Racing goes extra mile for Noah

Horse racing: The sport rallies to help a trainer's 5-year-old son who lost a leg to cancer.

February 11, 2005|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Noah Grove was born during the 1999 Kentucky Derby.

"His head popped out just as the horses were going into the gate," said his father, Chris Grove, a Maryland horse trainer and son of a retired jockey. "The doctor held him up and said, `It's a boy,' when they were turning for home."

Born into the community of racing, Noah will experience its collective compassion Sunday when hundreds are expected to attend a fund-raiser at Laurel Park billed, "A Night for Noah." Freckle-faced and exuberant, Noah recasts it to "a party for Noah." But even a 5-year-old boy who seems never to sit still hears his parents talk about cancer, prostheses and people wanting to help.

"A Night for Noah" is a serious effort at raising money for Noah's parents, Rachael, 34, and Chris, 35. They face the possibility of monumental costs in trying to ensure that Noah, their older of two sons, spends the rest of his life moving about as efficiently as possible.

Doctors amputated Noah's left leg at the knee in June, three months before he was to enter kindergarten. They had discovered a cancerous tumor in the boy's tibia, 1 1/2 inches below the knee, that had caused him to start limping. The Groves were told that three months of chemotherapy had destroyed the cancer, but that amputation was necessary to eliminate any further risk.

They resisted that notion and sought second, third and fourth opinions. Finally, after a doctor at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York told them, "It's his leg or his life," they consented to the surgery. It took place at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.

The Groves, who live in Frederick, say that Noah's prognosis is excellent. He started kindergarten on crutches - but on time - at Frederick Christian Academy, although he attended sparingly during four months of follow-up chemotherapy.

He rides his bicycle with friends, plays video games featuring dinosaurs and horse racing, and hops along on one leg chasing his brother, Carson, 2, shouting, "Chug-a, chug-a, choo-choo" as he pounces on the boy's back as if to hitch a train ride.

So far, insurance has paid most of his medical bills. The family's policy comes through Rachael, who manages a real-estate settlement company in Frederick. Yesterday, Noah received his first prosthesis. Until he stops growing, when he's perhaps 18 or 20, he'll need as many as two new prostheses each year, his parents have been told. They haven't gotten a clear answer from the insurance company whether it will fully pay for that many prostheses, especially the kind they'll want for their son so he'll have the most comfort and mobility.

From the beginning, friends and strangers have responded to Noah's illness. Chris' parents, Sandy and Phil Grove (Phil is a former jockey and currently a steward at Pimlico and Laurel Park), placed Noah's name on the prayer list at church, and strangers prayed and sent cards, toys and money. The racing community, especially, a tight-knit, insular society, responded as it often does to one of its own in need.

`What can we do?'

"When we heard about Noah, everybody kept saying, `What can we do?' " said Fran Raffetto, administrative assistant in the tracks' racing office. "Everybody felt a great need to reach out, but didn't know how to do it."

Someone suggested a fund-raiser. When Raffetto approached Chris, Noah's father, he rejected the idea. Chris trains 30 horses at Bowie and ranks second in wins by trainers in Maryland since the first of the year. Two of his horses are stakes winners: Silmaril and Deer Run. Another he named Noah's Courage.

"I told Fran we felt there were more deserving people," Chris said. "We felt there were better stories out there and people who needed help more than we did."

Raffetto persisted.

"I basically had to say to Chris, `You can't leave us like this,' " she said. " `Everybody wants to do something. Everybody's so excited about this.' "

Finally, Chris and Rachael relented.

"We're sort of embarrassed," Chris said. "We've never, ever asked anybody for anything. But it is true, we don't know what the future holds. We don't know what to expect."

The Groves have opened a bank account for Noah. All donations will go there for Noah's use only, they say. If they end up not needing all the money, then they will donate it to someone or some cause that does, they say.

Fund-raising has gotten off to a rousing start. The indefatigable Raffetto and the patriarchal Chick Lang, the former Pimlico executive, have led the effort.

"The response has been unbelievable," Raffetto said. "Un-believable."

About $40,000 has been donated already, she said. That includes $8,000 from Michael Gill, a large-scale owner of thoroughbreds who lives in New Hampshire but races extensively in Maryland. Gill led the country's owners in wins the past two years.

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