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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Racing to cure epilepsy


Photo courtesy of Linda Smolek

It was a special horse racing for a special child. And the horse, a seven-year-old gelding called Phipps, delivered.

His victory, in a benefit harness race at the California State Fair last month, was not particularly noteworthy as a horse racing event. Given Phipps' age and that of his six competitors, the purse for the race at the Cal Expo racetrack in Sacramento on Aug. 24 was not large-only $4,900.

But this race was not about money. It was about heart.

Ask Mary Lou Sordi of the Bronte Epilepsy Research Foundation. Mary Lou and her husband, Chris, started the foundation seven years ago to help their granddaughter, Bronte, who suffers from Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy.

To date the foundation has raised $1.2 million. Virtually all of the money has gone toward launching and then funding a research effort at the UC Davis Health System known as the Bronte Epilepsy Research Program.

When Mary Lou and her husband joined the man who steered Phipps to last month's two-length victory in the winner's circle, it felt like déjà vu for all concerned. That's because it was the third consecutive year that Lou Pena, who is also Phipps' co-owner, had donated a portion of Phipps' State Fair winnings to the Sordi's foundation. To date, he has given approximately $5,000 to the foundation-including the $1,200 that was his share of Phipps' reward for winning the most recent race.

"Lou Pena is absolutely phenomenal," said Mary Lou. "What other young man steps forward and supports something like epilepsy research? He's just unbelievable with his generosity and kindness."

"Lou Pena is absolutely phenomenal. What other young man steps forward and supports something like epilepsy research? He's just unbelievable with his generosity and kindness."
— Mary Lou Sordi

Bronte, who just turned 14, has previously been on hand to celebrate Phipps' victories and gotten her picture taken with Pena and the triumphant horse. But this time around, according to her grandmother, it was decided that it was just too hot-heat being a risk factor for epileptic seizures.

Pena learned of Bronte and the Sordi's foundation through a friend whose daughter also has epilepsy. But it was really Phipps that led him to them.
Three years ago, after Pena and a partner had bought the gelding, then four, to run in harness races, they learned that they had, in effect, purchased damaged goods. Phipps had chronic balance, coordination and immune system problems due to a debilitating neurological disorder called EPM, or equine protozoal myelencephalitis.

Pena said he was on the brink of giving up on the horse when a regime of medications tamed the virus. It was because of the dramatic nature of Phipps' recovery that Pena decided he wanted to donate some of the horse's earnings to charity. When he learned of the Bronte Foundation, he knew he'd found the right organization.

Pena plans to continue to donate some of Phipps' earnings to the foundation. And he said that in the not-too-distant future he would start donating some of the earnings of another one of his race horses, Bronteanna's Boy, named in honor of Bronte and his friend's daughter, Anna, who is six. Bronteanna's Boy isn't the savvy racer Phipps is, but because he's in his prime-he's two-years-old-his earning potential is much greater.

Though Pena, 39, is a horseman to his core, he said he considers the work done by epilepsy researchers such as those at UC Davis to be on another level of importance.

"I don't have the ability to help someone with epilepsy. But if the doctors at UC Davis could find a cure or suppress it, that would be great. That would really be awesome."