side of my helmet head. “Who are they and how do you know them?”

Stumble. “Oh, they are friends of Brad Rateike (another great friend of ours, who Leigh did know).”

I hoped that would suffice. It did not.

“And, how did you meet them?” she posed.

Stumble, again. “Well, I have really never met them, in person,” I suggested. “I have chatted with them on Twitter. They love the horses and had wanted to …”

I didn’t make it to the end of my explanation. I now had Leigh’s full attention.

“You have never met them? You have talked to them on TWITTER? And, you are going to meet them in the paddock for the first time? And, you have invited them up to the suite to have lunch with us? Are you kidding me. TWITTER?

“Oh, my God. This is going to be a Dateline episode. I can see it. My life’s story is going to be on Dateline. This is how I’m going to go out? TWITTER?”

I nodded. I couldn’t argue with her point, although I attempted — weakly, I might add — to defend my position and my very generous offer to a group of complete strangers, who very well might end up being serial killers, too.

We drove the rest of the way to the track in silence. Leigh contemplated calling an Uber and going to her “safe place.” I quickly started to think about our upcoming introduction, again.

When we reached the track, Leigh again offered a counter proposal. “Why don’t we just meet them at the paddock and wish them well. We can go upstairs with Greg and Ronda.

“Alone.”

Knowing that I was on sinking sand, I just nodded, and we marched along to the designated meeting place. For a few moments, Leigh and I stood outside the old Churchill Downs’ paddock. A swirl of wind x-rayed my chest. But it was warm compared to the stare I was getting from my lovely bride.

Then, what seemed like an hour later, I heard a voice. “Gene. Gene, is that you,” it came out of nowhere, with a right hand ready to shake mine.

It was Tim Moman, accompanied by his lovely wife Carla. By their side was Mark Deno, and his beautiful bride Jaime.

We made introductions. We surveyed each other, without trying to be too obvious. And, I suddenly decided, for all of us, that these people didn’t look like serial killers and I quickly invited them to join us in the Finish Line Suites for a bite of lunch and some warmer temps. After all, they were in their 50s, or so it seemed. There were not menacing, or so it seemed. And, they had their wives with them, and they appeared sweet. Or so it seemed.

As fate would have it, they accepted eagerly. Leigh accepted temporarily, as she drove her fingernails into my awaiting hand.

I could hear her say, under her breath: “If these people don’t kill you, I am going to, for sure.”

So, off we went. The food was good. Greg and Ronda were good. The heat was really good. And, as the day wore on, I found our new guests to be some of the most delightful and entertaining potential killers who I had ever met.

When it came race time, I asked all our friends — both old and new — to join us in the paddock. And, off we went. Down the escalator. Out into the cold. Into the paddock area. And, into the world of make-believe. Where I love to go. Where I love to visit. Where I love to dream.

The horses came. Our trainer, Stephen Lyster, came into the paddock with our filly, Miss Jacqueline. And, we got to see and introduce them all to why I truly love horses and why I own a racehorse.

The chill bumps on my arms were not 100% due to the wind and chill. The nervous nerves on my neck were not 100% due to the fact that Leigh and I may have enjoyed our last meal. The proud and scared look in my eyes was not 100% due to our new “friends.” I was now, maybe for the last time ever, totally jacked for the upcoming race.

The rider came over. We introduced. We chatted. Thrills.

The outrider came by. We nodded. We chatted. Thrills.

The voice rang out. “Rider’s Up.” And, away Miss Jacqueline went to the track. Thrills.

We all gathered up and I asked all to follow me and Stephen to the famed Churchill Downs track and we gathered outside the winner’s circle to get the best look of the horses gallop by, as they warmed up for the race.

Leigh and I had been here before. So many times before. And, yet, we had never won a race at our home track and under these historic Twin Spires. Never. But hope always springs eternal.

We all gathered around to help protect ourselves from the chill and the wind and watch the race, which was to begin on the backside for the 6-furlong sprint. And, we all watched the mega-TV that loomed overhead as the horses loaded the gate and sprang into action.

Our filly, Miss J, was on the far outside, but it didn’t take her long to get to the frontside. They went quickly, and when Travis Stone, the track announcer, informed us all that they went the first 1/8th of a mile in :21 & change, I gulped hard. Really hard. Too fast. Too early.

I didn’t think there was any way Miss J could last going like this, and neither did my friend, Stone, as the horses made the top of the stretch. “Miss Jacqueline has come away with the lead, but she has had to do a lot of work to get there,” he announced.

And, he was right.

But much to our surprise, just when I thought she may back up, Miss J ran on. And, on. And, on. She started to pull away. And, Leigh started to pull my arm. She was jumping up and down. Greg and Ronda were jumping up and down. Stephen, always at my side, was quietly rooting and slapping my back. Up and down.

Our new friends — Tim, Carla, Mark and Jaime — were jumping up and down, too. (I didn’t see any obvious weapons of mass destruction in their garments, mind you.)

The party was on.

Miss Jacqueline ran off to win by over 6 lengths that day at Churchill Downs. We all gathered, awkwardly and out of practice, for the winner’s circle photo. It was my first win with a horse I owned totally at Churchill Downs. The famed Churchill Downs. My home track of Churchill Downs. I don’t know who was more excited. Me. The filly. Stephen. My beautiful wife was looked to be on a pogo stick. Greg and Ronda were cheering. Loudly.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tim and Mark. Carla and Jaime. And, I could see the excitement in their eyes, too. I could see the thrill in their faces and the shouts in their voices. We all huddled. Together. And, we danced right there.

We all went back upstairs and ordered a bottle of champagne. Then, we ordered another. And, then a third. And, then an Uber.

We spent the rest of the day talking about Miss J and her mother, Diamond Seeker, who I raced and Stephen trained, as well.

We spent the rest of the day reliving the race and watching the video. Over and over. Over and over.

We spent the rest of the night chatting and laughing.

Then, in the middle of it all, Mark Deno — possible serial killer and/or accomplice — asked the ultimate question.

“How do we own a racehorse like you? Can we buy one with you?”

The serial killers were about to become partners. What a day.

It just so happened that Miss J’s half-sister — a little filly who was orphaned at birth — was getting ready to go to the track for the first time to begin her studies on becoming a racehorse. It just so happened that we were looking for some possible minority investors. It just so happened that Tim and Carla Moman and Mark and Jaime Deno were getting ready to embark on a journey of a lifetime.

On that very day, we became horse partners on a filly, who we would come to know as Diamond Solitaire.

Over the past four years, The Momans and the Denos helped develop and design silks. They put the “team colors” together and may ribbons and pins for all the partners to wear and dorn. They invited their family members to join us at the track. And, even during Covid, they would turn up and turn out. Every. Single. Time.

And, Diamond seemed to flourish each time she saw they merry faces and hear their familiar family voices.

They would go to the backside and see her pre-race. They would flock to the paddock for her dress party. And, they would yelp and holler all the way from start to finish.

Over the past 4 years, Diamond raced 30 times. I bet — on the nose — that the Momans and the Denos have seen 28 of them.

Over the past 4 years, Diamond has won 5 times, with 7 seconds and 4 more thirds.

Over the past 4 years, Diamond has earned over $314,000.

She has placed in 7 Stakes races, although she has never won one — yet.

And, over the past 4 years, Gene McLean and Leigh Ann Thacker have come to love the Momans, the Denos, and all the others they helped bring into our partnership fold. Love them. As family members. As family.

It was perfect.

Until it wasn’t.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that I got a text message from Tim Moman that his college roommate and fellow Fraternity brother had fallen ill. His family had found him unresponsive at his home.

Although the paramedics were able to revive him once, twice and maybe even more, Mark Deno never regained full consciousness and after a struggle to run as fast as Diamond Solitaire back to us, he was finally led away.

It was anything but perfect.

The little would-be serial killer was one of the kindest, most gentle, most sincere, most loving people I had ever come to know. His mother and father were the epitome of class. His wife, Jamie, the true light of the day.

Mark Deno was the perfect horse partner. When we won, we celebrated as if there was no tomorrow. When we lost the heartbreakers at the wire, Mark Deno celebrated as if there was no tomorrow and made sure I lifted my head in pride, too. When we lost badly, we lost together. And, Mark Deno was the first and foremost to pronounce there would be a better day coming; a better day ahead; and we celebrated as if there was no tomorrow.

Never once, in my entire life, did I see Mark Deno lose faith; lose confidence; or just lose. A better day was coming. Each race. Each time. Every time.

I can’t imagine coming back to the most wonderful Horseshoe Indianapolis in a few days to watch our Diamond Solitaire resume her 6-year-old racing career without looking for and finding the face of Mark Deno. It makes me cry each time I think about him not being there.

He was always the smile on the face of our group.

He was always the faith that pumped our group up in the most deflating of times.

He was always the optimist, when optimism didn’t have a saddle cloth and was so hard to find.

He was the ring leader when they led us all into the ring of the winner’s circle, and he was the voice I heard above all the rest.

He was always there. Just there. Just always there.

He was and still is the very reason I own a racehorse.

Because without a racehorse, I would have never known Mark Deno. The man who I admire as much as any who have left a horseshoe on my heart. I would have never known his parents or his wife and children — some of the most loving and caring people ever. I would have never had the opportunity to know such a love.

As the tears flow, my heart fills at the same time.

‘Cause I know right now, and when I make it to Horseshoe Indianapolis, I know Mark Deno will be there ready to meet and greet and ready to party like there is no party.

And, he will tell me, for sure, there is a better day a coming.

There is a better day a coming.

Mark Deno is the reason I own a racehorse.

Mark Deno is exactly why I own a racehorse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had chatted with Mark and his long-time friend and ole’ college roommate and fraternity brother, Tim Moman, via text message and over the old social media platform known as Twitter, but we had never met in person before.