Uncle Sigh didn't win the Gotham Stakes Saturday at Aqueduct, but he was a strong second and he continues to look every bit the part of a serious Kentucky Derby contender. That means he's probably going to make a lot of money before the year is over, in the Wood Memorial and maybe even in the Kentucky Derby, and that's wonderful because this horse is out there to make money for wounded veterans and to shine a light on their needs.
For the longest time, Chip McEwen III, the co-owner of Uncle Sigh was a lot like most of us. He appreciated what our veterans do for us and occasionally donated a small bit of money to charities that support them, but that was more or less it. That all changed a year and a half ago when he and his girlfriend were getting off an airplane and the flight crew asked everyone to stay seated until a wounded veteran could make his way down the aisle. The veteran, McEwen says, had lost many of his motor skills because he had been struck in the head by an IED and had to be held up by his father. Alongside, other relatives carried his small children off the plane. It was a troubling but touching scene.
"I had to see it with my own eyes to realize just how difficult things can be for these people and for their families," he said. "I told my girlfriend that we need to do more for people like that. These are people that are getting seriously injured fighting for our freedom, and when that happens their lives and their family's lives are changed forever."
These are people that are getting seriously injured fighting for our freedom and when that happens their lives and their family's lives are changed forever.
"-- Chip McEwen III, owner Wounded Warrior Stable
McEwen, who is not himself a veteran, decided the best way to help causes supporting wounded soldiers would be to donate earnings from his racing stable.
"There are a lot of people who need help and the government can't do enough for them," he said.
He changed the name of his stable to Wounded Warrior Stable and pledged to donate 10 percent of its earnings to various charities supporting injured vets. His silks are yellow and purple and depict a purple heart. Uncle Sigh isn't his only good horse as he also has the California-based Sushi Empire, who won the $75,000 Blue Norther Stakes on Jan. 1.
One of McEwen's favorite charities is Retrieving Freedom, which trains dogs to work with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. McEwen said that when troubled vets are paired with dogs from Retrieving Freedom the risk of suicide drops dramatically. He also said that roughly 1,000 vets a month suffering from PTSD attempt suicide. (2010 data from a Veterans Affairs Department report showed 18 veterans take their lives daily while an estimated 950 veterans attempt suicide each month. There has since been an updated report from early 2013 that reveals the suicide rate among veterans has risen to 22 a day.)
As noble as McEwen's plans might have been, at first (2011), it didn't look like he was going to be able to raise much money. He had a small stable and no horses of note. But he made several shrewd moves as a pinhooker, someone who buys a horse with the intention of reselling it at a profit, in 2012 and wound up with a good-sized bankroll to spend on racing prospects. With 25 yearlings, his stable has the potential to develop into one of the more successful outfits around.
Prior to last year's 2-year-old sales he told his East Coast trainer Gary Contessa to find him some good horses and one of their purchases was Uncle Sigh.
The New York-bred colt won his second career start by 14 ½ lengths and then finished a game second behind Samraat in his stakes debut in the Withers. The Gotham turned into a replay of the Withers as Samraat again edged out Uncle Sigh, this time by a neck. Both horses ran well, as did third-place finisher In Trouble, who was another neck back in third. The three could have a rematch in the $1 million Wood Memorial on April 5.
It wasn't the Gotham result that McEwen was looking for, but it was more than enough to keep his colt on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Racing fans pay attention to the Gotham. Everyone pays attention to the Kentucky Derby. Should Uncle Sigh make it there the publicity can only be a very good thing for the Wounded Warrior Stable and its many charities.
"To be in the Derby, that would be awesome," McEwen said. "That would help us reach out and touch so many people who aren't really thinking about the veterans we have today and these causes."